Dante, Beatrice & La Vita Nuova
In O, Juliet, the star-crossed lovers share a mutual admiration of a Medieval poet by the name of Dante Alighieri, most commonly known to us as just plain Dante. One of his works, La Vita Nuova, is particularly referred to throughout the novel. In it, Dante speaks of his ever-lasting love for a woman named Beatrice and it got me wondering who this woman was and the story behind their relationship.
La Vita Nuova was written in 1295, in a combination of both prose and verse and was unique in that it was written in Italian and not the usual Latin. Dante’s reason behind writing La Vita Nuova, was to write something that has “never been written for any woman”. It begins with Dante first meeting Beatrice when they were around 9 years old. For Dante, it was love at first sight.
Dante's first meeting with Beatrice
“Nine times already since my birth the heaven of light had almost revolved to the self-same point when my mind’s glorious lady first appeared to my eyes, she who was called by many Beatrice (‘she who confers blessing’), by those who did not know what it meant to so name her. She had already lived as long in this life as in her time the starry heaven had moved east the twelfth part of one degree, so that she appeared to me almost at the start of her ninth year, and I saw her almost at the end of my ninth. She appeared dressed in noblest colour, restrained and pure, in crimson, tied and adorned in the style that then suited her very tender age.
At that moment I say truly that the vital spirit, that which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely in the least pulsation, and, trembling, it uttered these words: ‘Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi: Behold a god more powerful than I, who, coming, will rule over me."
Their next meeting isn’t until nine years later…
"Dante meets Beatrice (in yellow) at Ponte Santa Trinita" by Henry Holiday
From La Vita Nuova…
“When so many days had passed that exactly nine years were completed since the appearance of this most gracious being I have written of above, it happened, on the last of these days, that this marvellous lady appeared to me, dressed in the whitest of white, between two gracious ladies who were of greater age: and passing through a street she turned her eyes to the place where I stood greatly fearful, and, with her ineffable courtesy, that is now rewarded in a greater sphere, she greeted me so virtuously, so much so that I saw then to the very end of grace. The hour at which her so sweet greeting welcomed me was exactly the ninth of that day, and because it was the first time that her words deigned to come to my ears, I found such sweetness that I left the crowd as if intoxicated, and I returned to the solitude of my own room, and fell to thinking of this most gracious one.”
So, who was this woman that had captured Dante’s heart to the point where his “spirit was completely dedicated to thoughts of that most graceful one”? Not much is known about her really, besides her fame from Dante’s writings, she would’ve been largely unknown. We know that she was a 13th century Florentine woman named Beatrice Portinari, or known among friends, Bice. Though she was married to another and then died at the age of 24, Dante would remain loyally devoted to his Beatrice throughout his life.
In La Vita Nuova, Dante says of the passing of his love…
Beatrice has gone to the highest Heaven,to the realm where the angels have peace,and stays with them, and has left you ladies:no quality of coldness took her,or of heat, as it is with others,but it was only her great gentleness:since light from her humilitypierced the skies with so much virtue,that it made the Eternal Lord marvel,so that a sweet desiremoved him to claim such greeting:and called her from the heights to come to him,since he saw our harmful lifewas not worthy of such a gentle one.
Beatrice also features in Dante's The Divine Comedy. In it, Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide from Mount Purgatory to Paradise.
Dante’s love for Beatrice influenced several Pre-Raphaelite painters, including Dante Rosetti and John William Waterhouse.
"Dante and Beatrice" by John William Waterhouse