Vita Nuova c. 1292
Dante's Vita Nuova transformed European vernacular poetry by widening its scope to matters far beyond the troubadours' traditional love lyrics. In writing it, Dante also transformed himself from an occasional, if accomplished, composer of love poems into a serious poet devoted to his craft. Starting out as a rather haphazard collection of poems inspired by Dante's love for a woman he called Beatrice and written in the dolce stil nuovo, the extensive prose commentaries in the Vita Nuova recount the process by which Dante's feelings for Beatrice were converted into an intensely felt religious outlook.
Dante Alighieri, the son of an impoverished nobleman of ancient lineage, wrote the Vita Nuova around 1292, when he was in his late twenties, during a period of impassioned study and self-reflection. The years of its composition are bracketed by his participation in the civic affairs of Florence. In 1289 Dante rode into pitched battle at Campaldino, where the Florentines defeated the Aretines, their commercial rivals. In 1295 he joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries so as to participate in the administration of Florence, which was then governed by the guilds. He later became one of the council of six priors, and his political prominence prompted the exile that left an indelible mark on the Divina Commedia. But neither his battle experience nor his interest in the governing of the city are as much as hinted at in the Vita Nuova. Here, Dante maintains a very narrow focus on his love for Beatrice, the poetry it inspired, and the religious experience it gave rise to. How reliable the book is as autobiography, however, is not entirely clear.
Plot and Major Characters
The story of the Vita Nuova begins in Dante's childhood, when, at the age of nine, he first glimpsed Beatrice, herself eight years old. Struck by her beauty, he fell in love. Nine years later he sees her again, and when she greets him his love is confirmed. However, in good troubadour fashion, Beatrice is forever beyond his reach: she marries and then dies a few years later. Her death occasions a crisis in Dante's life and gives birth to poetry that will eventually lead to a religious and poetic conversion. After Beatrice's death, Dante temporarily consoles himself with a more casual love for a woman referred to only as donna gentile, or gentle lady. Upon reflection, Dante comes to understand this infatuation as a betrayal of Beatrice's memory, and ultimately the incident only serves to confirm his devotion and transform earthly love into a religious experience. Whether Beatrice really existed and whether it matters, has been a topic of some debate, but she is generally identified as Beatrice Portinari, a daughter of a nobleman, who married Simone de' Bardi and died young. Undoubtedly the most important character in the book is Dante himself, and the few events he recounts give rise to the intense self-reflection that was to shape his future as a poet.
The Vita Nuova has inspired centuries of critical debate regarding its true subject. Although ostensibly the autobiographical account of Dante's love for Beatrice, the story has struck generations of critics as difficult to take literally, in part because Beatrice is conspicuously absent from the story. Some critics explain that this state of affairs strikes the modern reader as odd because Dante's sensibility is so far removed from ours. Others maintain that the Vita Nuova is not in fact a love story at all, but rather a mystical affirmation of Dante's religious convictions, or a treatise on poetry focusing on Dante's transcendence of Provençal models and his transformation of vernacular love poetry into a far loftier vehicle of contemplation. Despite such disagreements, however, it is safe to say that love, poetry, and religious experience are the overarching themes of the book, while its main theme is the relationship between them.
The Divina Commedia was received to great acclaim upon its publication, and the Vita Nuova has long basked in its reflected glory. Criticism has almost invariably been positive, although an occasional critic has taken exception to its sensibility, finding in it an overwrought imagination and sensitivity unbecoming a great poet. In later centuries, as the worldview of the poem has grown more foreign to their understanding, critics have found the Vita Nuova more enigmatic and have become more inclined to delve beneath its surface. Although still a favorite with younger readers, the love story tends to strike older readers as too trivial for a poet of Dante's stature. As a result, many have proposed that Beatrice is a symbol, although what she might be a symbol of is not very clear. The story of Dante's love for her is often taken as an allegory, particularly by critics reading the book in the light of Dante's later work. This strategy is supported by the fact that Dante himself gives a revisionist commentary on the Vita Nuova in the Convivio, which was written some ten or more years later. The more clearly allegorical Divina Commedia, in which Beatrice also plays a prominent role, has too worked to reinforce some critics' denials of the literal significance of the Vita Nuova.
