Jacques Maritain Center: Dante and the Blessed Virgin / by Ralph McInerny


A New Life Begins

La donna gentile: The gentle lady

The Blessed Virgin Mary is the key to Dante. We find her there behind the scenes at the very beginning of the Commedia, since it is her compassion for the wandering poet that sets the great journey in motion, through intermediaries; we find her there at the end in the magnificent closing cantos of the Paradiso, the very gate of heaven. And, as we shall see, her role becomes ever more explicit throughout the great poem. In the Vita Nuova, an earlier work of Dante, Mary is present as the object of the young Beatrice’s devotion, a devotion that is contagious, although it is difficult to think that Dante was ever entirely devoid of it. With his love for Beatrice, for her beauty, and for her virtue, that devotion intensifies, and after her death -- not immediately, to be sure, but only after and despite dalliance with another woman, whom he treats as a mere bagatelle in the Vita Nuova{1} and puts to allegorical purpose in another earlier work, the Convivio -- his love for Beatrice finally emerges in his great poem as the means of his salvation. Lost in a dark wood, threatened by the beasts within him, he acknowledges that after Beatrice’s death he had fallen into vices that endangered his soul. In the Vita Nuova, his love for Beatrice is filtered through the requirements of courtly love and only gradually transcends them. In the Comedy, Beatrice’s role in Dante’s conversion, in is salvation, is given immortal expression.

        So isn’t it Beatrice, not Mary who is the key to Dante? There are moments in the Vita Nuova when the two seem almost to fuse, and the reader feels uneasiness at certain descriptions of Dante’s beloved in which the devotee is almost identified with the object of her devotion. The two women are inseparably linked, and in the Comedy they will be joined with another, St. Lucy; Dante scholars will write of the tre donne, the three women, and for good reason, as we shall see. But the preeminence of Mary is never in doubt. To call Mary Dante’s alpha and omega would be too much, of course: her role is always that of a mediatrix. It is in her Son, her spouse, her creator, that Dante’s heart will find its rest. At the end of the Comedy, Dante, thanks to Mary’s intercession, is given a glimpse of the Trinity, of the “love that moves the sun and other stars,” and returns to recount his journey. The Divine Comedy is the poetic expression of the journey any sinner must make if he would realize his very reason for being.{2}

        The sublimation of Dante’s love for Beatrice in the Vita Nuova and the poet’s transfiguration of his beloved might tempt us to think that the role of Mary, too, is largely a poetic device. There have been quarrels among scholars as to whether the Beatrice of the Vita was an actual historical person, since the young woman can so easily be interpreted in terms of various abstractions. Did the Beatrice of the Vita have any actual Florentine counterpart? The answer is Yes, but the tendency to allegorize her out of existence is not unfounded. That in turn may suggest that the Mary of Dante’s great poem is also a pardonable poetic exaggeration, a Florentine excess. It would be a profound mistake to think so.

        The Blessed Virgin of the Comedy is the Blessed Virgin of Christian faith. One of the unfortunate and doubtless unintended effects of the Reformation has been to create among many believers suspicion as to Mary’s role in the plan of salvation. What need have we for any mediator but Christ himself? Devotion to Mary is thought to intrude between the soul and God, or to divert the soul in its journey to God. It is a commonplace that many converts found the Catholic emphasis on Mary a great obstacle to be overcome. John Henry Newman -- I am tempted to say, even John Henry Newman -- felt this for a time.

        Dante has softened this suspicion for many enabling them to regard Mary as a character in a poem so that disbelief could be suspended for the nonce. But the Mary of the poem never speaks except in words taken from the Gospels, and she is no more an invention or a mere device than are Hell and Purgatory and Heaven. Whatever Dante says of her is grounded in Scripture, the Church fathers, the great doctors of the Church in the Middle Ages, and in the liturgy, art, and music of the Church. If that doctrine, that Mariology has been lost or attenuated for us, Dante provides a powerful means of recovering it. Any reader who has fears to be allayed should consider these words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “There is no doubt that whatever we offer in praise of the Mother, pertains to the Son; and, when we honor the Son, we do not take away from the glory of the Mother. For if, The wise son is the glory of the father, as Solomon says, how much more glorious does that make the mother of Wisdom?”{3}

Incipit Vita Nova

If we know nothing else about Dante, we know him as the author of the Divine Comedy. This great poem, however, is the culmination of a writing career that began with lyric poems in the Provençal or troubadour tradition. In the Vita Nuova, he gathers some of those poems into an account that is deceptively simple -- on the surface.

