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In Memory of Beatrice Portinari (d. June 8, 1290)

Italian Alabaster Figure Beatrice Portinari

Beatrice Portinari, remembered forever in Dante’s poetic works as his inspiration and his radiant guide through the after-worlds of the Divine Comedy, died in Italy on the 8th of June in 1290. She was only 24 at the time of her death.

Dante himself, and many others, have chronicled the relationship of the poet to the young lady. Occasional commenters have even questioned whether she was a real person or was rather some spiritualized ideal of a woman. It is held by some societies that “Beatrice” is a representative of such inner qualities as wisdom and knowledge, which are to be pursued with the devoted passion of young love. However, researchers have uncovered civil records of Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of the noble family in Florence, Italy, who is likely to be the subject of Dante’s La Vita Nuova  – the book which relates their brief encounters until the year of her untimely death.

From the moment he saw her at a May party when they were children, he claims his life was entirely under the influence of his love for her. He finally completed his master works in fulfillment of a promise to himself “to say that of her, that never yet hath been said of any lady.”

Although Beatrice is immortalized in her connection to Dante, not much is understood of her own side of the experience.  Did Beatrice Portinari return Dante Alighieri’s love? Was she equally overpowered by her love for him? Did their love have something to do with her tragic death at the age of 24? Today I will share a quote from the introduction to La Vita Nuova by Theodore Martin, 1862. This brief quote is offered in order to highlight one of the very few things we actually know about Beatrice Portinari’s experience with Dante:  she ceased to greet him because she did not wish to be treated as he appeared to treat other ladies. Here is the account:

“The incidents recorded in the Vita Nuova are few and meagre. Dante, a boy of nine, meets Beatrice, a girl of eight, very much as Boccaccio mentions. He falls in love with her then at once and for ever. They do not meet, so as to interchange greetings, until nine years afterwards, although Dante, in the interval, seized every opportunity of seeing and watching the growing girl. This second meeting, and the words which fell from her on the occasion, confirm his passion, which finds its natural vent in poetry. No direct intimation of his love is, however, made by the poet to Beatrice; and, in order to mislead the curious, who saw from his appearance and demeanor that the fever fit of love was upon him, he resorted to the device, then not an uncommon one, of feigning to be the admirer par armours of two other ladies in succession.

Beatrice, however, he gives us to understand, had reason to know the true state of the case; but he dissembles only too well, for his attentions to one of the ladies for whom he feigned affection becomes a topic of scandal. Beatrice, incensed, refuses him her salutation, or, in other words, declines further acquaintance with him. The poet is in despair. Her indignation lasts apparently for a considerable time, and during this period, it may with great probability be inferred, she married, – although Dante is silent throughout on this subject. How a reconciliation takes place we are not told; but we are left to infer that they were reconciled…” ~Theodore Martin, 1862

In La Vita Nuova, Dante relates how he writes poetry to another woman, and even moves to the city in which the other woman lives, all the while believing Beatrice understood it was just a fashionable ruse on his part, and that the poetry was written to her. Given that Dante himself admits the possibility later that she “wist not” that he was writing to her, it is not unreasonable to raise the possibility that if Beatrice truly loved Dante, she may have been privately devastated by these events. By the time he has publicly written poems to a second lady, meaning them for Beatrice, the ruse misfires, and Beatrice then no longer greets Dante in the lane. An alternative view is that at this point not only was she unable to interpret the repeated public attentions to other ladies, but also she was disappointed by his clumsiness in the resulting public “scandal.” Her decision then not to greet him shows a strictness with herself, and on her part a great inner strength and dignity which would not accept such apparent shabby behavior, even from one she loved.

Neither do I think it is unreasonable  to observe that her father likely gave her in marriage to one of his business partners in banking, and that she did not have any choice but to obey her father in this marriage. Her fate then was to carry out the wishes of her father in an arranged marriage, a task which she seems to bravely meet. But when her father dies in December of 1289, her grief is so great, and she is so bereft, that it is remarked by her friends at the funeral that she would not live long. Dante becomes very ill, and experiences visions of her death. Then, some months after the death of her father, Beatrice Portinari passed away at the young age of 24.

