The Dante death mask plays a key role in Dan Brown’s Inferno novel.
This precious object is preserved in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, most specifically in a small andito (hallway) on the first floor, between the Apartments of Eleanor and the Halls of Priors.
In the past, this relief was considered to be the actual Dante death mask, carved directly from the face of the lifeless Dante Alighieri.
Recent studies, though, consider it more likely that this relief is the cast of a lost sepulchral effigy of Dante.
Of course, this theory does not deprive the mask of its value and its suggestive power: that is why the mask is still preserved in the most important palace in Florence.
Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet and father of the Italian language, died in exile in Ravenna (near Bologna) in 1321.
According to tradition, the effigy from which the mask was sculpted was preserved in the tomb of Dante in Ravenna.
The mask kept in Palazzo Vecchio was probably carved in 1483 by Pietro and Tullio Lombardo.
In the middle of sixteenth century, the mask was donated to sculptor Giambologna, who then gave it to his scholar Pietro Tacca.
Dante’s death mask became a model of study for young artists.
Around 1830 the mask belonged to sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, who donated it to English painter and Dante scholar Seymour Kirkup, also famous for having contributed to the discovery of the portrait of Dante attributed to Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello Palace.
This is why the Dante death mask is also known as Maschera Kirkup (Kirkup Mask).
Kirkup’s widow gave the mask to literary critic Alessandro D’Ancona, who was at that time a senator of the Kingdom of Italy.
Senator D’Ancona gave the Dante death mask to the Palazzo Vecchio in 1911.
Before his exile, Dante held several political positions in Florence, including the role of Prior from June 15 to August 15, 1300.
His death mask is now stored in the Palazzo Vecchio to honor both his political contribution to the city of Florence and his essential role in the development of Italian literature, culture, and civilization.
If you are interested in reading a good, easy to understand rendition of The Divine Comedy which includes several drawings selected from Botticelli’s series of illustrations, we recommend the Mandelbaum edition.