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Following in Dante’s footsteps: Eight beautiful towns to visit in Italy

Dante and his Divine Comedy rank highly on the list of Italy’s best cultural exports, but even if you haven't actually got round to reading his work, why not soak up some of his genius by visiting one of the towns where the poet spent his days?

Following in Dante's footsteps: Eight beautiful towns to visit in Italy
Follow in Dante's footsteps with this guide to Italy. Photos (L-R): Kosala Bandara, Paolo Sarteschi, Bert Kaufmann/Flickr

Dante was pretty well-travelled; not only did his political role allow him to see a lot of the country, but after being exiled from his hometown, he spent the rest of his life on the road. 

City breaks, rural retreats and cross-country road trips can all be injected with a Dante flavour – just follow our guide to discover the poet’s connection to eight spots across the peninsula, all of which are well worth a visit.

Florence 

This is the big one. Dante was born and grew up in the Tuscan city, which later exiled him when his political rivals gained power. The writer had a love-hate relationship with his hometown – so much so that he liked to describe himself as ‘Florentine by birth, but not in conduct’.


Photo: Ghost of Kuji/Flickr

But hindsight's a great thing, and the city that once threatened Dante with death if he dared to return, later decided it was actually quite proud of him. The ‘House of Dante’ is dedicated to the poet’s life if you want to learn more, or you can look for the dozens of portraits, busts and plaques in his honour which are dotted around the city. 

You can visit the places where the writer once set foot, starting with the San Giovanni baptistery where he was christened and – probably at a later date – found inspiration for a verse or two of the Comedy in its spectacular mosaic ceiling. Then there’s the Palazzo dei Priori, now a museum, where Dante once spoke at city assemblies. That's just for starters – here’s a self-guided Dante tour of the city which will make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Ravenna

Dante and his children spent two years of his exile in Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna. In 1321, the poet died at the age of 56 as he was returning to the northern town after an ambassadorial trip to Venice.

Then things got weird.

READ ALSO: Dante's last laugh: Why Italy's national poet isn't buried where you think he is


Did Ravenna's mosaics inspire Dante? Photo: Andy HayFlickr

Dante was buried in Ravenna's Church of San Pier Maggiore (now the church of San Francesco), and a grand tomb was built for him in 1483. Along with the beautiful mosaics Ravenna is famous for, the mausoleum is one of the city’s main historical sites.

But Florence later decided they wanted to bury Dante there, and built a spectacular tomb of their own. Michelangelo and even Pope Leo X got involved in the campaign for the poet’s remains to be returned to his hometown, but the sneaky Ravenna monks sent an empty coffin, hiding his bones in a secret location. It was so secret in fact that they were only discovered by accident in 1865, during construction works.


The spot where Dante's bones were hiddden during World War II, which can be found next to the mausoleum. Photo:Catherine Edwards/The Local

In the tomb today, you'll see candles hanging from the ceiling inside – the oil for the lamps is paid for by Florence to make up for exiling Dante. And the nearby Dante Museum features several exhibitions about the poet and the role of Ravenna itself in Dante’s life. 

Bologna

A respected politician, thinker and writer, Dante studied at Bologna’s famous university and visited many times afterwards, as well as name-checking the city frequently in his work. In De Vulgari Eloquentia, his treatise on language, he praises Bolognese as a noble dialect in comparison to those of other cities, even though he thought Florentine was the best of all.


Photo: Yuri Vivomets/Flickr

The city’s two towers – the most popular tourist sight in Bologna – are evoked in Inferno to describe giants submerged in the depths of hell. But far from being offended at the city’s pride and joy being compared to evil giants, the Bolognese are proud of the mention, and a plaque at the side of the towers displays the relevant quote.


The two towers. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

READ MORE: Why Bologna should be the next place you visit in Italy

Rome

Dante visited Rome in 1301 to meet Pope Boniface VIII, and it was while he was on this trip that Florence was taken over by a rival faction of Dante’s political party, the Guelphs, leading to  his exile. It's possible that he also attended Pope Boniface VIII's Jubilee the previous year, as he describes it vividly in Inferno. 