        It is not uncommon for a poet, particularly a lyric poet, to make himself the subject of his poetry. Nonetheless, any reader will be initially struck by the confidence with which Dante regards himself as a mirror of the human condition. His life is not a random sequence of events but an intelligible story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

        That Dante draws selectively on his memory is clear from the opening lines of the Vita Nuova. the memories to be recalled are governed by the event when “a new life begins” Incipit Vita Nova), the Latin rubric under which the book is written and which provides the title (in Italian, Vita Nuova) of the little book. It is an ingenious interplay of prose and verse. The poems may have antedated the composition of the book, but they are so deftly folded into the narrative as to make a whole, and we are invited to take the poems as contemporary comments on the prosaic events.

        The structure of the book can be discerned in the arrangement of the poems on which Dante, remembering, comments. Dante is at once a personage in the narrative and the narrator; as the latter, he seeks the meaning of his love for Beatrice. Of the thirty-one poems that alternate with prose, thirty are either sonnets or odes (canzoni) and one is a ballad. This arrangement is not random, and the prose sections underscore this fact.

        The opening paragraph, later referred to as the prologue, is this:

In quella parte del libro della mia memoria dinanzi alla quale poco si potrebbe leggere, si trova una rubric la quale dice Incipit Vita Nova. Sotto la quale rubric io trovo scripte le parole le quali è mio intendimento d’assemplare in questo libello, e se non tutte, almeno la loro sententia. (VN 1.1)
In the part of the book of my memory before which there is little legible there is a rubric which says, A New Life Begins. Under this rubric I find written words whose meaning it is my intention to set forth in this little book, if not all of them, at least their substance.

        The next sentence begins with nove, nine, the number that is “friendly to Beatrice” and whose function is far more theological than numerological. Nine = 3 x 3, and 3 is the number of the Trinity. The prominence of nine is clear in the opening chapter, which tells of the author’s first meeting with Beatrice. It is the basis of Dante’s calling Beatrice a miracle. Dante’s story in the opening chapter is well known. At the age of nine, he sees Beatrice (la gloriosa donna de la mia mente) for the first time, herself just beginning her ninth year. She is humble and honest, dressed as befits her age, and of course, beautiful (although, as has been pointed out, Dante never calls her beautiful in the physical sense: his infatuation, his love, goes deeper than that). His reaction is seismic.{4} He trembles, he is shaken, and he switches to Latin. “Ecce Deus fortiori me, qui veniens dominabitur michi!” (Behold, here is a god stronger than I who is coming to dominate me!).

        The occurrence of occasional Latin sentences among the Italian is significant. First was Incipit Vita Nova and then the “Ecce Deus,” quickly followed by “Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra!” (Now appears your beatitude!) and “Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!” (Alas, how often I will be disturbed from now on!). It is as if these Latin sentences govern the Italian narrative; their meaning is of heightened importance. That Beatrice’s name is linked with beatitude, happiness, is underscored by the Latin beatitude. She did not seem to be the daughter of a mortal man, but of a god, Dante remarks, quoting Homer. As a mere boy, he sought out occasions when he might catch a glimpse of her. After telling us this, he states that he will not dwell on it because it might seem an exercise in fiction to ascribe such passions and actions to one so young. He will go on to what, in the book of memory, comes under more important headings. But first he makes clear that his love for Beatrice is not merely a thing of the passions; that love is always under the counsel and aegis of reason. That is, his feelings are governed by intelligence, not vice versa.

        Nine years after the first encounter with Beatrice he sees her again, clothed all in white and accompanied by two older ladies. She looks at him and greets him with indescribable courtesy, “which is now rewarded in a greater sphere.” This is our first overt clue that at the time of writing, Beatrice is already dead,{5} and thus there is narrative tension between what Dante the narrator knows and what the Dante who figures in the narration knows. It happened that it was the ninth hour of the day when Beatrice looked at him so tenderly.

        After this meeting and greeting, Dante, inebriated by the sweetness of her voice, repairs to his room where, in his sleep, he has a vision. An imposing figure appears, and of the many things he says, Dante recalls only “Ego dominus tuus” (I am thy God). The figure is the god of love, and he holds in his arms the sleeping figure of Beatrice, covered with a crimson cloth. The god also holds in his hand a fiery object and says to Beatrice, “Vide cor tuum.” Beatrice awakens, and the god has her eat Dante’s heart. Whereupon the god, grieving, ascends with the lady to heaven. Waking, Dante realized that all this has occurred in the fourth hour of the night, that is the first of the nine last hours of night. And then follows the first sonnet of the Vita Nuova, which Dante intends to show to his fellow poets, among them certainly his good friend Guido Cavalcanti.

