Florence: Dante’s church

Dante's church.

Dante’s church.

This small church in the centre of Florence, in one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city, is more of a chapel really. It can be found in a narrow alley, about halfway between the Duomo and the Badia. The Museo Casa di Dante is just a little further down the road. The first thing to know about Dante’s church in Florence is that it is not really called Dante’s church. Although that name can be found on a plaque next to the main entrance in four languages, its real name is the Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi. Another important thing to know about the church is that it has very limited opening hours. “We went there four times over our four days in Florence and it was sadly never open”, is a complaint I found on Tripadvisor. I had a similar experience during my holiday near Florence in June 2016. Only on my third visit to the city did I find the church open to the public. A small sign above the doorbell indicated that the Santa Margherita opens from Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10:00 until 12:00 in the morning.

The church

So why is this small church so important to many people? It is architectonically unimpressive and there is no art to speak of inside. The reason why many tourists come here anyway is that the church has a close connection to the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265-1321). The story of his life has been discussed before on this website (see here for instance). This is the church where he supposedly met his muse Beatrice Portinari (ca. 1266-1290), who would become the true love of his life and his lifelong inspiration. Dante was nine years old at the time. This was also the church where Dante married Gemma Donati around 1285, although a rival tradition claims the marriage took place in the San Martino church a little further to the southwest.

Interior of the church.

Interior of the church.

The church is certainly very old. It was first recorded in 1032. The Santa Margherita is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, a saint whose historicity can be debated. The “dei Cerchi” part of the church’s name refers to the Florentine Cerchi family, who were co-patrons of the Santa Margherita since the middle of the fourteenth century, together with the Donati and Adimari families. Dante’s wife Gemma was from the Donati family and the Santa Margherita was her family’s parish church, so the claim that the two were married here seems plausible enough.

There can, however, be considerable doubt about the claim that Beatrice Portinari lies buried here. The purported “Tomb of Beatrice” is one of the reasons why many people visit this church. It can be found under the altar on the left side of the church. To be fair, it is probably fake. There is little reason to assume that Beatrice was really buried here. She married into the influential Bardi family, who had a chapel in the much more prestigious Santa Croce church elsewhere in Florence. It seems much more likely that she was buried there when she died at the tender age of 24. The Santa Margherita does have Beatrice’s nanny’s tomb. Monna Tessa’s grave can be found under the right altar. Beatrice’s father Folco Portinari may certainly have had a family tomb constructed in this church, but again it is rather implausible that Beatrice was laid to rest there.

Basket with letters to Beatrice.

Basket with letters to Beatrice.

Fact and fiction

These facts, however, do not seem to scare away the tourists, who come here in droves to leave letters about their troubled love lives in a wicker basket on Beatrice’s tomb. These handwritten notes ask Beatrice to fix all their problems, and apparently people believe that Beatrice is capable of doing so. The church plays an important role in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, although it was omitted from the movie adaptation. The novel for some reason claims that the Santa Margherita is open on Mondays, which is definitely not the case. Although most churches are open on Mondays, this one was not, at least not when I visited Florence in June 2016 (see above).

The interior of the church is very, very simple. I guess we should formally call it a church with a single nave, but in fact it is just a little box. There are no chapels; the two side altars are directly against the walls. Most (or all) of the paintings on the walls are modern. They are generally of very poor quality. One of them shows an adult Dante in his familiar red robes who meets Beatrice outside the Santa Margherita. According to tradition, Dante was a nine-year-old boy when he met his muse, so the painting does not make any sense.

Altarpiece by Neri di Bicci.

Altarpiece by Neri di Bicci.

Fortunately, the altarpiece by Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491) makes up for the mediocrity of the paintings on the walls. We have previously seen some of Neri’s work in Fiesole, and also in Florence in the San Salvatore and Santa Trinita churches. The artist hailed from a family of painters, his father and grandfather being painters as well. It would be somewhat of an exaggeration to call Neri di Bicci a great artist, but the altarpiece he produced for the Santa Margherita can be considered a decent piece of work nonetheless. In the centre of the panel we see the Madonna and Child, and Saint Margaret is portrayed on the left (i.e. on the right hand side of the Virigin). The other saints that are depicted are Saints Lucy, Agnes and Catherine of Alexandria. The latter two can be identified by their respective symbols: a lamb for Saint Agnes and a breaking wheel for Saint Catherine.

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