Beatrice Portinari is the central figure in Dante Alighieri's Vita Nuova (New life, c. 1294), in his Divine Comedy (1308–1321), in several other lyric poems outside of the Vita Nuova, and in Book III of the Convivio (The Banquet, 1308). The Vita Nuova was assembled after Beatrice's death as a book of memory with the author's love poems for her. Beatrice is historically identified by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his Life of Dante as the daughter of Folco Portinari, an eminent figure in the City of Florence, and as wife of Simone dei Bardi, a member of a rich Florentine banking family. Folco died in 1289 and his will records that monna Bice (lady Beatrice) born Florence, Italy, was one of his eleven children.
Within the Vita Nuova, a "libello" (little book) that is at once a psychological confession and work of self-examination as well as an experiment in the craft of poetry, there are sufficient biographical references to justify the historical existence of the lady Beatrice Portinari whom the poet idealized and sublimated as Beatrice. The author states that he first saw her when he was nine and at the beginning of her ninth year, and that she became: "the glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice (she who brings bliss) even by those who did not know what her name was" (Musa 1973, p. 3). From this point to when she bids him adieu from the Celestial Rose of the Empyrean (Paradiso Canto XXXI: 58-93), Beatrice remained the narrator's inspiration to undertake his spiritual rebirth (new life) both as a man and as a poet.
Beatrice is the figuration of an earthly woman who, breaking all traditions, achieves the highest, most sublime symbolism of a divine being, a "figura Christi" and "typus Trinitatis" (a figure of Christ and a type of the Trinity). This process can be traced throughout the New Life: thus, Dante, quoting Homer, labels her "daughter not of a mortal, but of God"; when she denies him her greeting ("saluto"), for him the summation of all bliss (Dante plays with the words saluto, salute, salutare, both as greeting or salutation and spiritual health), he feels empty of any joy and beatitude (Musa 1973, p. 16). The elevation of Beatrice to divine-like status is at the core of the Vita Nuova, and intensifies in the canzone (song) "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore" (Ladies who have intelligence of love), in which the Blessed dare tell God that Heaven lacks perfection because of her absence (Ch. XIX). This both announces her death and the composition of the Divine Comedy. Further, in Chapter XXIV, the author proposes an analogy between Beatrice and Christ, as he sees Beatrice in a dream preceded by Giovanna Primavera (the lady of Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's oldest friend to whom the Vita is dedicated), as John the Baptist preceded Jesus: "since the name Joan (Giovanna) comes from the name John (Giovanni) who preceded the True Light" (Musa 1973, p. 52). This is followed with the most famous of Dante's sonnets, "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare" ("So winsome and so worthy seems to me"), Chapter XXVI, in which he writes: "… sweetly and mantled in humility,/away she walks from all she's praised by,/and truly seems a thing come from the sky/to show on earth what miracles can be" (Alighieri 1992, p. 51). The symbolism of Beatrice as a type of the Trinity is reinforced upon her death (1290) when Dante speaks of her as number nine—that is, a miracle (Ch. 28, p. 62): "this lady was accompanied by the number nine so that it might be understood that she was a nine, or a miracle, whose root, namely that of the miracle, is the miraculous Trinity itself." In the last chapter of the Vita Nuova, Dante prepares the reader to the presence and role of Beatrice in the Commedia, stating that he hopes to say of her "that which has never been said of any woman."
This is the link to Beatrice's appearance in Inferno (2:52-108) within a type of Feminine Trinity who has descended unto Limbo, urging Virgil to come to the rescue of the pilgrim Dante lost in the dark wood, the selva oscura. Beatrice is moved by a love, "Amor mi mosse che mi fa parlare," which originated with Mary, "donna è gentil nel ciel" (there is a gentle lady in heaven), who asked a second woman, Lucia, "nemica di ciascun crudele" (enemy of any cruelty), to plead with a third one, Beatrice, sitting in heaven next to the ancient Rachel, and to rescue the one "who loved you so much" (II, 100-108). Dante the author thus builds a feminine Trinity and Godhead: Mary; Saint Lucy, patron saint of Syracuse and of eyesight; Beatrice. Thus begins the role of Beatrice as a divine guide and teacher for the pilgrim Dante, to take over from Virgil in the last three cantos of the Purgatory and in the Paradiso. She comes to embody not only the Divine Guide but also Theology, Divine Grace, Revelation, and the one who, transcending gender (as evidenced in the image of the Admiral in Purgatory 30:58) never loses her power as earthly woman (catalyst of courtly love at first) while being transformed into a divine one.
Alighieri, Dante. 1992. Dante's Lyric Poems, trans. Joseph Tusiani, intro. and notes by Giuseppi C. Di Scipio. New York: Legas.
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Musa, Mark. 1973. Vita Nuova: A Translation and an Essay. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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Giuseppe Di Scipio