The Importance of Beatrice Portinari to the Inferno and the Works of Dante

This article discusses the life of Beatrice Portinari, a young woman whose character appears in the Divine Comedy.

Dante's Beatrice

It is impossible to understand Dante or his Inferno without understanding his unusual "relationship" with Beatrice Portinari, a young woman who was the poet's idealized true love and muse. To call theirs a relationship is a misnomer because whatever existed between them was essentially one sided, and by today's standards - let's be honest - creepy.

Like Dante, Beatrice Protinari was a native of Florence. One day, Dante spotted Beatrice on the street when she was 9 years old. Dante claimed that he immediately fell in love with her at first sight. The fact that he fell in love with a 9 year old is usually glossed over in his biographies, because his status as a great poet seems to forgive this peculiarity. He apparently never spoke to her or made any contact with Beatrice. In fact, Dante did not lay eyes on her again till 9 years later, when she was 18. Once again Dante did not speak with or interact with Beatrice, but somehow Dante must have found out who she was.

Despite any real contact between them, Dante not only pined for the little Beatrice romantically but created an idealized version of this young woman whom he did not know at all. He featured Beatrice in many of his writings such as the Vita Nuova (The New Life), in which he presents her as the personification of womanhood and goodness. Later, he made her a central figure in his masterwork, the Divine Comedy, of which the Inferno is the first part.

Beatrice was likely never aware of Dante's love for her and may not ever have known what he wrote about her. She certainly was never aware of her literary fame as a figure in the Divine Comedy because, sadly, Beatrice Portinari died young at the age of 24. She had recently been married and her death may have been due to complications from pregnancy, an unfortunately common cause of death at the time.

Beatrice's death, coupled with his exile from Florence due to political machinations, had a profound effect on Dante. He fell into a despair which he alludes to in the opening of the Inferno. Here he depicts himself as metaphorically lost in a wood, on Good Friday, contemplating suicide. He calls out to Beatrice and she appears as a sort of angelic figure. She gives Dante her aid, assigning the poet Virgil to be his guide through the infernal regions. Rather than committing an act of self-murder, which would have damned his soul permanently to Hell, Dante - through Beatrice's intervention - is given the rare privilege of descending into the Inferno to see first hand the sufferings that await sinners and then to re-emerge alive on Easter.

The parallel's with Christ's Resurrection are clear from the timing and the length of Dante's stay in Hell. What is often overlooked is that as far as Christian doctrine is concerned, the only :her person to have descended into hell and have arisen was Christ Himself. One speculate on the level of pretentious self importance that would lead Dante to invent such an heroic path for himself. 3ut in the context of discussing Beatrice's role, at least that of the fictionalized and idealized Beatrice, one must keep in mind that the entire Divine Comedy would not have been ^possible but for her intervention. In real life, Dante's elevation of Beatrice into a model of angelic perfection was what made it possible for him to create the work in the first place.

Beatrice's role in the Divine Comedy cannot be understated. She not only enables Dante's journey by assigning the soul of the poet Virgil to be his guide, she later becomes Dante's angelic guide through Heaven itself, where he is given yet another remarkable privilege: he is permitted to look upon God and His heavenly choirs, to see Paradise as a living man. Having been shown both extremes, the horrors of Hell and the ineffable beauty of Heaven, Dante is resurrected. He finds renewed hope and returns to life, all thanks to the fictional Beatrice's intervention.

Although the story itself is an allegory, Beatrice's effect on Dante and his works were very much real. The fictional woman that he created in his mind and whom he loved from afar, even after her death, was for him the source of inspiration and his only comfort and hope during the trials and tribulations of his exile and ebbing fortunes. One must still ask to what extent does the result - one of the greatest works of literature in any language - transcend the troubling fact that Dante was obsessed and romantically in love with, at least at first, a person who was only a little girl. Should we apply modern standards and concerns about the protection of children to a man living in a medieval society? Should we overlook the fact that this is objectively wrong because this obsession produced great art? These are questions about Beatrice and Dante that are rarely asked but should be discussed.

Short Biography of Beatrice Portinari

BEATRICE PORTINARI was born in 1266 and died in 1290. She was the daughter of a wealthy family of Florence, Italy, and married Simone dei Bardi.

Dante met her when she was nine years old, dressed in a gown of dark red color, and her appearance made a lasting impression upon him. He met her again nine years later, clad in a gown of white, and from that time she was his inspiring muse, though he never saw her again and she died at the age of twenty-four. It is doubtful whether she reciprocated his affection, but her soul glided about him and his poems afford evidence of the depth of his feeling. He recounts his love for her in the "Vita Nuova," and in the 30th and 31st cantos of "Purgatory" she is made the emblematic personification of divine wisdom.

Dante's Inferno Inferno Images
Dante's Inferno Image Gallery
Side by Side Translations
Side By Side Translations of Dante Visions of Hell