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Anne Whitehouse


Dante and Beatrice by Odilon Redon


Seven hundred years ago,
Dante died in exile in Ravenna
and was buried there.

His native Florence
refused his body,
but two centuries later,
Florence wanted him back.

The Pope approved the transfer,
but the monks in Ravenna
returned an empty coffin
to Florence’s new memorial.

They had removed the poet’s bones
from his tomb for safekeeping
and interred them in the basilica wall

where they lay forgotten
for three hundred years,
until a renovation revealed them,

and they were buried
in a mausoleum near the church
on a side street so narrow
it is easy to miss.

Forty years ago we visited Ravenna
and found Dante’s tomb,
the worn white marble
softened by lichens,
the inscription so weathered
it was hard to read.

How modest it seemed
after a day of monuments
already ancient in Dante’s time,
Justinian’s mosaics in blue and gold
and the tomb of Gallia Placida
that inspired Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Once the western outpost
of a great empire, today’s
Ravenna is a backwater,
surrounded by marshes
dotted with oil wells.


One hundred years ago,
after the Great War,
an Italian immigrant to Argentina

resolved to build Dante
a worthy monument
in his new country
on the other side of the world,

a building emerging
from the depths of the earth
reaching to the heavens,

in every detail and at every level
an embodiment
of Dante’s great poem,

elaborate and fantastical
a celebration of the imaginary
over the mundane,

realized as a skyscraper
named for himself,
the Palacio Barolo.

Twenty-two floors representing
twenty-two stanzas
sit on a foundation
scaled to the golden ratio.

The visitor begins in hell,
progresses to purgatory,
and ascends to heaven.

The lobby, crowned
with Latin inscriptions
and statues of serpents,
dragons, and condors,

radiates from a central dome
into nine vaulted archways,
the nine circles of hell,
lit by red lights
set in metal flowers.

Geometric patterns
representing alchemist’s fire
and Masonic symbols
decorate floors, ceilings,
and elevator walls
in red, white, and green tiles,
the colors of the Italian flag.

The higher levels,
corresponding to heaven,
begin at an observation deck
overlooking the sprawl
of Buenos Aires,

crowned by a lighthouse
at the highest point
of one hundred meters,
like the Divine Comedy’s
one hundred Cantos,
topped by a statue of Dante
ascending to heaven.

Architect Pilanti intended
the light from the tower
of the Palacio Barolo
to cross the light
from the Palacio Salvo,
his sister building across
the Rio de la Plata
in Montevideo,

the two beams mingling
like the heavenly union
of Dante and Beatrice,
welcoming visitors
to the great estuary
like the Pillars of Hercules
to the Mediterranean.

By a miscalculation
of the earth’s curvature,
the beams never crossed,
and the cupola, intended
for Dante’s remains,
remains empty.


About the writer:
Anne Whitehouse’s poems “In the Necropolis” and “Pauline Pfeiffer’s Folly,” her short story “The Faith Healer,” and two of her essays on Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse” and “Soldier, Sailor,” have been published with OPEN: Journal of Arts and Letters. Anne’s most recent work is OUTSIDE FROM THE INSIDE (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and the chapbook ESCAPING LEE MILLER (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2021).

Image: Dante and Beatrice by Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Oil on canvas. 19.6 x 25.7 inches. 1914. Public domain.

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