A ciascun’alma presa e gentil core
nel cui cospecto ven lo dir presente,
in ciò che mi riscriva ‘n suo parvente,
salute in lor segnor, cioè Amore.
Già eran quasi che alterzate l’ore
del tempo che omne stella n’è lucent,
quando m’apparve Amor subitamente,
cui essenza membrar mi dà orrore.
Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo
meo core in mano, e nelle braccia avea
madonna involta in un drappo dormendo.
Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea.
Apresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.
(VN 1.21-23)

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation,

To every heart which the sweet pain doth move,
And unto which these words may now be brought
For true interpretation and kind thought,’
Be greeting in our Lord’s name, which is Love.
Of those long hours wherein the stars, above,
Wake and keep watch, the third was almost nought
When Love was shown me with such terrors fraught
As may not carelessly be spoke of.

He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had
My heart within his hand, and on his arm
My lady, with a mantle round her, slept;
Whom (having wakened her) anon he made
To eat that heart, she ate, as fearing harm.
Then he went out; and as he went, he wept.{6}

        We notice that the sonnet does not mention the god ascending toward heaven with Beatrice. At the time it was written, Dante did not realize the role his beloved was to play in the Comedy. His poem, like those of the poets whose thought on it he solicits, is written within the bounds of courtly love. And he reports that Guido’s reply, in a sonnet of his own, seals their friendship.

        As the narrative continues, the conventions of such verse continue. Dante finds himself in a room with Beatrice. When he gazes at her, another woman is in his line of sight, which misleads others as to the object of his affection. This screen lady, as she is called (Dante refers to her as a “screen to the truth”), will play her role for a time, enabling Dante to conceal that the true object of his love is Beatrice. Meanwhile, he composes a list of sixty women and, mirabile dictum, Beatrice’s name is ninth on the list. Then the screen lady leaves town and Dante writes a sonnet, seemingly addressed to her, but in truth addressed Beatrice.

        This sonnet begins in a way that must capture our attention: “O voi che per la via d’Amor passate, / attendete e guardate / s’elli è dolore alcun, quanto ‘l mio, grave” (O all ye who pass by the way of Love, look and see if there is any sorrow like unto mine). Lest we fail to recognize the allusion, Dante, in the prose explanation of the sonnet, directs us to the Prophet Jeremiah: “O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus” (O all ye who pass by the way, look and see if there is any sorrow like unto mine). Did the poet, when he wrote these words, simply pick them up from the Christian ambience and forget to what liturgical purpose they had been put? In the Vita Nuova he makes the biblical reference clear but not its application. These words of Jeremiah are attributed in the Catholic liturgy to the Blessed Virgin, the Mater Dolorosa, when she meets Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha. Doubtless the reader is meant to remember this liturgical use, and it is an indication of the significance to Dante of the life and death of Beatrice.

        As with certain descriptions of Beatrice, the reader is likely to feel uneasiness at the way in which this originally childish love becomes, in Dante’s recall, intertwined with references to Christ and to Mary. The account is posthumous, Beatrice is dead when it is written, but before her actual death in the narrative, Dante will dream it, will see her upon her deathbed, and when she dies will describe its cosmic effect by appeal to what happened when Our Lord died on the cross. And the lady of a friend in the Vita Nuova -- her name is Giovanna -- will be compared to John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, calling for repentance and preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Scholars call attention to the biblical echoes.{7}

        Few figures from the Gospel account impress themselves on the believer’s mind and imagination more than the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, namely John the Baptist. A surprising number of direct quotations from John are given us in the Gospels, and to the present day they have captivated writers, not least Albert Camus, whose judge penitent is named Jean-Baptiste Clamant. John the Baptist is a vox clamantis, a voice crying in the wilderness. Is the evocation by Dante merely a similar literary use? Or does it cut deeper than that?

        What are we to make of the Vita Nuova? It is a love story of course, but one which, in the manner of courtly love, seems to float free of possession. The actual Beatrice eventually married, but her husband is as unimportant to Dante as Daisy Buchanan’s was to Gatsby. (For that matter, Gemma, Dante’s wife, never makes it onto the page.){8} From the outset, the love that is celebrated is remarkably asexual. That could be accounted for by the troubadour tradition. The woman stirs the imagination and devotion of the man; she is seen as the embodiment of beauty, physical and spiritual. The flesh and blood woman is so transmuted by this intense sublimation that she can seem hardly more than an occasion for the poet to celebrate her. In Dante’s case, however, the sublimation echoes with scriptural allusions; the religious meaning is essential.

