Italian scientists have made a reconstruction of the face of the poet Dante some 700 years after he died and have found some surprises, particularly about the supposed shape of his famous aquiline nose.
“It was a surprise for me too,” said Professor Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna’s campus in Ravenna, the Adriatic city where Dante is buried.
Gruppioni said that the multi-disciplinary project discovered that Dante probably did have a hooked nose but it was pudgy rather than pointy and crooked rather than straight, almost as if he had been punched.
“We all had our ideas of what Dante looked like. But if this is right, it shows his face was different,” he said. “He looks more like a common man, a man on the street.”
Popular conceptions of the face or profile of the author of the Divine Comedy — considered one of the greatest literary works of the early Renaissance — have always been dictated by artists’ renditions.
But Gruppioni said most were made after he died in 1321 and many were what he called posthumous “pyschological renditions” of the way artists believed the face of the master of the Italian language should look.
Numerous “death masks” purported to be of Dante exist but historians believe they likely were sculpted after his death.
“No human face could stand having 30 death masks made from it,” Gruppioni said.
The team of scientists based their work on calculations made on Dante’s skull made by Professor Fabio Frassetto in 1921, the only time it has been removed from its crypt. Frassetto took precise measurements and secretly made a plaster model.
The current project used Frassetto’s calculations and the 1921 bootleg model he made behind the backs of authorities in Ravenna, who feared a model of the skull would be a profanation.
The jawbone had to be made from scratch because the original was not found in the crypt when a tomb believed to Dante’s was opened in 19th century.
The skull was reconstructed by engineers Francesca de Crecenzio, Massimiliano Fantini and Franco Persiani of the University of Bologna at Forli.
Reconstruction artists Francesco and Gabriele Mallegni from Pisa University used computer technology and forensic techniques to simulate muscle with plaster, plastic and other material.
They added wrinkles, eyebrows and even a real burgundy coloured Renaissance-style head covering.
“It was the closest we could come to it,” Giorgio Gruppioni said. “We put no expression on the face, just its form.”
“When we finished with it, he looked more ordinary, like the guy next door. I thought this would have caused a scandal but most people think this is more human,” he said.
Dante’s bones were hidden by monks in Ravenna from 1509 to 1865 when there was a threat they could be stolen by agents from Florence, his home town.