Who is Beatrice?
Beatrice was the main inspiration for Dante Alighieri‘s Vita Nuova and is commonly identified with the Beatrice who appears as one of his guides in his masterpiece La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy).
Did Beatrice really exist?
The life of this famous woman is shrouded in mystery. Many historians have questioned whether the guide who leads Dante a mere step away from contemplating God in The Divine Comedy was the same Beatrice Portinari who resided in Florence.
Scholars have long debated whether the historical Beatrice is intended to be identified with either or both of the Beatrices found in Dante’s writings.
The tradition that identifies Bice di Folco Portinari as the Beatrice loved by Dante is now widely, though not unanimously, accepted by scholars.
Beatrice Portinari biography
Beatrice was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a banker and one of the Priors of Florence in 1282. The Portinari, a family that originated from Fiesole, lived in Florence, near Dante’s House, located in the old town of Florence; in fact, it is currently on Via del Corso.
Folco Portinari had six daughters.
Beatrice was married to a certain Simone de Bardi, one of the most influential men in the city. She died three years after the marriage in 1290 at only twenty-four. Given that the dates and locations of this reconstruction coincide with what Dante provides in his Vita Nova, the girl is identified with the famous Beatrice.
The first one to explicitly refer to the young woman was Boccaccio in his commentary on The Divine Comedy.
Specific documents on her life have always been scarce, leading some to doubt her actual existence. The only hard evidence is the will of Folco Portinari dated 1287, which says “..item d. Bici filie sue et uxoris d. Simonis del Bardis reliquite …, lib.50 ad floren”—essentially a bequest to his daughter, who was married to Simone dei Bardi.
Beatrice and Dante
Beatrice was Dante’s true love. In his Vita Nova, Dante reveals that he saw Beatrice for the first time when his father took him to the Portinari house for a May Day party. They were children: he was nine years old and she was eight.
Dante was instantly smitten and never forgot her after this meeting even though he married another woman, Gemma Donati, in 1285, with whom he had three sons and one daughter.
According to tradition, Dante and Beatrice were also neighbors outside the walls of Florence—near the hill of Fiesole, where the Portinari and Alighieri families had two neighboring summer villas. It is plausible that Dante and Beatrice met each other as children there.
He would meet her again nine years later in an unexpected fashion: Beatrice was walking along dressed in white and accompanied by two older women on Lungarno (one of the Florence streets along the Arno River).
She turned and greeted him. Dante remembered the episode well, but ran away without saying a word.
Her salutation filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. In so doing he fell asleep and had a dream that would become the subject of the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
Afterward, there were only two other short meetings between the two: one in the church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi (the church visited by Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks in Dan Brown’s Inferno) and one at a wedding feast.
Wedding feasts in Tuscany are very popular today, but we can see that they were equally interesting in the past…
Influence on Dante’s work
Beatrice’s influence was far from simple inspiration. She appeared as a character in his two greatest works: La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy.
After Beatrice’s death, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. The collection of these poems, along with others he had previously written in his journal in awe of Beatrice, became La Vita Nuova, a prose work interlaced with lyrics.
Dante describes his meetings with her, praises her beauty and goodness, describes his own intense reactions to her kindness or lack thereof, tells of events in both their lives, and explains the nature of his feelings for her. La Vita Nuova also relates of the day when Dante was informed of her death and contains several anguished poems written after that event. In the final chapter, Dante vows to write nothing further of Beatrice until he writes “concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman.”
The promise is fulfilled in the epic poem The Divine Comedy, which he composed many years later. In that poem, he expresses his exalted and spiritual love for Beatrice, who is his intercessor in the Inferno, his purpose in traveling through Purgatorio, and his guide through Paradiso.
Beatrice addresses Dante, the author and a character himself, for the first time in Canto 2 of Dante’s Inferno: she descends into Limbo and prays that the poet Virgil can rescue Dante. She then reappears in Canto 30 of Purgatorio, when Virgil disappears.
At first sight of her in Purgatorio, he is as overwhelmed as he was at the age of nine and is dazzled by her presence throughout the journey until she ascends again to her place in heaven, the point closest to God that he is allowed to reach.
This expression of sublimated and spiritualized love ends with Dante’s total absorption into the divine.
Their last meeting is set among the blessed in Heaven at the end of their journey into the afterlife.
If you want to learn more about Beatrice, we recommend The Figure of Beatrice by Charles Williams.
Today, we know that Dante’s love for Beatrice was real. She represented the ideal of beauty and grace, but was also a real woman.
Beatrice appeared to Dante as the woman/angel that guides him through Paradise, but also remained a real woman who made his heart beat in the streets of Florence.
Pictures from Wikipedia
This post was originally published in July 31, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on December 14, 2016.