        Beatrice is presented as having a profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin, so much so that after her death Dante thinks of her as enthroned in heaven with Mary: “quando lo Signore della Justitia chiamòe questa gentilissima a gloriare sotto la ‘nsegna di quella Regina benedecta Maria, lo cui nome fue in grandissima reverenzia nelle parole di questa Beatrice beata” (when the Lord of Justice called this most gentle one to glory under the ensign of Mary that blessed Queen, whose name was ever spoken with the greatest reverence by that blessed Beatrice (VN 19.1). Dante’s reader grows accustomed to his way of intermingling the sacred and profane, the physical and spiritual, the temporal and eternal. We are not surprised that eventually he will find a kindred spirit in Bernard of Clairvaux, the austere yet passionate Cistercian, whose love for Mary may seem to the cynical the compensation of the celibate.

        The Vita Nuova is saturated with theological references. Our rather limited interest in it is the role Mary plays in this early work. The new life would seem to be the result of a conversion -- you shall have life, and that more abundantly. The role of Beatrice, at first the object of a young boy’s infatuation, evolves into a salvific one. She is Dante’s beatitude, the means of his turning to a concern for his eternal beatitude. Some scholars have stressed this evolution in terms of Dante’s changing understanding of his purpose as a poet. In the troubadour tradition, the beloved is the cause of pain. More importantly, as Charles Singleton has pointed out, the beloved seems an alternative to the lover’s true good.{9} Many troubadors ended their lives in monasteries, doing penance, as it were, for the loves they had celebrated. One is reminded of Chaucer’s Retractions in his Canterbury Tales, in which he expresses remorse that his works may have been occasions of sin to his readers.{10} But the troubadors were remorseful for their deviation from the true object of love, God. Singleton claims that Dante’s great achievement is to have recognized the rivalry of loves and to have solved it. When Dante turns to God, Beatrice remains. She is not an impediment; she is the facilitator of his salvation.

        The device of the “screen lady” in the Vita Nuova suggests a daring hypothesis. If another lady could provide the means of concealing Dante’s true love, could it be that Beatrice herself is something of a screen lady? Beatrice’s devotion to Mary and the description of her ascension into heaven at her death calls to mind Our Lady’s assumption into heaven.{11} As Guglielmo Gorni writes, “From her birth Beatrice was destined for heaven, precociously summoned to ‘glory under the ensign of Mary that blessed Queen.’”{12} And to Beatrice is applied the attribute par excellence of Mary, that is, gratia plena, full of grace. As Gorni also observes, “It is without doubt that in the Vita Nuova the similarity to Mary works in tandem with that of Beatrice as figure of Christ.”{13}

        Thus, without in any way calling into question the historical reality of Beatrice, we find in the Vita Nuova a progressive understanding of the role she plays for Dante. Things said about her make it clear that she is a figure both of Christ and of Mary. In that sense, it does not seem fanciful to think of her as a screen lady. At the end of the Vita, Dante realizes that he must now speak of her in quite a different way than he had in the earlier poems that the little book incorporates. His understanding of the kind of poet he must become is integral to this realization. He will become a theological poet.

        In keeping with the interpretation that Dante now views himself as a new kind of poet, the Vita Nuova ends with a memorable resolution. Dante is dissatisfied with what he has accomplished. He longs to celebrate his love for Beatrice more adequately, but in order to do that a good deal more is required of him. After the last sonnet he writes:

Apresso questo sonetto apparve a me una mirabile vision, nella quale io vidi cose che mi fecero proporre di non dire più di questa benedecta infino a tanto che io potessi piu degnamente tractare di lei. E di venire a ciò io studio quanto posso, si com’ella sae, veracemente. Si che, se piacere sarà di Colui a cui tutte le cose vivono, che la mia vita duri per alquanti anni, io spero di dire di lei quello che mai non fue detto d’alcuna. E poi piaccia a colui che è sire della cortesia che la mia anima sen possa gire a vedere la gloria della sua donna, cioè di quella benedecta Beatrice, la quale gloriosamente mira nella faccia di Colui “qui est per omnia secula benedictus.” (VN 31) After this sonnet a wonderful vision came to me, in which I saw things which caused me to resolve to say nothing further of this blessed one in order that I might more worthily treat of her. To that end, I study as much as possible, as she truly knows. Accordingly, should it please Him by whom all things live that my life endure for some years, I hope to say of her what has never been said of any woman. May it then be pleasing to Him who is Lord of courtesy that my soul may go and see the glory of that lady. that is of the blessed Beatrice, who looks gloriously on the face of Him who is forever and ever blessed.

