Around 1293, nine years before he was exiled from Florence by one of the city’s warring factions, and some fourteen years before he embarked on his Divine Comedy, Dante collected a number of his early love poems together and told a story—in prose—of how they came into being. Most of the poems have to do with his love for a young woman named Beatrice, who died in 1290 at the age of twenty-four. The prose narrative, written in the first person with a heavy self-editorializing hand, seeks to make retrospective sense of the meaning of Beatrice’s existence, both while she graced the world with her presence and now that she gazes on the face of him qui est per omnia secula benedictus—who is blessed for all eternity—in the Latin words that bring to an end Dante’s Vita Nuova.
The Vita Nuova is one of the strangest vernacular works of the Middle Ages. Its narrative juxtaposes quasi-hallucinatory dreams and visions with pedantic commentary on the poems they generated. It describes how Dante was born into a “new life” thanks to Beatrice, yet it is as much a book about his friendship with his fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti as it is about his love of Beatrice. Dante’s avowed intention is to transcribe the “meaning” (sentenzia) of the events of his new life, yet it ends with the author’s declaration that he lacks the means to speak adequately of Beatrice, thereby acknowledging the failure of his “little book,” as he calls it in his proem, to achieve its objective.
A reasonably accurate translation of the poems is the conditio sine qua non for a proper appreciation of the Vita Nuova, which contains three or four key poems that are crucial to the unfolding of the story as a whole—none more so, perhaps, than the sonnet “Tanto gentile” in section 26, which describes Beatrice at the height of her glory and thus marks the climax of the Vita Nuova. The poem describes her passage through the streets of Florence and the effect her appearance has on those who behold her. Here is the Italian original:
Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
La donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta
Ch’ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
E li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare.
Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
Benignamente d’umiltà vestuta;
E par che sia una cosa venuta
Da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare.
Mostrasi sì piacente a chi la mira,
Che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
Che ‘ntender no la può chi no la prova;
E par che de la sua labbia si mova
Un spirito soave pien d’amore,
Che va dicendo a l’anima: “Sospira.”