Beatrice Portinari, real name Bice di Folco Portinari (1266–1290) was a woman from Florence, Italy, who was the principal inspiration for Dante Alighieri's Vita Nuova. She also appears as his guide in Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) in the last book, Paradise, and in the last four canti of Purgatory. There Beatrice takes over as guide from the Latin poet Virgil because, as a pagan, Virgil cannot enter Paradise and because, being the incarnation of beatific love, as her name implies, it is she who leads into the Beatific vision.
Her birth name is Bice Portinari, the daughter of Folco di Ricovero Portinari. Dante met her when his father took him to the Portinari house for a May Day party. Dante was instantly taken with her and remained so throughout her life even though she married a banker, Simone dei Bardi, in 1287. She died three years later in June of 1290 at the age of 24. But Dante continued to hold an abiding love and respect for the woman after her death, even though Dante himself married Gemma Donati in 1285 and had his own children. After Beatrice's death, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. The collection of these poems along with others he had previously written in his journal in awe of Beatrice became La Vita Nuova.
Beatrice Portinari has been immortalized not only in Dante's poems but in paintings by Pre-Raphaelite masters and poets.
According to the autobiographic La Vita Nuova, Beatrice and Dante met only twice during their lives. This statement, however, is highly questionable, considering that they both lived in Florence the entire time Beatrice was alive. Even less credible is the numerology behind these encounters; marking out Dante's life in periods of nine years. This amount of time falls in line with Dante's repeated use of the number three or multiples of, derived from the Holy Trinity. It is more likely that the encounters with Beatrice that Dante writes of are the two that fulfill his poetic vision, and Beatrice, like Petrarch's Laura, seem to blur the line between an actual love interest and a means employed by the poet in his creations.
Dante first met Beatrice in Florence, his home city, when he was nine years old and she was eight, around 1274. She was dressed in a soft crimson cloth, and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante instantly fell in love with her, thinking of her as angelic with divine and noble qualities.
Following their first meeting, Dante was so enthralled by Beatrice that he later wrote in La Vita Nuova: Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi ("Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.") Indeed, she and Dante frequented parts of Florence, his home city, where he thought he might catch even a glimpse of her. As he did so, he made great efforts to ensure his thoughts of Beatrice remained private, even writing poetry for another lady, so as to use her as a "screen for the truth".
Dante's courtly love for Beatrice continued for nine years, before the pair finally met again. This meeting occurred in a street of Florence, which she walked along dressed in white and flanked by two older women. She turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room, to think about her. In doing so, he fell asleep, and had a dream which would become the subject of the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
In this dream, a mighty figure appeared before him, and spoke to him. Although he could not make out all the figure said, he managed to hear "Ego dominus tuus", which means "I am your Lord". In the figure's arms was Beatrice, sleeping and covered by a crimson cloth. The figure awoke Beatrice, and made her eat Dante's burning heart. An English translation of this event, as described in La Vita Nuova, appears below:
This was the last encounter between the pair, since Beatrice died eight years later at the young age of twenty-four in 1290.
Yet it is still not entirely clear what caused Dante to fall in love with Beatrice. Seeing as how he knew very little of the real Beatrice, and that he had no great insight to her character, it is perhaps unusual that he fell in love with her. But he did, and there are clues in his works as to why he did:
Dante saw Beatrice as a saviour, one who removed all evil intentions from him. It is perhaps this idea of her being a force for good that he fell in love with, a force which he believed made him a better person. This is certainly viable, since he does not seem concerned with her appearance - at least not in his writings. He only once describes her complexion, and her "emerald" eyes. Although Beatrice was most likely a very beautiful lady, her beauty is ultimately not what Dante was attracted to when he met her.
He wrote of her, following her death:
The love between them was wholly spiritual; after her death Dante realised she was more alive than ever.
She first appeared in La Vita Nuova, which Dante wrote in about 1293. The book was filled with poems about Beatrice, and entirely complimentary to her; she was described as "gentilissima" and "benedetta" (meaning "gracious" and "blessed" respectively).
Having already referred to Beatrice as his salvation, this idea is further touched upon in Divine Comedy, where she appears as a guide through Heaven. Here she is described as being "maternal, radiant and comforting".
Although they converse in personal terms, this is no more than the imagination of Dante. Since their relationship had no contact, the Beatrice of his works was shaped entirely by his own mind. He once called her "La gloriosa donna della mia mente", which means "the glorious lady of my mind".