Dante Aligheri is most famous for creating La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), which included the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The semi-autobiographical poems document Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise on his way to meet his beloved Beatrice. He is guided, according to the American Academy of Poets, “by the character of Virgil [who leads him through Hell and Purgatory], and later by his beloved Beatrice [who leads him to Paradise], Dante wrote of his own path to salvation, offering philosophical and moral judgments along the way.” It stands out because it was written in Italian, instead of the more scholarly Latin or Greek, as were other great works from that time period. “This allowed the work to be published to a much broader audience, contributing substantially to world literacy.” I first became aware of Dante probably in high school, though I didn’t really learn about him until I took a class during my undergraduate career, when I read the Inferno (translation by Robert Pinsky, the Poet Laureate at that time). I really enjoyed the class, taught by the professor with which I also took Italian. Images from The Divine Comedy popped up in my art history classes all the time during the Renaissance, and I studied some of this sort of art in person, when I was doing my study abroad to Italy.
Dante was betrothed at age 12, but had already fallen for a different girl, Beatrice Portinari. He never had much contact with her, but wrote about her in many of his works, including The Divine Commedy and La Vita Nouva, or The New Life, which is a collection of love sonnets. He sets her up as the ideal woman. According to this blog post, “Young Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice is seen by literary scholars as an expression of courtly love, espousing Medieval traditions related to chivalry, as opposed to anything governed by more base urges.” Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Marie Spartali Stillman, and John William Waterhouse loved to paint Dante and Beatrice. In fact, Rossetti was famous not only as a painter, but being a preeminent Dante scholar and translating his work. An example of him painting Dante and Beatrice can be seen in Beata Beatrix from 1864-70, as explained in this previous art post I did. Here are more examples of Beatrice paintings.
The following poem is from that collection and was translated into English by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For the full text of his translation, see this page from Project Gutenberg to select the format.
MY LADY CARRIES LOVE WITHIN HER EYES
by: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
My lady carries love within her eyes;
All that she looks on is made pleasanter;
Upon her path men turn to gaze at her;
He whom she greeteth feels his heart to rise,
And droops his troubled visage, full of sighs,
And of his evil heart is then aware:
Hate loves, and pride becomes a worshiper.
O women, help to praise her in somewise.
Humbleness, and the hope that hopeth well,
By speech of hers into the mind are brought,
And who beholds is blessèd oftenwhiles,
The look she hath when she a little smiles
Cannot be said, nor holden in the thought;
‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle.