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Although the details surrounding the life of Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290) are subject to much dispute, there is little doubt she was a major influence in Dante Alighieri's life, influencing particularly his works of La Vita Nuova and La Divina Commedia.
Her Relationship With Dante Alighieri
Dante first met Beatrice in Florence, his home city, when he was nine years old and she was eight. This meeting occurred roughly around 1274. She was dressed in a soft crimson cloth, and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante instantly fell in love with her, thinking of her as angelic with divine and noble qualities. Yet this was to be one of only two times that Dante and Beatrice came into close contact.
Following their first meeting, Dante was so enthralled by Beatrice that he later wrote in La Vita Nuova: "Here is a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me." Indeed, she did and Dante frequented parts of Florence, his home city, where he thought he might catch even a glimpse of her. As he did so, he made great efforts to ensure his thoughts of Beatrice remained private, even writing poetry for another lady, so as to use her as a "screen for the truth".
Dante's "stalking" of Beatrice continued for nine years, before the pair finally met again. This meeting occurred in a street of Florence, which she walked along dressed in white and flanked by two older women (as pictured). She turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room, to think about her. In doing so, he fell asleep, and had a dream which would become the subject of the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
In this dream, a mighty figure appeared before him, and spoke to him. Although he could not make out all the figure said, he managed to hear "Ego dominus tuus", which means "I am your Lord." In the figure's arms was Beatrice, sleeping and covered by a crimson cloth. The figure awoke Beatrice, and made her eat Dante's burning heart. An English translation of this event, as described in La Vita Nuova, appears below:
- ...And betaking me to the loneliness of mine own room, I fell to thinking of this most courteous lady, thinking of whom I was overtaken by a pleasant slumber, wherein a marvellous vision was presented to me: for there appeared to be in my room a mist of the colour of fire, within the which I discerned the figure of a Lord of terrible aspect to such as should gaze upon him, but who seemed there-withal to rejoice inwardly that it was a marvel to see. Speaking he said many things, among the which I could understand but few; and of these, this: "I am thy Lord." In his arms it seemed to me that a person was sleeping, covered only with a crimson cloth; upon whom looking very attentively, I knew that it was the Lady of the Salutation, who had deigned the day before to salute me. And he who held her held also in his hand a thing that was burning in flames, and he said to me, "Behold thy heart." But when he had remained with me a little while, I thought that he set himself to awaken her that slept; after the which he made her to eat that thing which flamed in his hand; and she ate as one fearing.
This was the last encounter between the pair, since Beatrice died eight years later at the young age of twenty-five in 1290. Dante, although in love with Beatrice, took a wife (Gemma Donati). Likewise, Beatrice was married to a man called Simon de'Bardi.
Dante knew relatively little about Beatrice, although there is no question that he was in a deep state of love with her.
greeted him for the first and only time. She is flanked by two older noble women.
Dante's Love For Beatrice
The manner in which Dante chose to express his love for Beatrice often agreed with the medieval concept of courtly love. Courtly love was a secret, unrequited and highly respectful form of admiration for another person.
Yet it is still not entirely clear what caused Dante to fall in love with Beatrice. Seeing as how he knew very little of the real Beatrice, and that he had no great insight to her character, it is perhaps unusual that he fell in love with her. But he did, and there are clues in his works as to why he did:
- “She has ineffable courtesy, is my beautitude, the destroyer of all vices and the queen of virtue, salvation.”
Dante saw Beatrice as a saviour, one who removed all evil intentions from him. It is perhaps this idea of her being a force for good that he fell in love with, a force which he believed made him a better person. This is certainly viable, since he does not seem concerned with her appearance - at least not in his writings. He only once describes her complexion, and her "emerald" eyes. Although Beatrice was most likely a very beautiful lady, her beauty is not what Dante fell for when he met her.
Dante's love for Beatrice stayed with him all through his life. She appears as his guide through heaven in La Divina Commedia, which he wrote shortly before his death. When he began writing the piece in 1307, Beatrice had been dead for seventeen years. Yet Dante continued loving her, even in her passing, until his death in 1321.
He wrote of her, following her death:
- "The love between them was wholly spiritual; after her death Dante realised she was more alive than ever."
Beatrice's Influence on Dante's Work
She first appeared in La Vita Nuova, which Dante wrote one year after her death, in 1291. The book was filled with poems about Beatrice, and entirely complimentary to her; she was described as "gentilissima" and "benedetta" (meaning gracious and blessed respectively).
Having already referred to Beatrice as his salvation, this idea is further touched upon in La Divina Commedia, where she appears as a guide through heaven. Here she is described as being "maternal, radiant and comforting."
Although they converse in personal terms, this is no more than the imagination of Dante. Since their relationship had no contact, the Beatrice of his works was shaped entirely by his own mind. He once called her "La gloriosa donna della mia mente", which means "the glorious lady of my mind".
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