Photo: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr

Rome is mentioned frequently throughout Dante’s work, and in return, the city has paid tribute to Dante. You’ll see statues, paintings and streets bearing his name across the city.

Among the more notable homages are the bust in the magnificent Villa Borghese park, and his cameo in the background of The Parnassus, a Raphael fresco, which you'll find in the Vatican Museums.


Dante in the background of the Raphael fresco. Picture: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons 

Verona

Verona was where Dante first sought refuge after being exiled, and he stayed for six years between 1312 and 1318, editing Inferno and Purgatorio and working on the final part of the Comedia, Paradiso, in which he praises and thanks his “earliest refuge”. He was hosted by Verona’s ruler, Cangrande della Scala, on whom he lavishes praise in Paradiso and whose tomb you can visit today.


Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr

Dante’s strong bond with Verona is commemorated with a statue in Piazza Dante, and you can take a Dante-themed guided tour through the city’s streets. 

You might also want to explore the city's connection to another literary giant; Verona's Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore is not only mentioned in Dante's Purgatorio, but is also the setting of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage in Shakespeare’s play. And a small section of Paradise has been used as evidence that Shakespeare’s lovers were real; Dante refers to the sadness of the Montecchi and Cappelletti families – could these have been translated as the Montagues and Capulets?

Casentino, Tuscany

About 50km east of Florence is Casentino, full of forests and castles steeped in history. It is untouched by most tourist routes today, but hasn’t always been so peaceful; Arezzo and Florence bitterly fought for the territory, notably in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, in which Dante played a part. You can see a white column on the site of the battle, known to locals as ‘Dante’s suitcase’, and the nearby Poppi castle has information about the battle.


The Casentino countryside. Photo: Mark Goebel/Flickr

But Dante’s experiences on the battlefield didn’t put him off returning to the area. He stayed in the towns of Poppi, Romena and Dovaldo to work at court, and if you choose to recreate these trips, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery and majestic castles.

Casentino had a special place in Dante’s heart, and he ensured local citizens fame by including them in his Comedia – even giving the enemy leader who died at the Battle of Campaldino, Buonconte da Montefeltro, a favourable portrayal in Purgatorio.

Lunigiana, northern Tuscany/Liguria

Lunigiana today lies between La Spezia and Massa Carrara, though in Dante’s time the borders were rather different. Dante visited the territory several times between 1306 and 1308, and his time in the region included a stay at the monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo – which now offers guest accommodation if you want a true Dantean experience.


One of the castles in the region. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr

According to writings from a monk named Ilaro, when Dante arrived at the monastery and was asked what he was looking for, he simply responded: “Peace”. You’re sure to get plenty of that in the mountainous rural region, which has several beautiful medieval castles.

The castle of Mulazzo. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr

If you want to add a bit of culture to your trip you can visit the local Dante museum which explores the links between Dante and Lunigiana. And since 2011, the town of Mulazzo has held annual historical reenactments in April to commemorate the poet’s arrival in the city.

Venice

Dante went to Venice numerous times during his period of exile. The first was for a few months in August 1321 to resolve a diplomatic dispute, when he stayed with his good friend, a nobleman named Giovanni Soranzo. Soranzo’s family home, the Palazzo Soranzo, is still standing in Campo San Polo – the city’s second largest square – and though it now houses apartments and offices, see if you can spot a plaque on the front noting the poet’s visit.


Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr

Dante was particularly impressed by the busy shipyard of Venice, and uses it as a simile to evoke the movement and restlessness of sinners in Inferno. This is ironic, because while the Venetians produced beautiful ships, the sinners' activity is futile. The tercet has its own plaque, which is on the main entrance of the Arsenal close to a bust of Dante.
 

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TOURISM

Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy's tourist season is expected to be back in full swing this year - but will there be enough workers to meet the demand?

Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy’s tourist numbers are booming, sparking hopes that the industry could see a return to something not far off pre-pandemic levels by the summer.