Principal English Translations
Dante and the Circle of His Friends (includes Vita Nuova; translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)1861
Vita Nuova (translated by Theodore Martin) 1862
Vita Nuova (translated by Ralph Waldo Emerson) 1882?
Vita Nuova (translated by Charles Eliot Norton) 1892
Vita Nuova: Poems of Youth (translated by Barbara Reynolds) 1969
Vita Nuova (edited by Mark Musa) 1992
Vita Nuova (translated by Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta) 1995
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SOURCE: "The New Life of Dante," in Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 23, 1983, pp. 52-68.
[In the following essay, origianlly written in 1859, Norton discusses the development of Dante's thought about Beatrice and the relationship of the Vita Nuova to his other works.]
The year 1289 was one marked in the annals of Florence and of Italy by events which are still famous, scored by the genius of Dante upon the memory of the world. It was in this year that Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were starved by the Pisans in their tower prison. A few months later, Francesca da Rimini was murdered by her husband. Between the dates of these two terrible events the Florentines had won the great victory of Campaldino; and thus, in this short space, the materials had been given to the poet for the two best-known and most powerful stories and for one of the most striking episodes of the Divina Commedia.
In the great and hard-fought battle of Campaldino Dante himself took part. "I was at first greatly afraid," he says, in a letter of which but a few sentences have been preserved, "but at the end I felt the greatest joy—according to the various chances of the battle." When the victorious army returned to Florence, a splendid procession, with the clergy at its head, with the arts of the city each under its banner, and with all manner of pomp, went out to...
(The entire section is 6083 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to Dante and His Circle: With the Italian Poets Preceeding Him, edited and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, revised edition, Roberts Brothers, 1893, pp. 1-24.
[In this introduction to his translation of the poem, Rossetti argues that the Vita Nuova laid the foundation for some of the most salient features of the Divina Commedia.]
The Vita Nuova (the Autobiography or Autopsychology of Dante's youth till about his twenty-seventh year) is already well known to many in the original, or by means of essays and of English versions partial or entire. It is, therefore, and on all accounts, unnecessary to say much more of the work here than it says for itself. Wedded to its exquisite and intimate beauties are personal peculiarities which excite wonder and conjecture, best replied to in the words which Beatrice herself is made to utter in the Commedia: "Questi fiu tal nella sue vita nuova." Thus then young Dante was. All that seemed possible to be done here for the work was to translate it in as free and clear a form as was consistent with fidelity to its meaning; to ease it, as far as possible, from notes and encumbrances; and to accompany it for the first time with those poems from Dante's own lyrical series which have reference to its events, as well as with such native commentary (so to speak) as might be afforded by the writings of those with whom...
(The entire section is 806 words.)
SOURCE: "The Symmetrical Structure of Dante's Vita Nuova," in PMLA, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1903, pp. 341-55.
[In this essay, McKenzie reviews the critical debate about the symmetrical arrangement of the lyrics of the Vita Nuova and argues that Dante's arrangement throws light on the process of composition.]
At the beginning of the Vita Nuova Dante tells us that he proposes to copy into the little book words which he finds written in the book of his memory under the rubric Incipit Vita Nova; thus he brought together lyrics that he had already written, and connected them by a narrative and analysis in prose. The Vita Nuova belongs, then, to the class of writings made up of alternating prose and verse. As in the case of the Convivio, this method of composition was perfectly natural under the circumstances; Dante doubtless intended to do for his own early poems what had been done for certain troubadours by the compilers of some of the Provençal anthologies, in which a prose biography is interspersed with specimens of the poet's verse. This has been pointed out by Pio Rajna [in Lo schema della Vita Nuova], who further suggests [in the article "Per le 'Divisioni' della Vita Nuova, in Strenna Dantesca, edited by Bacci and Passerini] that the analytical divisioni may have been modeled on certain works of St. Thomas. The prose...
