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Women of the Divine Comedy in the Ufizzi Gallery’s Special Exhibit

23 June 2021 | T. Russo

Pia de’ Tolomei and Nello della Pietra by Pio Fedi (Viterbo 1816 - Firenze 1892)

TMA for this year’s Museum Spotlight turns to Le Gallerie degli Uffizi or the Uffizi Gallery’s highlight of Dante Alighieri, the national poet of Italy, and his life and works. For Anno Dantesco the gallery is highlighting portraits of the poet and some images that represent his greatest work, the Divine Comedy (La Commedia). In this collection two women are highlighted in the paintings and sculpture: Pia dei Tolomei located in Purgatorio, the second canticle of the poem, in canto 5 and Piccarda Donati whose story is located in Paradiso, the third canticle of the poem, in canto 3.

Pia dei Tolomei is an Italian noblewoman from Siena who is murdered in Castel di Pietra in Maremma by her husband, a story that forms an Italian legend with a mysterious medieval murder. Important about her legend that Dante creates in the Commedia is that she had Mary on her lips before she died and for this reason is in purgatory in the afterlife.

There, at the place where that stream’s name is lost, I came—my throat was pierced—fleeing on foot and bloodying the plain; and there it was

that I lost sight and speech; and there, as I had finished uttering the name of Mary, I fell; and there my flesh alone remained.

Purgatorio V. 97-102; trans. Mandelbaum

Dante the poet briefly introduces Pia with the penitents of the last hour, and she becomes known as the Pia (in Italian "La Pia"): ““Do thou remember me who am the Pia; / Siena made me, unmade me Maremma; / He knoweth it, who had encircled first, / Espousing me, my finger with his gem” (Purg. V.133-136). He indicates that at the moment of her death she was saying the rosary or the prayer Hail Mary, associating her name with piety and her story with the importance of prayer for the souls in purgatory (biblically located in 2 Maccabees 12:41-46 as well as verses in Timothy, Matthew, Luke, Corinthians, and Hebrews). Her story shrouded in mystery has inspired many artists and creators, producing art, music, literary pieces, and film, such as Pia de’ Tolomei (also know as La Parole est à l’Epée) in 1958 directed by Sergio Grieco and written by Edoardo Anton.

The Uffizi highlights a sculpture and paintings as part of the Anno Dantesco celebration that feature Pia with her husband in stone by sculptor Pio Fedi and the paintings focus on Pia’s arrival to the castle where she dies by artist Vincenzo Cabianca and her death by artist Enrico Pollastrini.

Bust of Piccarda Donati by Giovanni Bastianini (Fiesole, Firenze 1830 - Firenze 1868)

The other female figure in the Commedia in this collection is the life of Piccarda Donati, who was a medieval noblewoman from Florence located in the same region as Pia. Her family was an important political family in Florence. Piccarda desired a religious life and left the family to become a nun with the Order of Saint Clare, also known as the Poor Clares, in the convent of Santa Maria di Monticelli. She was at the covenant for only a year when her brother Corso Donati removed her from the order to marry her to Rossellino della Tosa for a political alliance between the Donati and Della Tosa families—a custom often practiced by political and noble families to generate alliances. (Remember Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare: not only were the families enemies but Juliet was very valuable to her father for creating a political alliance with a family of his choice. These alliances enhanced power for families and their standing in society; these marriages could also aid in avoiding conflicts and war.)

Piccarda was also the sister of Foresi Donati, a friend of Dante and located in purgatory in Dante’s poem. Many believe that Dante the poet knew Piccarda in life as well and sets up a meeting between her and himself the pilgrim in canto 3 of Paradiso, depicting her as a religious and pious woman. Piccarda converses with Dante the pilgrim who is at this point being guided through the last realm of the afterlife in Christian doctrine. He is unable to recognize her and asks the soul to reveal herself to him:

Then I turned to the shade that seemed most anxious to speak, and I began as would a man bewildered by desire too intense:

“O spirit born to goodness, you who feel, beneath the rays of the eternal life, that sweetness which cannot be known unless

it is experienced, it would be gracious of you to let me know your name and fate.” At this, unhesitant, with smiling eyes:

“Our charity will never lock its gates against just will; our love is like the Love that would have all Its court be like Itself.

Within the world I was a nun, a virgin; and if your mind attends and recollects, my greater beauty here will not conceal me,

and you will recognize me as Piccarda, who, placed here with the other blessed ones, am blessed within the slowest of the spheres.

Our sentiments, which only serve the flame that is the pleasure of the Holy Ghost, delight in their conforming to His order.

Paradiso III. 34-54; trans Mandelbaum

In these verses Piccarda declares she is a nun and virgin and ignores her status as a wife to Rossellino della Tosa. She is praised in the poem as an archetype of beauty and virtue which is depicted in Giovanni Bastianii’s sculpture of Piccarda. She is first discussed by Dante and Foresi in Purgatorio 24: “My sister—and I know not whether she / was greater in her goodness or her beauty— / on high Olympus is in triumph; she / rejoices in her crown already” (vv. 12-15). Her importance in the story demonstrates the purity of her will and her understanding in God that she is in the right place in the afterlife, “conforming to His order.”

The artwork in this special collection highlights 19th century Florentine art, Bastianini’s bust and Raffaello Sorbi’s depiction of Piccarda’s kidnapping.


The Museum Spotlight can be used in World Literature course, focusing on Italian literature or Art History in high school. Elementary teachers can use the paintings for daily life conversations of the Middle Ages.

See the artwork at the Ufizzi or see printable information at TMA Museum Spotlight (scroll to Anno Dantesco images):

(Quotations are taken from Mandelbaum’s edition shared on the Digital Dante website sponsored by Columbia University with comments by international scholar Teodolinda Barolini: ; an affordable and good translation of the Divine Comedy in hard copy for students is Musa’s edition or Mandelbum’s edition. Both authors translate in verse. John D. Sinclair’s translation first published in 1939 is an older translation but translated in prose; reprinted in 1961).

How to cite this blog

Russo, Teresa. "MUSEUM SPOTLIGHT – ART FOR ANNO DANTESCO: Women of the Divine Comedy in the Ufizzi Gallery’s Special Exhibit." Teaching the Middle Ages, June 23, 2021,

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