Exploring Dante Alighieri’s Deep Cuts

Over the extended winter break, a group of classmates and I engaged in an unofficial four week medieval studies course. In week two, we tackled Dante’s Vita Nuova, the precursor to his famed Commedia. I sat down eagerly to read the first chapter:

“In that part of the book of my memory before which there would be little to read is found a chapter heading which says: ‘Here begins a new life’. It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading—if not all of them at least their significance.”

My heart leapt upon reading these words, recalling similar sentiments echoed by Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and countless others whose inspirational conversions have stood the test of time. “Here begins a new life”— what could this new life be?

And then came the next chapter: 

“Nine times already since my birth the heaven of light had circled back to almost the same point when the now glorious lady of my mind first appeared to my eyes. She was called Beatrice.”

Oh no. For those familiar with the Divine Comedy, you’ll know Beatrice as Dante’s long lost love (alternatively, the apple of his eye, the one who got away, the love of his life, etc. etc.) who leads him through heaven. Strangely, Dante and Beatrice never married, and the poet even had a wife of his own—Gemma Donati. It’s… complicated. 

What’s even more complicated is the remaining 40 chapters of the book with their singular focus on Dante’s obsession with Beatrice. The chapters consist mainly of poems that Dante had previously written set alongside new explanations showing how all the poems were really about Beatrice. (“Can’t you see that all this time I was secretly madly in love with her?”) At one point, Dante describes the experience of passing her on the street as one of pure bliss, saying that “whenever and wherever she appeared, in anticipation of her marvellous greeting, I held no man my enemy, and there burned within me a flame that consumed all past offences; and during this time if anyone had asked me about anything, my answer, with face free of all pride, could only have been ‘Love’.” How repulsive.

Surely, this man was a one hit wonder. Vita Nuova is nothing more than a mushy-gushy (and a little bit creepy) narrative of a married man’s obsession with a woman. Or maybe there’s more (and maybe my sarcasm is a bit heavy-handed).

In On Loving God (another must-read Medieval work), Bernard of Clairvaux describes love of God as a progression. He writes: “Since we are carnal and born of concupiscence of the flesh, our cupidity or love must begin with the flesh, and when this is set in order, our love advances by fixed degrees, led on by grace, until it is consummated in the spirit.” Dante’s love of Beatrice is carnal, yes, but that carnality acts as the building block of Dante’s love for Christ.

As Vita Nuova progresses, so does Dante’s love for Beatrice. It certainly seems that Dante’s unreciprocated love begins as a child-like infatuation, but by the time Dante is a young man, he cannot separate Beatrice from God from the concept of love itself. Just before Beatrice dies, Dante reflects on the possibility of her death, simultaneously blessing God and elevating Beatrice by writing “Blessed is he who sees you, lovely soul!” Already, he recognizes that his corporeal love for Beatrice does nothing more than point his eyes heavenwards, to God our creator.

After Beatrice dies, Dante imagines himself in heaven as a lowly soul, a pilgrim spirit: “When it [Dante’s soul] has reached the place of its desiring, / it sees a lady held in reverence, / splendid in light, and through her radiance / the pilgrim spirit gazes at her being.” This image instantly calls to mind Dante the Pilgrim catching a glimpse of his heavenly home in Paradiso, the concluding cantica of the Divine Comedy. In the last chapter of Vita Nuova, Dante gives us even more of a hint of what is to come in his later work. He speaks of a miraculous vision, “in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one [Beatrice] until I would be capable of writing about her in a more worthy fashion.” He then concludes the chapter by speaking of his own death in a most unusual way:

“And then may it please that One who is the Lord of Graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of his lady, that is, of the blessed Beatrice, who in glory gazes upon the countenance of the One who is through all ages blessed.”

It is here that Dante’s love shifts from Beatrice to God—from the carnal to the spiritual. In Paradiso, when Dante finally reunites with Beatrice, he looks at Beatrice not as one to be loved in herself, but one to be loved because she is “the lady leading me to God.” Her beauty is radiant not because it is the beauty of Beatrice, but because the “Eternal Loveliness” that shines on her reflects off her pure eyes and body. 

The Vita Nuova is indeed a great conversion story, as the first chapter suggests. It is the story of a man whose carnal love slowly, but by fixed degrees, moves higher and higher until, at long last, it is for Christ alone—“the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” As all deep cuts do, the Vita Nuova paints a fuller picture of the artist. Dante is so much more than the wandering poet who mystically explores the life to come; he is a man who loves, thinks, and feels intensely. He is a man who, through great struggle and suffering, learns how to love God.

John Burke is a junior from St. Louis double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. John in a bad mood is almost assuredly a result of St. Louis Cardinals bullpen problems. He can be reached (on non-game days) at jburke23@nd.edu.