Vita Nuova Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.