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