(The entire section is 3797 words.)
SOURCE: "The Ethical and Political Background of the Divine Comedy," in Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and His Times, Vol. I, translated by William Cranston Lawton, 1929. Reprint by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958, pp. 175-354.
[In this excerpt from an essay originally written in 1907-10, Vossler examines the intensity of Dante's passion for Beatrice, which he considers too extreme to be accepted at face value.]
There is some ground for the surmise that Dante in early youth came into close relations with the Franciscans. His religious and political convictions and sentiments, which, as we have seen, were closely allied to the tendencies of the order; a tradition mentioned by the commentator Francesco da Buti (1354-1406), and current in the Franciscan order; a passage, somewhat dubious, to be sure, in the Commedia (Inferno, XVI, 106 sqq.), and finally, perhaps, the fact that the poet was buried beside the Church of St. Francis in Ravenna—all seem to point in that direction.
If it be taken for granted that Dante, perhaps at the age of fourteen, was sent to the school of the Minorite Brothers in Santa Croce in Florence, then this fertile conjecture serves to throw light on many obscure points and inconsistencies in the development of the poet's character. His upbringing in that school would undoubtedly have tended to a one-sided development of feeling and...
(The entire section is 1457 words.)
SOURCE: "The Character of the Vita Nuova," in Essays on the "Vita Nuova," 1929. Reprinted by Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1965, pp. 163-228.
[In this essay, Shaw, repudiating the generally accepted view that the Vita Nuova is an allegory, proposes an interpretation based on a literal reading of the historical events recounted in the narrative.]
That a boy of nine should fall ecstatically in love will always seem impossible to those who cannot imagine it, and with them argument is superfluous, nor will they be persuaded even by the citation of historically authentic examples. Those, however, whose imagination presents the matter as not impossible may be asked to consider that a love of the particular kind in question is more likely to have its beginnings before the age of fourteen than after. A little boy who, like Dante, may have passed his first years without any intimate acquaintance with girls, and who is, in his innocence, ignorant of the physiological nature of the attraction of sex, may be astonishingly affected by the apparition of a graceful and otherwise charming little girl, who is likely to seem to him an inexplicably dazzling creature. A powerful impression made at such an early age may be preserved and develop in after years, especially if the two never come to know one another well and if the little girl grows to be a gracious young lady, whom the young man is able to see every...
(The entire section is 7209 words.)
SOURCE: "Vita Nuova," in An Essay on the "Vita Nuova," 1949. Reprinted by The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, pp. 78-109.
[In the following excerpt, Singleton examines the relationship between the Vita Nuova and Provençal love poetry, discerning that Dante's use of medieval mysticism in his book's conception of love distinguishes it from the Proven, cal tradition.]
The three visions foretelling the death of Beatrice all bear the mark of a number nine and point thus to special meaning in that number. They would seem also, by being three, to stress the presence of some special meaning for the root of nine as well. The poet's gloss on the death of Beatrice and on the number nine (chapter XXIX) does much to confirm this: three is the "factor" by itself of nine, three is the sign of the "factor" of miracles which is the Holy Trinity.
Furthermore, it is precisely in terms of a number three that the center of the Vita Nuova may be located. The middle of the work is plainly marked by the second of three canzoni, the poem in which the death of Beatrice (her unreal death) shows a certain resemblance to the death of Christ.
Nor is this all in the way of a symmetrical arrangement of the poems to be noted in the Book of Memory. In all there are thirty-one poems in the Vita Nuova. Here again must not an eye alert to the...
(The entire section is 7139 words.)
SOURCE: "Lights and Shadows in Dante's Vita Nuova," in High Points in the History of Italian Literature, David McKay Company, Inc., 1958, pp. 42-52.