The traditional site of her tomb is not ornate, but gives honor to her memory and her quiet strength with her maiden name. This rose marks the passing of a young medieval Florentine woman whose nobility was not merely outward, but inward as well.

Image 2, 3,  4, & other

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5 responses

  1. Corrections and comments are welcome. This represents an effort to understand events and people from long ago using primary historical sources, and not all of the complexities and traditions of Italian life in the Middle Ages are taken into account.

    Dante: Not all visions are to be trusted. Be genuine in your dealings with others.
    Beatrice: Believe the best, and you will understand everything more clearly.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  2. беатриче портинари

    June 25, 2013 at 11:26 am

  3. sidRippon

    Very nice piece. Thank you.

    July 18, 2013 at 8:46 pm

  4. Thank you. Beatrice Portinari is a search term for people who visit this site from all over the world.

    I should mention the importance of the fact that Dante wrote his work in his Italian dialect, rather than Latin:

    “During the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate, because of the central position of Tuscany in Italy, and because of the aggressive commerce of its most important city, Florence. In fact, Florentine culture produced the three literary artists who best summarized Italian thought and feeling of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance: Petrarca, Boccaccio and, specially, Dante Alighieri. Dante was the one who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan (“supposed” to be derived from Etruscan and Oscan) in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia, to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina.”

    And so we owe to Beatrice Portinari Dante’s inspiration to abandon the scholastic language of the Roman tradition. By writing in the Tuscan dialect of his own country, this in turn inspired all of Europe to read and write in living languages. This was in a way the posterity of their relationship. Dante died just months after completing the Divine Comedy.

    July 18, 2013 at 9:13 pm

  5. More on Dante’s use of Tuscan Italian:

    “The question of whether Dante belongs to the Middle Ages or to the Renaissance is difficult to answer, for this Janus-faced poet at times seems an embodiment of both these epochs. In many ways he had nothing at tall to do with the Renaissance; he summed up the Middle Ages rather than announced the dawn of a new age. His Divina Commedia is a thoroughly Christian didactic epic which has often been called one of the last great Gothic cathedrals….A deep chasm separated Dante, the austere Christian and valiant battler, from other 14th century poets like Boccaccio, who made his women carnal rather than spiritual, and who opposed to Dante’s Christian man of the past, the worldly man of the future.

    Yet though the poets of the Renaissance were reluctant to concern themselves with this austere ascetic and his frightful visions of hell-fire and damnation, they should have realized that he was very much a part of their modern age, too. A European Renaissance so deeply indebted to Italy could not possibly justify its overlooking Italy’s greatest poet, and a new age so much given to the polish and melodiousness of poetic diction could not possibly ignore the many classical features of Dante’s style. While French, English, or German were standardized at a much later date and while foreign medieval authors like J. de Meung, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in a language that is all but incomprehensible to the casual modern reader, Dante created a tool of expression that was clear, concise, and modern in every way, and he succeeded in clothing his fantastic visions of the Beyond in a strictly symmetrical and poetical pattern and in a marvelously concrete plasticity of language that should have found the fullhearted approval of all classicists.

    And, finally, Dante belongs to the modern age because of his tremendous vitaliy, his virtu. He could love and hate, fight and despise as violently ans any condottiere of the 16th century; instead of being a somewhat pale representative of the orthodox Middle Ages, he was vigorous, full-bodied, of untamable energy, truly modern. No Leonardo da Vinci could be more versatile than he…However, with this virility, contemptuousness, and lawlessness, Dante combined a severe spiritual discipline and an austere Christian outlook on life. It was this rather medieval aspect of his virtu which separated him from the unbridled and self-indulgent virtu of the Renaissance.” ~Werner P. Friederick, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, U of NC.

    July 20, 2013 at 2:50 pm

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