Beatrice Portinari, Dante’s muse and the great unrequited love of his life, was born in Florence (Firenze), Italy, in 1265 or 1266. Some sources believe she was only a few months younger than Dante, while others believe she was a year younger. She was one of eleven children (six girls, five boys) born to Folco Portinari and Cilia di Gherardo de’ Caponsacchi.
As Dante tells it in La Vita Nuova (The New Life), he met Beatrice when he was nine years old, at a May Day party in the nearby Portinari house. Despite his very young age, Dante nonetheless was instantly smitten with her, and remained in love with her throughout his life.
Beatrice married Simone (Mone) de ‘Bardi by 1280, when she was about fifteen. The de ‘Bardis, a prominent family of bankers and merchants, arrived in Florence around the 10th century, and were probably of Celtic origin.
The Portinaris were also a wealthy banking family. Beatrice’s father, upon the urging of her grandma Monna Tessa, founded Florence’s Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, the city’s oldest hospital still in existence.
Though Simone had at least three kids (Francesca, Bartolo, and Gemma), it’s not known if they were by Beatrice or his second wife, Sibilla (Bilia) di Puccio Deciaioli.
Dante threw himself into writing poetry for Beatrice’s sake, despite not interacting with her again till he was eighteen. All that time, he never confessed his feelings to anyone else, and even wrote poems for another woman to throw off suspicions.
Many times during these intervening years, Dante caught glimpses of her at church and in the street. Each new sighting filled him with increased, renewed ardour.
Finally, Dante and Beatrice met again while Beatrice was taking a walk with two other women. Her cordial salutation filled Dante with such great joy, he hurried home to daydream about her. Dante presently fell asleep and dreamt of Beatrice. This dream inspired the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
Dante continued catching glimpses of Beatrice during the next eight years. Every time he saw her, he was inspired to press pen to paper to celebrate Beatrice and his love for her in poetry. So great was his devotion, he provided elaborate commentaries on his poems in La Vita Nuova.
Around 1289, Dante had a terrifying dream that his belovèd Beatrice had passed away. This vision upset him to the point of tears, but he still didn’t confess his unrequited love, even when asked what was bothering him. Dante pretended he was in love with another woman, whom he didn’t name.
That heartbreaking dream also became the subject of a sonnet.
Beatrice passed away for real on 8 June 1290, possibly in childbirth, at age 25. Dante kept writing poems for her, including one which was requested by Beatrice’s brother. He disguised the reason he was there, but Dante knew he wanted a poem about Beatrice. Dante wanted so badly to present the right impression and keep his love secret, he drafted three poems before getting it just right.
Some time later, a beautiful woman visited Dante, cheered him up, and inspired him to write poetry for her. Dante soon felt really ashamed he took another muse and abandoned Beatrice’s memory. He was then inspired to write a much longer poem to immortalize Beatrice for all time. Mission accomplished!
Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice was a quintessential example of the Medieval ideal of courtly love, which emphasized chivalry and nobility. Though it was based on sexual and/or romantic attraction, becoming lovers usually wasn’t the end goal or something that eventually happened.
Beatrice inspired Dante to become a better person and removed his evil inclination. Apart from describing her complexion and saying she had emerald eyes, Dante isn’t concerned with her physical beauty. He loves Beatrice’s deeper qualities. In his eyes, Beatrice was the epitome of virtue and righteousness.
Beatrice also has the distinction of being the only person to address Dante by name in The Divine Comedy, which happens but a single time.
Canto XXXI of Paradiso gives me goosebumps when Dante reverentially addresses Beatrice for the final time, saying she left her footprint on the floor of Hell for his sake, and praying he’ll be in this highly purified state until it’s his time to rejoin her in Paradise.