Tuesday 23rd July 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
There are three 14th century Tuscan poets who are generally regarded as the fathers of Italian literature—Petrarch, Giovanni Boccacio, and Dante Alighieri. Of these, two were unapologetic romantics who used poetry to express hopeless passions for unattainable women whom they idealized: Petrarch for his Laura; and Dante for his Beatrice.
Today, there is no doubt among scholars that Beatrice actually existed—unlike Laura, who many believe was fictional (see previous blog post). Dante’s Beatrice was born Beatrice Portinari in 1265, the same year and in the same quarter of Florence where Dante himself was born. Dante first saw Beatrice when both poet and Muse were only nine years old. “She appeared humbly and properly dressed,” he would later write of the encounter, “in a most noble color, crimson girded and adorned in the manner that befitted her so youthful age.” So taken was Dante with Beatrice that he invokes Homer to describe her beauty. “She seemed no child of mortal man but God,” he quotes.
As Petrarch would do for Laura nearly a half-century later, Dante wrote sonnets and canzone for Beatrice, eventually collecting them in a book, La Vita Nuova, (“The New Life”), a coming-of-age tale recounting Dante’s initiation into “the new life” of poetry and love. Indeed, Beatrice and poetry were so fused in the young poet’s mind that his first impulse to compose verse followed directly from an exchange he shared with Beatrice, when at age 18, she spoke to him for the first time. “In her ineffable courtesy,” he writes, “she greeted me such that I then seemed to see all the terms of beatitude.”
Dante went home, fell asleep, and in a dream saw the figure of Love feeding his heart to a half-naked Beatrice in Love’s arms. The dream inspired his first major sonnet: “A ciascun alma presa e gentil cuor” (“To every captive soul and gentle heart”).
While the scholarly Petrarch would pen his tender love poems for his Laura well into old age, Dante’s treatment of his model woman in poetry was far more deliberate and grandiose, suited to his more grandiose imagination. At the end of La Vita Nuova he resolves, not without poetic swagger: “to write no more of [Beatrice]” until he can “say of her what was never said of any other woman.” Dante would eventually fulfill his ambitious pledge in the final third of his great masterpiece, Commedia (“Comedy,” later known as the “Divine Comedy”), which recounts his journey through the three realms of the Christian afterlife: Inferno (“Hell”), Purgatorio (“Purgatory”), and Paradiso (“Heaven”). Through Hell and Purgatory, Dante is guided by his literary hero the Roman poet Virgil. But in Heaven, Dante requires the guidance of an exemplar of Christian Purity and Divine Wisdom—Virgil the pagan will not do. Who does Dante select therefore? None other than Beatrice Portinari herself. Beatrice died in 1290, decades before Commedia was written. But in invoking her memory in this remarkable way—effectively rendering her face “the face of Paradise” itself—Dante manages to say of her “what was never said of any other woman.” Still, Beatrice is no mere character-less allegory in Paradiso, and when she is first reunited with Dante she scolds him for failing to be true to her memory after her death, while Dante cowers and makes excuses:
“Present things with their false pleasure
turned away my steps
as soon as you face was hidden.”
In other words, pretty Muses smiled sweetly while Beatrice lay cold in her grave— what’s a flesh-and-blood poet to do? In Heaven, it seems, even model women can be jealous, and their lovers the victims of their own wandering eyes.