In May 1265 Bella Alighieri presented to her husband, Alighiero Alighieri, a son whom they christened Durante Alighieri; probably they took no thought that the words meant long-lasting wing-bearer. Apparently the poet himself shortened his first name to Dante.8 His family had a lengthy pedigree in Florence, but had slipped into poverty. The mother died in Dante’s early years; Alighiero married again, and Dante grew up, perhaps unhappily, with a stepmother, a half brother, and two half sisters.9 The father died when Dante was fifteen, leaving a heritage of debts.10
Of Dante’s teachers he remembered most gratefully Brunetto Latini, who, returning from France, had shortened his French encyclopedia, Tresor, into an Italian Tesoretto; from him Dante learned come l’uom s’eterna—how man immortalizes himself.11 Dante must have studied Virgil with especial delight; he speaks of the Mantuan’s bel stilo; and what other student has so loved a classic as to follow its author through hell? Boccaccio tells of Dante being at Bologna in 1287. There or elsewhere the poet picked up so much of the sorry science and miraculous philosophy of his time that his poem became top-heavy with his erudition. He learned also to ride, hunt, fence, paint, and sing. How he earned his bread we do not know. In any case he was admitted to cultured circles, if only through his friendship with Cavalcanti. In that circle he found many poets.
The most famous of all love affairs began when both Dante and Beatrice were nine years old. According to Boccaccio the occasion was a May Day feast in the home of Folco Portinari, one of the leading citizens of Florence. Little “Bice” was Folco’s daughter; that she was also Dante’s Beatrice is probable,12 but not close enough to certainty to calm the doubts of the meticulous. We know of this first meeting only through the idealized description written by Dante nine years later in the Vita nuova:
Her dress on that day was of a most noble color, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as suited with her very tender age. At that moment I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi [Behold a deity stronger than I, who, coming, will rule me]…. From that time forward Love quite governed my soul.13
A lad nearing puberty is ripe for such a trembling; most of us have known it, and can look back upon “calf love” as one of the most spiritual experiences of our youth, a mysterious awakening of body and soul to life and sex and beauty and our individual incompleteness, and yet with no conscious hunger of body for body, but only a shy longing to be near the beloved, to serve her, and hear her speak, and watch her modest grace. Give the male soul such sensitivity as Dante’s—a man of passion and imagination—and such a revelation and ripening might well remain a lifelong memory and stimulus. He tells us how he sought opportunities to see Beatrice, if only to gaze unseen upon her. Then he seems to have lost sight of her until, nine years later, when they were eighteen,
it happened that the same wonderful lady appeared to me dressed all in pure white, between two gentle [i.e., highborn] ladies elder than she. And passing through a street, she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed; and by her unspeakable courtesy … she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of blessedness…. I parted thence as one intoxicated…. Then, for that I had myself in some sort the art of discoursing with rhyme, I resolved on making a sonnet.14
So, if we may believe his account, was born his sequence of sonnets and commentaries known as La vita nuova, The New Life. At intervals in the next nine years (1283–92) he composed the sonnets, and later added the prose. He sent one sonnet after another to Cavalcanti, who preserved them and now became his friend. The whole romance is in some measure a literary artifice. The poems are spoiled for our changed taste by their fanciful deification of Love in the manner of the troubadours, by the long scholasticdissertations that interpret them, and by a number mysticism of threes and nines-, we must discount these infections of the time.
Love saith concerning her: “How chanceth it
That flesh, which is of dust, should be thus pure?”
Then, gazing always, he makes oath: “For sure,
This is a creature of God till now unknown.”
She hath that paleness of the pearl that’s fit
In a fair woman, so much and not more.
She is as high as nature and skill can soar;
Beauty is tried by her comparison.
Whatever her sweet eyes are turned upon,
Spirits of love do issue thence in flame,
Which through their eyes who then may look on them
Pierce to the heart’s deep chamber every one.
And in her smile Love’s image you may see;
Whence none can gaze upon her steadfastly.15
Some of the prose is more pleasing than the verse:
When she appeared in any place it seemed to me, by the hope of her excellent salutation, that there was no man mine enemy any longer; and such warmth of charity came upon me that most certainly in that moment I would have pardoned whosoever had done me an injury…. She went along crowned and clothed with humility … and when she had gone it was said by many: “This is not a woman, but one of the beautiful angels of heaven” … I say, of very sooth, that she showed herself so very gentle that she bred in those who looked upon her a soothing quiet beyond any speech.16
There is no thought, in this possibly artificial infatuation, of marriage with Beatrice. In 1289 she wedded Simone de’ Bardi, member of a rich banking firm. Dante took no notice of so superficial an incident, but continued to write poems about her, without mentioning her name. A year later Beatrice died, aged twenty-four, and the poet, for the first time naming her, mourned her in a quiet elegy:
Beatrice is gone up into high heaven,
The kingdom where the angels are at peace,
And lives with them, and to her friends is dead.
Not by the frost of winter was she driven
Away, like others, nor by summer heats;
But through a perfect gentleness instead.
For from the lamp of her meek lowlihead
Such an exceeding glory went up hence
That it woke wonder in the Eternal Sire,
Until a sweet desire
Entered Him for that lovely excellence,
So that He bade her to Himself aspire,
Counting this weary and most evil place
Unworthy of a thing so full of grace.17
In another poem he pictured her surrounded with homage in paradise. “After writing this sonnet,” he tells us,
it was given unto me to behold a very wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this blessed one until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labor all I can, as she well knoweth. Wherefore, if it be His pleasure through Whom is the life of all things, that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman. After the which may it seem good unto Him Who is the Master of Grace, that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory of its lady, to wit, of that blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance.
So, in the concluding words of his little book, he laid his sights for a greater one; and “from the first day that I saw her face in this life, until this vision” with which he ends the Paradiso, “the sequence of my song was never cut.”18 Rarely has any man, through all the tides and storms in his affairs, charted and kept so straight a course.