Dante meets Beatrice (painting by Henry Holliday, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
The story of Dante and Beatrice is one of the greatest of unrequited, distant love.
Durante degli Alighieri, better known as Dante, (c. June 1, 1265 – September 13/14, 1321) was an Italian Florentine poet. His greatest work, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), is considered the greatest literary statement produced in Europe in the medieval period, and the basis of the modern Italian language.
Dante was nearly nine years old when he first set eyes on Beatrice Portinari, in a gathering at her father's palazzo in Florence. She was a few months younger than Dante and dressed in a crimson dress. She captivated him completely. As he later wrote, "From that time forward love fully ruled my soul." For the next nine years he remained absolutely besotted with her but only from a distance and it was only in 1283, when he was 18, that she spoke to him as they passed each other in the street.
In 13th century Florence arranged marriages were the norm, especially amongst the uppers classes, to which both Dante and Beatrice belonged. So, at the age of 21 Dante was married off to Gemma Donati, to whom he had been betroted since the age of 12 and Beatrice married a year later too, only to die three years after that, at the tender age of 24. Dante was devastated. He remained devoted to Beatrice for the rest of his life and she was his principal inspiration for much of his well known work, such as La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy).
When Dante first saw Beatrice, he tells us she was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. He fell in love with her at first sight and thought of her as angelic with divine and noble qualities. He frequented places where he could catch a glimpse of her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence. Accompanied by two older women, Beatrice turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. Falling asleep, he had a dream that became the subject of the first sonnet in his La Vita Nuova, one of the world's greatest romantic poems. Two chapters from La Vita Nuova are quoted below:
When exactly nine years had passed since this gracious being appeared to me, as I have described, it happened that on the last day of this intervening period this marvel appeared before me again, dressed in purest white, walking between two other women of distinguished bearing, both older than herself. As they walked down the street she turned her eyes toward me where I stood in fear and trembling, and with her ineffable courtesy, which is now rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me; and such was the virtue of her greeting that I seemed to experience the height of bliss. It was exactly the ninth hour of day when she gave me her sweet greeting. As this was the first time she had ever spoken to me, I was filled with such joy that, my senses reeling, I had to withdraw from the sight of others. So I returned to the loneliness of my room and began to think about this gracious person. (La Vita Nuova III)
Whenever and wherever she appeared, in the hope of receiving her miraculous salutation I felt I had not an enemy in the world. Indeed, I glowed with a flame of charity which moved me to forgive all who had ever injured me; and if at that moment someone had asked me a question, about anything, my only reply would have been: ‘Love’, with a countenance clothed with humility. When she was on the point of bestowing her greeting, a spirit of love, destroying all the other spirits of the senses, drove away the frail spirits of vision and said: ‘Go and pay homage to your lady’; and Love himself remained in their place. Anyone wanting to behold Love could have done so then by watching the quivering of my eyes. And when this most gracious being actually bestowed the saving power of her salutation, I do not say that Love as an intermediary could dim for me such unendurable bliss but, almost by excess of sweetness, his influence was such that my body, which was then utterly given over to his governance, often moved like a heavy, inanimate object. So it is plain that in her greeting resided all my joy, which often exceeded and overflowed my capacity. (La Vita Nuova XI)