Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), an English artist and scholar, painted these scenes of an encounter between the famous poet, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), and his muse, Beatrice Portinari. The paintings were inspired by a passage from Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life), which describes the poet’s early interactions with the woman who would leave a great impact on his literature. In particular, the painted scenes re-create the first time that the two spoke to each other—an occurrence that allegedly happened when both were eighteen years old. Dante emotionally described the event:
“[Beatrice] appeared to me dressed all in pure white, between two gentle ladies elder than she. And passing through a street, she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed: and by her unspeakable courtesy, which is now guerdoned in the Great Cycle, she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of blessedness. The hour of her most sweet salutation was exactly the ninth of that day; and because it was the first time that any words from her reached mine ears, I came into such sweetness that I parted thence as one intoxicated” (La Vita Nuova, fourth paragraph).
Curiously, despite Dante Alighieri’s obsession with Beatrice, he had little physical interaction with her, especially in the way of courtship. In fact, at the time of the scene quoted above, Dante was already engaged to his future bride, Gemma Donati, with whom he had been betrothed since 1277. Regardless of the distance between Dante and his muse, the beauty of Beatrice and her tragic young death in 1290 (at the age of 24) became a life-long font of artistic inspiration for the poet. The name of Beatrice, likely to the chagrin of Gemma Donati, made many appearances in the decades-long literary career of Dante. Beatrice’s most famous cameo in the poet’s writings was her role in The Divine Comedy, where the ghost of Beatrice leads Dante through purgatory and into paradise.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, translated by Henry F. Cary in the Harvard Classics series, edited by Charles W. Eliot, and published by P. F. Collier & Son (1909, 1937).
- The New Life by Dante Alighieri and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey, 1899.