If the “Vita Nuova” had been the only major work Dante had made, this work alone would have earned him the reputation as a great poet of Western Civilization.
It is well-known that Dante is one of the greatest poets in Western Civilization. His magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, is considered one of the crowning achievements of humanity, a masterpiece that reveals something significant to us about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. To repurpose the words of Roger Kimball, Dante’s writing is “the fruit of a confident mastery, like The Tempest or Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet.” His writing contains the kind of alluring beauty that draws us out of this world to gaze, like Dante himself did, into the highest heavens. In an age where the great men and women of the past are often forgotten, we can say with joy that Dante is still, centuries later, one of the bright lights of the West.
Generally remembered for his journey through the spiritual cosmos, it is less well-known today that Dante is the author of a great love story. The story of which I speak is the one between Beatrice and Dante himself as it is told in the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy. Therefore, it is to this love story that I would like to turn our attention. As I tell this story, it will be evident that we can still learn much from it, especially about the nature of love and the ability it has to bring grace. Dante’s insight on the nature of love is especially needed today, decades after the onslaught of the Sexual Revolution that rejected the Christian understanding of love.
In the Vita Nuova, Dante told the story of his admiration for a Florentine woman named Beatrice. When seeing her for the first time at the age of nine, Dante fell in love, and he remained in love for the rest of his life. Years later, Beatrice died at the young age of twenty-four and Dante fell into a deep sadness. Wanting to immortalize the love of his life, Dante composed 31 poems and surrounding commentary in Beatrice’s memory. Alternating between prose and verse, Dante wrote in the vein of Boethius, one of his intellectual heroes and the author of one of his favorite books, The Consolation of Philosophy. If the Vita Nuova had been the only major work Dante had made, this work alone would have earned him the reputation as a great poet of Western Civilization.
In the Vita Nuova, Dante cautiously borrowed from the medieval concept of courtly love to convey his admiration for Beatrice. As Mitchell Kalpakgian points out, the concept of courtly love departed in many ways from the perennial wisdom found in the great books of Western Civilization and the teachings of the Church. In many ways, it was an untraditional and radical concept. Kalpakgian points out that medieval courtly love viewed marriage as something unromantic, an old-fashioned and boring arrangement that lacks the mystique of erotic passion. Courtly love would often find its fulfillment in forbidden and adulterous relationships as depicted in the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. In this way, it challenged Christian teachings on love and marriage.
Recognizing this full well, Dante was careful in the way that he used the concept to tell the story of his love for Beatrice. He used the concept only to the extent that it served his purposes as a poet, and he was careful to distance himself from the most problematic aspects of this literary tradition. Within the pages of the Vita Nuova, he suggested that love happened without him even expecting it. To echo the now popular phrase, he fell in love at first glance, and it is this love that directed his efforts as a poet. The influence of the courtly love tradition on Dante’s La Vita Nuova in this regard is clear.
However, even during his early years as a writer, Dante avoided the extremes of courtly love. In particular, Dante emphasized that he still had, even in the midst of his passionate love for Beatrice, the guiding light of human reason at his disposal. Not allowing his appetites to overpower his reason, Dante was able to act in accord with the moral law. In this way, Dante’s love in the Vita Nuova was not of a physical or adulterous nature. His love was passionate and poetic, to be sure, but it was not a slave to the sexual appetite. Dante made clear that the untraditional and immoral aspects of courtly love — passion, secrecy, and adultery — had no place in his love with Beatrice. He made clear that he “never allowed Love to govern” him without the “faithful counsel of reason.” Consequently, Dante held that the faculties of the soul should be in proper alignment with reason always governing desire.
As a faithful Catholic and defender of the perennial wisdom of the Western tradition, Dante knew that true love is something morally elevating. It is not something that overwhelms reason. Love does not destroy us or make us miserable, as the courtly lovers so often asserted. It is no wonder that Robert Hollander suggests that Dante’s love for Beatrice can even be understood as “related to the physical and noumenal presence of Christ.” In this way, the poems found in theVita Nuova convey a love for Beatrice that helps Dante find Christ in a “new life.” Even the name of the poem calls to mind St. Paul’s frequent insistence of our conversion from an old life to a new one. Love, after all, calls us to conversion.
Eventually, in the midst of making the Vita Nuova, Dante abruptly stopped writing. After recording a vision of Beatrice in Heaven, Dante realized that his poetry was falling short of the kind of praise that Beatrice deserved. And it is no wonder why. If Dante really did love Beatrice as he claimed, then using an untraditional and dubious literary genre to convey this love will surely fall short. It was at this moment that Dante decided to no longer write of his “blessed lady” until he could do so more capably. Dante therefore ended the Vita Nuova as follows:
“After writing this sonnet a marvelous vision appeared to me, in which I saw things that made me decide not to say anything more about this blessed lady until I was capable of writing about her more worthily. To achieve this, I am doing all that I can, as surely she knows. So that, if it be pleasing to Him who is that for which all things live, and if my life is long enough, I hope to say things about her that have never been said about any woman.
Then, if it be pleasing to Him who is the Lord of benevolence and grace, may my soul go to contemplate the glory of its lady—that blessed Beatrice, who gazes in glory into the face of Him qui est per omnia secula benedictus.”
The telling of the love story between Dante and Beatrice momentarily ended, yet it would eventually reach its culmination years later in the Divine Comedy.
