Beatrice was the first woman of Italian literature to leave an indelible trace in the heart of every reader.
Sung by Dante in the unforgettable verses of his youthful book, Vita Nova, Beatrice returned to be the protagonist of the verses of the Divine Comedy from the last Canto of Purgatorio to Canto XXXI of Paradiso, thus demonstrating to accompany Dante’s entire human, literary and spiritual journey.
The Historical Beatrice
Tradition identifies her as Bice Portinari, daughter of Folco Portinari, a banker originally from Portico di Romagna, but then moved to Florence, in a house near Dante’s. He was a very prominent person in the city, and he also founded the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.
Folco, who had six daughters, gave Beatrice, still a teenager, in marriage to another banker, Simone Bardi. In a document from 1313, a daughter of Simone Bardi, Francesca, is mentioned, but it is not known whether she is the daughter of Beatrice or of Simone’s second wife, Sibilla di Puccio Deciaioli.
However, it is likely that Beatrice’s death at the age of 24 was caused by a difficult birth.
Most of the news we have of her can be found in the Vita Nova in which she is described as nine months younger than the poet, presumed to be born in 1265, who met for the first time when they were both nine and later acquainted at eighteen years old, when Dante fell in love with her. The symbolism linked to the number nine (three times three) makes us doubt that the times were really those shown in the work, but rather that Dante wanted to emphasize the sign of a fate:
Therefore, if three is the sole factor of nine, and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are Three in One, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine so that it might be understand that she was a nine, or a miracle, whose root, namely that, of the miracle, is the miraculous Trinity itself. (Vita Nova 19, 6)
Beatrice was not described as a great beauty, certainly in Florence there were more attractive ladies than her, but what made her unique and special were two particularly bright green eyes that stood out on fair skin and a fresh and sweet smile that bewitched. At parties, she often showed up without her husband and was uncommunicative. However, when questioned, she revealed a thin, harmonious voice that was part of her charm.
The Role of Beatrice in Dante’s Life and Work
Dante loved Beatrice according to the dictates of courtly love and he sung it according to the ways of Stilnovo, the literary movement to which he belonged. According to the stilnovists, through her grace and beauty, the woman was capable of awakening the noblest feelings in man, sublimating her desire. But Dante introduced novelties and made his lady not the angelic woman of the other poets of the movement, but the miracle woman, a tangible sign of the divine greatness acting in the world. As a true miracle, in fact, in addition to inspiring the highest feelings and the purest love, a reflection of divine love, Beatrice procured a real conversion and directed Dante’s soul in the direction of his spiritual salvation, because through love for the creature, the poet loved the Creator.
My lady shows so much grace and dignity
whenever greeting those who pass her way,
that every tongue falls silent, quivering,
and eyes dare not direct their gaze at her.
She moves along, attending words of praise,
benignly dressed in true humility;
and I believe she is a creature come
from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle.
[Vita Nova XXVI 5-7]
This process is already outlined in the Vita Nova. It is Dante himself who gave us indications on his work, the drafting that spanned a decade. He told us that the first poetic composition dates back to 1283, the year he met Beatrice, and the last text was written in 1291, on the occasion of the first anniversary of her death.
The text tells three different moments of this love. The first is the one in which Dante receives the greeting, a reason for interior fullness and salvation (salutem); the second is the one in which Beatrice takes away the greeting, an event that causes him great suffering and pushes him to write tormented poems, but it is also an opportunity to understand that his love is absolute and an end in itself and does not need to get anything in return. The theme of the gratuitousness of love and words of praise towards the beloved constitutes a novelty compared to the stilnovist movement, where poetry aimed to obtain some recognition from the beloved, even if only a look, a smile or, indeed, a greeting. The third moment is Beatrice’s death, which throws the poet into the darkest despair but is also proof that love survives earthly death and remains the cornerstone of his spiritual health, becoming a source of eternal salvation.
After the death of his beloved, Dante goes through a moment of bewilderment and devotes himself to the studies of philosophy and political life. He is once again attracted to a kind woman, but following a dream, he realizes that only through love for Beatrice would he be able to reach the divine. He then promises that he would never write more about her until he is worth it again.
Beatrice in the Divine Comedy
It is precisely this long moment of loss, symbolized by the dark forest, the starting point of the Divine Comedy, which makes the poet understand that through the intellect, he would never reach salvation. The bewilderment in the forest is precisely having moved away from the path (the straight path) that Beatrice indicated.
During the first two Cantos of Inferno, Dante mends the links between his youthful poem and the promise to write a great heavenly poem for Beatrice. In fact, already in Canto II of Inferno, Beatrice descends from Paradise, where we left her in the Vita Nova, to promote the help of Dante who is lost. Beatrice can go down because the Virgin obtains the consent from God and through Saint Lucia who shakes her to help the poet:
Beatrice, true praise of God,
why do you not help he who so loved you,
that for you he left the vulgar hordes?
For this gratuitous love and for the ability to love the Creator through the creature, Dante is relieved and rescued. But the narrative function of Beatrice, already promised in the Vita Nova, is fulfilled in Paradise.
Reappeared in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, dressed in red and green with a white veil on her head (symbols of the theological virtues: white faith, green hope and red charity), she takes the place of Virgil and after having pushed Dante to a moment of confession, deep repentance and penance and after having shown him that revealed theology is superior to philosophy and that there are arguments that cannot be understood without faith, only with human reason, she leads him towards the ascent to Heaven.
This takes place on Mount Purgatory, where Beatrice stares at the sun’s rays and invites Dante to do the same. He cannot stare directly at them, given the human nature of his eyes, but observes them reflected in the eyes of the woman he loves.
Here the connection function between creature and Creator already outlined in the Vita Nova is realized more clearly, because the beloved is not only the final object of love in which divine beauty is reflected, but the one who is capable of bringing back the poet at the source of that beauty. And it is precisely through this beauty reflected in Beatrice’s eyes that Dante’s heavenly ascent begins, accompanied by a very bright light and the wonderful music of the celestial spheres.
Finally, in Canto XXXI of Paradiso, once they arrive in the Empyrean, Beatrice leaves the leadership role to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Dante is close to the last vision, and it is necessary that he be accompanied by a mystic. Beatrice then returns to take her place in the Rose of Heaven.