There’s just one catch: there aren’t nearly enough workers signing up for seasonal jobs this year to supply all that demand.

READ ALSO: Will tourism in Italy return to pre-pandemic levels this year?

“There’s a 20 percent staff shortage, the situation is dramatic,” Fulvio Griffa, president of the Italian tourist operators federation Fiepet Confesercenti, told the Repubblica news daily.

Estimates for how many workers Italy is missing this season range from 70,000 (the figure given by the small and medium enterprise federation Conflavoro PMI) to 300-350,000 (the most recent estimate from Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia, who last month quoted 250,000).

Whatever the exact number is, everyone agrees: it’s a big problem.

READ ALSO: Dining outdoors and hiking: How visitors plan to holiday in Italy this summer

Italy isn’t the only European country facing this issue. France is also short an estimated 300,000 seasonal workers this year. Spain is down 50,000 waiters, and Austria is missing 15,000 hired hands across its food and tourism sectors.

Italy’s economy, however, is particularly dependent on tourism. If the job vacancies can’t be filled and resorts are unable to meet the demand anticipated this summer, the country stands to lose an estimated  €6.5 billion.

Italy's tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers.
Italy’s tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

“After two years of pandemic, it would be a sensational joke to miss out on a summer season that is expected to recover strongly due to the absence of workers,” said Vittorio Messina, president of the Assoturismo Confesercenti tourist association.

Different political factions disagree as to exactly what (and who) is to blame for the lack of interest from applicants.

READ ALSO: Travel in Italy and Covid rules this summer: what to expect

Italy’s tourism minister Massimo Garavaglia, a member of the right wing League party, has singled out the reddito di cittadinanza, or ‘citizen’s income’ social security benefit introduced by the populist Five Star Movement in 2019 for making unemployment preferable to insecure, underpaid seasonal work.

Bernabò Bocca, the president of the hoteliers association Federalberghi, agrees with him – along with large numbers of small business owners.

“What’s going to make an unemployed person come to me for 1,300 euros a month if he can stay sprawled on the beach and live off the damned citizenship income?” complained an anonymous restauranteur interviewed by the Corriere della Sera news daily.

“Before Covid, I had a stack of resumes this high on my desk in April. Now I’m forced to check emails every ten minutes hoping someone will come forward. Nothing like this had ever happened to me.” 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season.
Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

Five Star MPs, however, argue that the focus on the unemployment benefit is a distraction from the real issues of job insecurity and irregular contracts.

There appears to be some merit to that theory. A recent survey of 1,650 seasonal workers found that only 3 percent of the people who didn’t work in the 2021 tourist season opted out due to the reddito di cittadinza.

In fact the majority (75 percent) of respondents who ended up not working over the 2021 season said they had searched for jobs but couldn’t find any openings because the Covid situation had made it too uncertain for companies to hire in advance.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

Others said the most of jobs that were advertised were only for a 2-3 month duration, half the length of the season (again, due to Covid uncertainty), making it not worth their while to relocate.

Giancarlo Banchieri, a hotelier who is also president of the Confesercenti business federation, agrees that Covid has been the main factor in pushing workers away from the industry, highlighting “the sense of precariousness that this job has taken on in the last two years: many people have abandoned it for fear of the uncertainty of a sector that has experienced a terrible time.”

The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector.
The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

“I said goodbye to at least seven employees, and none of them are sitting at home on the citizen’s income,” Banchieri told Repubblica. “They have all reinvented themselves elsewhere; some are plumbers, others work in the municipality.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

To counteract the problem, Garavaglia has proposed three measures: increasing the numbers of visas available for seasonal workers coming from abroad; allowing people to work in summer jobs while continuing to receive 50 percent of their citizen’s income; and reintroducing a voucher system that allows casual workers to receive the same kinds of welfare and social security benefits as those on more formal contracts.

Whether these will be enough to save Italy’s 2022 tourist season remains to be seen, but at this stage industry operators will take whatever fixes are offered.

“The sector is in such a dire situation that any common sense proposals much be welcomed,” the Federalberghi president Bocca told journalists.

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