Dante’s Firenze: Santa Margherita

Florence is full of churches. Most of them are overshadowed by the incredibly grand Duomo, but they’re there. They’re in lesser-known piazzas, down narrow streets, and sometimes inside buildings that look more like houses than church facades.

Dante Alighieri would have been well acquainted with one of these latter types of churches. Down the street from where his childhood home is purported to be sits Santa Margherita. Unless you’re specifically looking for it or extremely lucky, you’ll walk right by it. I happened to be a part of the second group. I was walking down the street, looking for Dante’s house, when I saw what looked like a rather lovely garden through an open door. Throwing caution to the wind, I stepped into what looked like someone’s backyard and found myself in the courtyard of an old cloister.

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The current building of Santa Margherita dates from the early 13th century, but there are reports of there being a church on that spot since the 11th century. It was rebuilt and expanded several times by wealthy benefactors, mostly women, who saw the importance of their being a cloister (community of religious who have taken vows, such as nuns or monks) in the center of the city of Florence. The church has a much more interesting claim to fame, though.

Santa Margherita was the family parish of the Donatis. Now, unless you’re a huge literary buff, such as myself, that name means nothing to you. The Donati family was the family of Gemma Donati, whom Dante married. For being as prolific and as eloquent as he was, Dante took appallingly bad notes of his own life, and no one is really sure when he got married. Depending on which historian you read, the marriage took place anywhere between 1285 and 1290. Whenever the happy occasion occurred, it would have taken place in this very church.

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Those of you who have read some Dante – any Dante, really – know that there was an event in his life involving a fine lady that he considered even more important than his marriage. According to the story, when he was only nine years old, he met the love of his life: Beatrice Portinari. Dante and Beatrice only ever spoke together once or twice; they were in similar circles of acquaintances, but very rarely in the same circles. However, her devastating beauty was enough to inspire some of his most beautiful pieces of poetry. In fact, the entire Divine Comedy is put in motion by Beatrice and is only made possible through her perfect and platonic love for the Pilgrim, which causes her to take immediate (if rather dramatic) action to save his soul.

Were I Gemma Alighieri, nee Donati, I would have been a bit miffed.

The fateful first meeting between Dante and Beatrice took place in none other than la Chiesa di Santa Margherita, as that was the Portinari family church. Many of Beatrice’s family members were entombed in the church, and they frequented it during their time of affluence in Florence.

Through Dante’s poetry, Beatrice has come to be a symbol of everlasting and pure love. To read Paradiso, you’d think there was never a love so perfect as Beatrice’s. In this tradition, if you are able to find the church of Santa Margherita, you can leave a letter to Beatrice, asking for help with love.

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