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La Vita Nuova

La Vita Nuova (The New Life) is a medieval text written by Dante Alighieri in 1295. It is an expression of the medieval genre of courtly love in a prosimetrum style, a combination of both prose and verse. Besides its content, it is notable for being written in Italian, rather than Latin; with Dante's other works, it helped to establish the Tuscan dialect in which it is written as the Italian standard.

History and context of La Vita Nuova

Referred to by Dante as his libello, or "little book", The New Life is the first of two collections of verse written by Dante in his life; the other being the Convivio. La Vita Nuova is a prosimetrum, as is the Convivio, meaning that it is a piece which is made up of both verse and prose.

Dante used each prosimetrum as a means for combining poems written over periods of roughly ten years - La Vita Nuova contains his works from before 1283 to roughly 1293, whereas the Convivio contains his works from 1294 until the time of Divine Comedy.

The structure of La Vita Nuova

La Vita Nuova contains 42 brief chapters with commentaries on 25 sonnets, one ballata, and four canzoni; one canzone is left unfinished, interrupted by the death of Beatrice Portinari, Dante's lifelong love.

Dante's commentaries explain each poem, placing them within the context of his life. The poems present a frame story, not apparent from the sonnets themselves, recounting Dante's love of Beatrice from his first sight of her (when he was nine and she eight) all the way to his mourning after her death, and his determination to write of her "that which has never been written of any woman".

Each separate section of commentary further refines Dante's concept of romantic love as the initial step in a spiritual development that results in the capacity for divine love (see courtly love). Dante's unusual approach to his piece — drawing upon personal events and experience, addressing the readers, and writing in Italian rather than Latin — marked a turning point in European poetry, when many writers abandoned highly stylized forms of writing for a simpler style.

Personality in La Vita Nuova

Dante wanted to collect and publish the lyrics dealing with his love for Beatrice, explaining the autobiographical context of its composition and pointing out the expository structure of each lyric as an aid to careful reading. Each chapter typically consists of three parts: the autobiographical narrative, the lyric that resulted from those circumstances, and an analysis of the subject matter of the lyric.

Though the result is a landmark in the development of emotional autobiography (the most important advance since Saint Augustine's Confessions in the 5th century), like all medieval literature it is far removed from the modern autobiographical impulse. Moderns think that their own personalities are interesting, their actions are interesting and their acquaintances are interesting. However, Dante and his audience were interested in the emotions of courtly love and how they develop, how they are expressed in verse, how they reveal the permanent intellectual truths of the divinely created world and how love can confer blessing on the soul and bring it closer to God.

The names of the people in the poem, including Beatrice herself, are employed without use of surnames or any details that would assist readers to identify them among the many people of Florence. Only the name "Beatrice" is used, because that was both her actual name and her symbolic name as the conferrer of blessing. Ultimately the names and people work as metaphors.

In chapter XXIV, "I Felt My Heart Awaken" ("Io mi senti' svegliar dentro a lo core", also translated as "I Felt a Loving Spirit Suddenly"), Dante accounts a meeting with Love, who asks the poet do his best to honor him.

Io mi senti' svegliar dentro a lo core
Un spirito amoroso che dormia:
E poi vidi venir da lungi Amore
Allegro sì, che appena il conoscia,

Dicendo: "Or pensa pur di farmi onore";
E 'n ciascuna parola sua ridia.
E poco stando meco il mio segnore,
Guardando in quella parte onde venia,
Io vidi monna Vanna e monna Bice
Venire inver lo loco là 'v'io era,
L'una appresso de l'altra maraviglia;

E sì come la mente mi ridice,
Amor mi disse: "Quell'è Primavera,
E quell'ha nome Amor, sì mi somiglia."

I felt a loving spirit suddenly,
past a long slumber, in my heart arise;
from far away then Love I seemed to see,
so glad, I could his face ill recognize.

He told me "Do your best to honor me",
and laughter in each word I did surmise.
With my lord there, I was still eagerly
watching his steps, when I, to my surprise,

saw lady Vanna and lady Beatrice
coming towards me, where I still was standing -
one bliss pursuing still another bliss.

And - here is what I am reminded of -
Love said "The first is Springtime, but the second
resembles me so much, her name is Love."

In this verse, Love identifies Vanna, who was the beloved of fellow poet and friend Guido Cavalcanti, as Primavera (Springtime), while Beatrice's name "is Love". The narrative part of the chapter reveals that Primavera is analogous to "prima verrà" (she will come first), or "prima vera" (first truth). (Of note: the 13th century mention in La Vita Nuova of the name Vanna is the first in recorded history.)

Dante does not name himself in La Vita Nuova. He refers to Guido Cavalcanti as "the first of my friends", to his own sister as "a young and noble lady... who was related to me by the closest consanguinity", to Beatrice's brother similarly as one who "was so linked in consanguinity to the glorious lady that no-one was closer to her". The reader is invited into the very emotional turmoil and lyrical struggle of the unnamed author's own mind and all the surrounding people in his story are seen in their relations to that mind's quest of encountering Love.

La Vita Nuova is essential for understanding the context of his other works — principally La Commedia.

In the arts

The passage cited above became the theme for the Henry Holiday painting "Dante and Beatrice", considered by many to be Holiday's most important painting. Toward attaining the goal of idealized love, which was considered noble if selfless and unconsummated, Dante concealed his love for Beatrice by pretending to be attracted by other women. The scene depicted in the painting is that of lady (Monna) Beatrice, dressed in white, refusing to greet Dante because of the gossip that had reached her. Next to her, dressed in coral, is lady (Monna) Vanna, whose posture not only appears to support Beatrice's decision but looks back to Dante's reaction.

The opening line of the work's Introduction was used on the television show Star Trek: Voyager in the episode "Latent Image" (1999).

In the movie Hannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Inspector Pazzi see an outdoor opera in Florence based on Dante's La Vita Nuova, called Vide Cor Meum. This was especially composed for the movie. Specifically it is based on the sonnet "A ciascun'alma presa", in chapter 3 of La Vita Nuova.

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