[In this essay, Vittorini examines disjunctions between the lyrics and the prose of the Vita Nuova, arguing that, while the poems more closely represent Dante's actual experience, the prose tries to make them conform to an ideal of courtly love.]
It is well known that the Vita Nuova, written after the death of Beatrice, is a book of memories in which Dante rethinks the events of his youth in the light of what that young girl meant to him or, at least, of what he believed she meant to him after the episode of the Donna Gentile.
The meeting with the latter took place immediately after the first anniversary of Beatrice's death. The struggle between the pale image of the dead girl and the young woman who attracted the poet and enveloped him in an ardent upsurge of love and passion lasted "several days," to quote Dante. If the final words of the Vita Nuova, referring to Beatrice, "I hope to utter praises of her such as were never uttered of any other woman," are understood to be not only a promise of writing the Divine Comedy, but also an indication of a complete and absolute return to the love of the early youth of the poet, one is led to believe that the work was written around 1292. At least the prose...
(The entire section is 3822 words.)
SOURCE: "New Life," in In Praise of Love: An Introduction to the Love-Poetry of the Renaissance, The Macmillan Company, 1958, pp. 256-72.
[Valency argues that the Vita Nuova is the work in which Dante first moved beyond the conventional "dolce stil nuovo" (sweet new style) into a visionary idealism that found its mature expression in the Divina Commedia.]
The action of the Vita Nuova developed as naturally out of the songs of the dolce stil as the drama of true love out of the troubadour chansons. We have no difficulty in identifying the plot of Dante's early masterpiece. It is the old story, adapted conformably with the new setting and the new age in which it was rooted.
The Vita Nuova reflects in detail the changes which had come over the chivalric tradition in its process of naturalization in the Italian cities. It is urban in its environment and bourgeois in its tone. In its breadth of action it is narrow, but far deeper and higher in its spiritual scope than its Provençal counterpart, and infinitely more imaginative, occult, and mysterious. As narrative, unquestionably, the prose is somewhat static and uncertain; the work belongs principally to the lyric genre. Its affinities are with the introspective novel or the bourgeois tragedy, certainly not with chivalric romance. If we think of the narrative possibilities of the troubadour fantasy...
(The entire section is 5804 words.)
SOURCE: "An Essay on the Vita Nuova: Aspects," in Dante's "Vita Nuova," translated by Mark Musa, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp. 106-34.
[In this excerpt, Musa analyzes the various appearances of Love personified, in which two different forms of love present themselves.]
[In the Vita Nuova, the god of Love] is presented far more vividly than any of the other characters seen by the protagonist—who, for the most part, come through to the reader as shadowy shapes indeed. The first three times Love makes his entrance onto the stage of the Vita Nuova, not only are his clothes described but also his gestures and movements; and in all four of his appearances Love's voice is heard. This character, on whom a spotlight is focused, is made to behave in a way that must puzzle any reader. Love speaks Italian sometimes, sometimes Latin, and sometimes he even shifts languages in the midst of a visit. The accouterments of this actor in the scenes in which he plays his different roles vary, being those of a terrifying deity, a shabby traveler or a guardian angel. And so do his moods change, not only from scene to scene but within the same scene: from the radiant happiness of majesty, or the poised tranquility of beatitude, Love will fall into bitter weeping. Or, again, in his relationship toward the lover he may shift from kindly counselor to sublimely haughty lord, to impatient monitor, to...
(The entire section is 6398 words.)
SOURCE: "Vita Nuova: Dante's Perceptions of Beatrice (1974)," in Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 23, 1983, pp. 372-89.
[Hollander examines Dante's use of vedere and various terms related to seeing to reach a better understanding of the final vision of Beatrice in heaven, which the Vita Nuova refers to but withholds from the reader.]
If one were asked to guess how many times Beatrice appears to Dante in the Vita Nuova one might, in view of Dante's fondness for the number, very well guess nine times. Since that is probably the correct answer it is at least a little surprising that no dantista—at least none known to this writer—has even made any effective attempt at a count. There are various objects of various kinds of "seeing" in the Vita Nuova, as will be described below. This discussion will be dominantly concerned with the appearances of Beatrice. An "appearance of Beatrice" is defined simply as what is recorded of a single particular awareness of Beatrice as actually being in Dante's presence, whether this awareness come from actual encounter, dream, or fantastic imagining. It is likely that from Dante's point of view one of the most important subjects of the Vita Nuova is its record of Beatrice's appearances. For this reason it does not matter whether a single event is described once or twice (i.e., in prose and in...
(The entire section is 4914 words.)
SOURCE: "The Women in the Middle: Layers of Love in Dante's Vita Nuova," in Italica, Vol. 61, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 185-94.
[In the following essay, Klemp explores the the ways in which Dante had revised his understanding of his love for Beatrice by the time he wrote the Convivio.]
One reason why Dante's contemporary readers, like his modern ones, find his poems difficult is because he is a revisionist author whose later works reinterpret earlier ones. In the Vita Nuova, for example, we meet a "donna gentile" whose identity is not revealed. The Convivio then reflects on Dante's earlier writings, including the Rime and Vita Nuova, and insists that this donna gentile is Filosofia. Finally, the Purgatorio looks back on all of these works and transforms the well-meaning donna into a vain creature. Dante's acts of revisionist literary history prevent us from discussing any of the writings in isolation. The Purgatorio blurs and undermines the Vita Nuova, in effect erasing all of its moral lessons. But the Convivio redefines our view of the earlier work, teaching us how to read it well. I will examine the Convivio's instructions about allegory to see how Dante uses them, retrospectively, to reveal a structural pattern in the Vita Nuova. Throughout the Vita Nuova, Dante playfully reminds his readers that they cannot identify...
(The entire section is 4098 words.)
SOURCE: "Synchronicity: Death and the Vita Nuova," in Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth from Borges to Boccaccio, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 11-50.
[Menocal argues in this excerpt that the Vita Nuova's real subject is Dante's search for a viable poetry and that he ultimately succeeds when he adopts an absolute literalness.]
The story of the Vita Nuova is deceptively simple. The artist as a very young man falls hopelessly in love with an equally youthful Beatrice, and over a precisely marked period of years—the numbers will all turn out, in retrospect, to have been key markers—he acts out all the conceits of what we have come to call "courtly" love. In this endlessly suffering pursuit, hopeless beyond fulfillment, he sings the anguishes of such love and gives his readers a number of poems that are as lovely hymns to his ancestor troubadours as any those father figures ever wrote themselves. The living Beatrice in the first half of the book is thus the provocation of and the evocation in much marvelously self-serving and self-loving poetry, poetry that, in the strong vernacular tradition that fathered it, is primarily fascinated with itself and with the love object always just beyond its reach. The poetry itself is spun from that desire fueled and sustained by perpetual failure and endless seeking. The young poet playing the lover, then, indulges...
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Ahern, John. "The New Life of the Book: The Implied Reader of the Vita Nuova." Dante Studies 110 (1992): 1-16.
Argues that the Vita Nuova addresses a variety of distinct audiences.
Bloom, Harold. "Introduction." In Dante: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 1-9. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Suggests that Beatrice is a difficult character for the modem reader to accept because she is charged with such a high degree of symbolic meaning.
Durling, Robert M. and Ronald L. Martinez. "Early Experiments: Vita Nuova 19." In Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante's "Rime Petrose," pp. 53-70. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Examines Dante's experimental use of Neoplatonic and Boethian elements in the Vita Nuova, focusing on the first canzone.
Hall, Robert A. A Short History of Italian Literature. Ithaca: Linguistica, 1951, 420 p.
Argues that the Vita Nuova is more important "in Dante's own life and in Italian literature than any of his other writings" because it lays the groundwork for the Commedia.
Kleiner, John. "Finding the Center: Revelation and Reticence in the Vita Nuova." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 32 (Spring, 1990): 85-100.
Finds a contrary tendency in the Vita Nuova to both...
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