In Canto V of the Inferno, Dante does something important with the characters Francesca and Paulo. This canto can be interpreted as either distancing himself from the worst excesses of courtly love or questioning the efficacy of the entire literary genre. Either way, though, we see a transformation from courtly to sacred in the way that Dante depicts his admiration for Beatrice. At this point in the Inferno, it is told that Francesca and Paulo fell into a sinful lust after reading the courtly love tale of Sir Lancelot. With tears flowing from her eyes, Francesca tells the pilgrim Dante how she fell into sin:
“One day we read, to pass the time away,
of Lancelot, of how we fell in love;
we were alone, innocent of suspicion.
Time and again our eyes were brought together
by the book we read; our faces flushed and paled.
To the moment of one line alone we yielded:
it was when we read about those longed-for lips
now being kissed by such a famous lover,
that this one (who shall never leave my side)
then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.”
In accordance with courtly love, Francesca depicts love as a compulsive force that cannot be resisted. Dante, to a certain extent, might agree, as is evident from his early commitment to the literary tradition of courtly love. However, Dante would not therefore suggest that, as a result, it is acceptable for a person to allow the passion of love to overcome reason. After all, a storm of lustful appetites cannot properly be called love. Canto V of the Inferno teaches us that love can be passionate, but it must be in accordance with right reason and morality. It cannot lead us, as it did Francesca and Paulo, into lustful and immoral acts. True love does not swirl us up and down, back and forth, in a violent storm of passion. Love cannot be separated from truth. Contrary to Francesca and her many followers in the post Sexual Revolution world, true love is not lustful. Our current hookup culture would do well to take note.
The morally elevating power of love is conveyed by Dante at the end of the Purgatorio and throughout the Paradiso. We can perhaps say that Dante’s love as presented in the Vita Nuova transforms into something higher and purer in The Divine Comedy. Dante’s love takes on such a grace-filled and morally elevating nature that only a thoroughly Christian imagination can possibly capture it. A love that was previously described in a courtly manner is now, after years of growth as a writer, described in a sacred manner. His love is so great that it took the entire Christian theology of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to capture it. Hans Urs von Balthasar makes this point:
“It is true that the figure of the beloved is enriched with symbolic content, but it would be ridiculous to maintain that she is only a symbol or allegory—of what? of faith? of theology? of the vision of God? Only dusty academics could fall for something as abstruse as that. No, the figure of the beloved is a young Florentine girl of flesh and blood. Why should a Christian man not love a woman for all eternity and allow himself to be introduced by that woman to a full understanding of what ‘eternity’ means? And why should it be so extraordinary – ought one not rather to expect it – that such a love needs, for its total fulfillment, the whole of theology and Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell?”
It is no wonder that the entrance of Beatrice is the climax of the Purgatorio. In fact, Beatrice plays a critical role in the overall plot of the Divine Comedy. When the pilgrim Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood, it is Beatrice who approaches Virgil and asks him to lead Dante back to safety. Struck by her beauty, Virgil does exactly as he is commanded. Soon thereafter, when Virgil has led Dante as far as he can go, he vanishes, and Beatrice becomes the new guide.
In addition, throughout the entire journey, it is at several points his love for Beatrice that encourages him to go on. When Dante descends into the miserable and hideous darkness of Hell, he does so because a journey downward is necessary to soar upward with Beatrice in Heaven. He must make his descent so that he can see Beatrice again, as love is inextricably connected to suffering and sacrifice. It requires us, at times, to go where we do not want to go. Soon thereafter, when Dante is suffering up Mount Purgatory, he does so in hopes of seeing Beatrice again.
As the woman whom Dante loved in real life, Beatrice is depicted as representing Christian revelation. She is both a real woman and a symbol, and she is only an effective symbol because she was a real woman. It is as if Beatrice, the love of his life, helped reveal God to him. It is as if she showed him a glimpse of eternity when she was alive, and as a result she is his guide through eternity throughout the poem. Throughout the Paradiso, therefore, Dante only has to look at Beatrice in order to ascend closer to God. Dante looks at Beatrice, and Beatrice looks into the highest heavens. Dante then sees reflected in Beatrice’s eyes, as in mirrors, the highest heaven above them both.
As we continue to recognize the greatness of Dante and his Divine Comedy, perhaps we can add this love story to one of the reasons for his greatness and enduring relevance today. In his own time, Dante was able to reject the worst of the culture around him — namely, the excesses of courtly love. At the same time, he was able to draw with great skill from the wisdom of the Western tradition and the teachings of the Church on the nature of love. In this way, Dante was concerned with the ways his cultural heritage could be preserved and renewed. May we, too, reject the worst excesses of our post-Sexual Revolution culture that has made marriage into a mere contract and sex into a mere consensual activity. Finally, may we rediscover and preserve with Dante the kind of love that brings a person closer to God — the kind that requires the whole theology of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to totally convey.
This essay was first published here in September 2021.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 These words were accurately used to describe Josef Pieper, but they are also quite applicable to Dante. For context, see Roger Kimball, “Josef Pieper: Leisure and its Discontents,” The New Criterion 17, no. 5 (January 1999), 23-24.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume III: Lay Styles, trans. Andrew Louth, John Saward, Martin Simon, and Rowan Williams (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 31-32.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.