        Who will not see in this promissory note the intention to write the Commedia? Alas, matters are blurred by the fact that Dante’s next major work was the Convivio, not the Commedia. In the Convivio we are told that Dante has devoted himself to thirty months of study in the religious houses of Florence, that is, in the house of study of the Franciscans., Santa Croce, and that of the Dominicans, Santa Maria Novella.{14} The Convivio as we have it is a large work, and if its plan had been carried to completion, it would have been massive. But it was left incomplete. Why?

        Dante in the Convivio had set himself the task of putting into the vernacular language the Latin learning he had acquired in the schools of philosophy and theology, to make it accessible to non-scholars, both in prose and poetry. We notice that he assumes the role of mediator between the learned and simple. The Convivio, however, does not wear its learning lightly. Did Dante come to doubt the effectiveness of what he was writing? Did he repent of portraying himself as one who had transcended his love for Beatrice in order to devote himself to philosophy and theology? Did he remember the resolution with which the Vita Nuova ends and conceive a more effective way of fulfilling it, a way that would eschew prose and rely on poetry alone? This is speculative, to be sure, but so are all other accounts of why the Convivio was left unfinished. In any case, the idea of the Commedia was born. The intention to speak of Beatrice as no woman has ever been spoken of before returned. Dante had prayed for time to fulfill that intention. His prayer was answered. The result was the most magnificent poem ever written, one with immediate charm for any reader but also one replete with allusions to the knowledge he had gained, and with lore to keep scholars busy. The sheer bulk of Dante studies make it impossible for anyone to profit from more than a fraction of them.

        Conscious of the difficulties of the task, let us now follow the thread that binds it all together, the role of the Blessed Virgin in Dante’s life and in the poem.

{1} That Beatrice does not share this view is clear from Purgatorio 30 and 31, where she chides Dante for his fickleness.

{2} Calling the great poem the Divine Comedy is established usage, even though Dante himself never referred to it in that way, but simply as the Commedia.

{3} Super Missus Est, Homilia IV, 1; Sancti Bernardi Opera Omnia, ed. Mabillon (Paris, 1839), vol. 1, Tomus tertius, 1694.

{4} VN 2. In Dante Alighieri, Vita Nova, a cura Luca Carlo Rossi, Introduzione Guglielmo Gorni (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1999). Hereafter, Rossi, Vita Nova.

{5} Dante also introduced her as la gloriosa donna (“in glory,” that is, in Paradise).

{6} Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in The Portable Dante, ed. Paolo Milano (New York: Viking Penguin, 1969), pp. 550-51.

{7} See for example, Rossi’s commentary in Vita Nova, p. 13, on this passage. We are asked to think of Luke 3:16 and the words of John the Baptist: I indeed baptize you with water, but there comes one stronger than I.”

{8} Beatrice died in 1290; Dante married Gemma in 1285.

{9} See Charles Singleton, An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1949), pp. 63-74.

{10} Who has ever been truly surprised by Chaucer’s Retractions, in which the maker of this book -- The Canterbury Tales -- takes his leave. “Wherefore I beseech you meekly for the mercy of God to pray for me, that Christ have mercy on me and forgive me my sins and especially for my translations and inditings of worldly vanities, which I revoke in my retractions as are the book of Troilus; also the book of Fame, the book of The Nineteen Ladies; the book of The Duchess; the book of St. Valentine’s Day of the Parliament of Fowls; The Tales of Canterbury, that that tend towards sin; the book of The Lion; and a lecherous lay; that Christ in his great mercy forgive me the sin.” Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, a new translation by Nevill Coghill (Balimore: Penguin Classics, 1952), p. 513.

{11} In his remarks prior to VN 19, Rossi, Vita Nova, p. 150, notes that only two persons have been raised body and soul into heaven, Christ and Mary. This is insisted on in the Paradiso, when St. John dismisses the legend that he too is in heaven body and soul.

{12} Gorni, in his introduction to Rossi, Vita Nova, p. xvi.

{13} Ibid., p. xviii.

{14} Dante tells us that this training cost him thirty months attendance in the schools of the religious and at philosophical disputations. In so short a time he came to savor the sweetness of wisdom which drove out all else. (Convivio 2.12).


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