November 21, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927), "Dante and Beatrice"
Walker Art Gallery - Liverpool, UK

As some of you readers know, Beatrice was the love of Dante’s life: she was a real person and the Poet decided to use her as an important character in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. The tradition that identifies Bice di Folco Portinari—the daughter of a banker and wife of Simone dei Bardi—as the Beatrice loved by Dante is now widely, though not unanimously, accepted by scholars.

Beatrice, whom Dante first saw and fell in love with when he was nine years old and a few months older then her, probably never had any idea of the depth of the Poet’s passion for her. For the next nine years after he first met her, Dante remained absolutely besotted with Beatrice. “From that time forward love fully ruled my soul,” as he later wrote in his Vita Nuova. But he loved her only from a distance and it was only when he was 18 that the young angelic creature spoke to Dante to greet him—a very rare event, indeed, in a time when women weren’t in the habit of taking any kind of initiative with men!—as they passed each other in the street. This is how Dante himself describes the meeting in the Vita Nuova:

When so many days had passed that exactly nine years were completed since the appearance of this most gracious being […], 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 […] 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.

Dante is led by Beatrice to contemplate the fixed stars
 Libreria Marciana, Venice.
14th Century Venetian School. Illumination
 Photo Credit: Erich Lessing
Of course Dante’s love for Beatrice is not a secular love, at least no more than that which is described in the Canticle of Canticles—with all due distinctions—or in the songs of twelfth- and thirteenth-century troubadours and minnesingers. By the way, judging from the literature of that period, that was a time when love was at the core of everything: besides the songs of troubadours and minnesingers, and the emergence of the “romance” among court poets, monastic theologians engaged in an intense and extensive dialogue on Solomon’s Song that gave birth to an outpouring of sermons and commentaries on the same topic. Love was being celebrated as central to human experience, extolling its joys and honoring its pains, plumbing the depths of its anguish and measuring the heights of its delight. The trajectory of this cultural zeitgeist—which had its apogee with Dante’s Divine Comedy—passed through a group of 13th–14th-century Italian poets, mostly Florentines and including Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante himself, who wrote in what the “Sommo Poeta” called the “dolce stil nuovo” (“sweet new style”). They fused troubadour and minnesinger elements (Dante’s worldly view of Beatrice as an idealized-yet-approachable being, for one thing, is drawn from love à la Provençale), but their treatment of love was their own. To them , love purifies the heart as with fire. Love reflects the divine and leads the spirit back to the supreme source of Love itself. Hence the love of Dante for Beatrice transcends the physical: he wishes to contemplate and to worship in Beatrice a revelation of the divine—not for nothing she is usually taken to be an allegory of divine grace. It is a love of the heart and the intellect, the manifestation of a sacred or divine love in the mortal world, even though, at the same time, the lady is not an ethereal, unreachable entity of epic overtones, but a woman-in-town, someone who is both admirable and visible. It follows the description of love by St. Thomas Aquinas called “amor amicitiae” (love of friendship), based on spirituality and mysticism, which is the exact opposite of “amor concupiscentiae” (love of concupiscence), based on physical or sexual lust. In other words, Dante’s love for Beatrice was never of an adulterous nature nor was it of the unrequited kind that causes mere yearning for a relationship. Definitely a strange type of love, one that you don’t see much of in the real world of today!

As a result of this, in the Comedy Beatrice is an image of absolute perfection and functions as an intermediary in Dante’s ascent to God. Beatrice was also the main inspiration of the above mentioned Vita Nuova, which contains the widely-celebrated sonetto “Tanto gentile.” Here is an English translation of the sonnet and the words with which Dante himself introduces his poem.

This most gracious lady of whom I have spoken in the preceding poems came into such widespread favor that, when she walked down the street, people ran to see her. This made me wonderfully happy. And when she passed by someone, such modesty filled his heart that he did not dare to raise his eyes or to return her greeting (many people, who have experienced this, could testify to it if anyone should not believe me).

Crowned and clothed with humility, she would go her way, taking no glory from what she heard and saw. Many would say after she had passed: “This is no woman, this is one of the most beautiful angels of Heaven.” And others would say: “She is a miracle! Blessed be the Lord who can work so wondrously.”
Let me say that she showed such decorum and was possessed of such charming qualities that those who looked at her experienced a pure and sweet delight, such that they were unable to describe it; and there was no one who could look at her without immediately sighing.

These and still more marvelous things were the result of her powers. Thinking about this, and wishing to take up again the theme of her praise, I decided to write something which would describe her magnificent and beneficent efficacy, so that not only those who could see her with their own eyes, but others, as well, might know of her whatever can be said in words. And so I wrote this sonnet which begins: Such sweet decorum.

Such sweet decorum and such gentle grace
attend my lady’s greeting to mankind
that lips can only tremble into silence,
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Untouched by all the praise along her way,
she moves in goodness, clothed in humbleness,
and seems a creature come from Heaven to earth,
a miracle manifest in reality.
Miraculously gracious to behold,
her sweetness, through the eyes reaches the heart
(who has not felt this cannot understand),
and from her lips there seems to move a spirit
tender, so deeply loving that it glides
into the souls of men and whispers: ‘Sigh!’

To conclude, with specific reference to Dante’s epic poem, I want to warn against focusing too one-sidedly on the love for Beatrice, in fact there are many other love stories in The Divine Comedy. There are loves gone wrong—but somehow awesome at the same time—such as the love between Paolo and Francesca (Inferno, Canto V), Ulysses’s love of knowledge (Ibidem, Canto XXVI), Ugolino’s love for his children (Ibidem, Canto XXXIII), and Farinata’s love for Florence (Ibidem, Canto X). And there are loves without fault, such as the one between Dante and Virgil, that is the relationship of a mentor and a protégé. As perhaps no earlier writer, Dante celebrates such a relationship by calling Virgil not only master, guide, and teacher, but also “dearest father,” and by comparing his concern for him to that of a mother for her child. Or the love of St. Bernard of Clairvaux for the Virgin Mary—hence one of the most beautiful prayers ever written (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII). Not to mention the “love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Ibidem) That’s what is meant when we say that The Divine Comedy is a love story.

In the old video below you can hear Giorgio Albertazzi—one of the most important actors of the Italian theater—reciting “Tanto gentile.”

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, Rob. Dante's Divine Comedy is another great book I haven't read, but your post about this brilliant work encourages me to add it to the top of my must read list. Hope you and your family are well.