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Dante and Beatrice: A Great Love Story - Dante's "Donna Angelicata" and Jung's "Eternal Feminine": a Nexus
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-10-01 09:10:12
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Dante, author of the Divine Comedy

Boccaccio in his “Life of Dante” informs us that Dante Alighieri met Beatrice Portinari on the first of May, 1274, for the festivities of the first of May in Florence at the home of her father Folco Portinari. Dante, who was only nine at the time, was accompanying his own father for the Mayday festivities. There he met Folco’s daughter Bice. Dante in his imagination thought he had met an angel of heaven. Boccaccio tells us that “Dante received her image into his heart with such affection that, from that day forward, never so long as he lived did it depart there from. Thus was born what Dante later in his poetry will call the “donna angelicata” (the angelic woman).

Describing the effect of her apparition upon him in his Vita Nuova, Dante declares that at that moment "the spirit of life, which has its dwelling in the secretest chambers of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi" -- Behold a deity stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me."

Dante's first meeting with Beatrice, as above described, was undoubtedly the greatest event of his life and its effect on him was as potent as it was enduring. The second time that Dante, according to his own testimony, met the object of his affections was when she had attained the full bloom of youthful grace and beauty. We read in the "Vita Nuova":  "After the lapse of so many days that nine years exactly were completed since the above written appearance of this most gracious being, on the last of those days it happened that the same wonderful lady appeared to me dressed all in pure white, between two gentle ladies elder than she. And passing through a street, she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed: and by her unspeakable courtesy, which is now guerdoned in the Great Cycle, she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limit of blessedness."

At her second appearance, the effect was even more magical and potent. Beatrice then became Dante's muse, as well as his angel.  According to Plato, it was the lover and not the beloved who was the inspirer. But in Dante's case it was quite the reverse of this. It was Beatrice, whom Dante called "my beatitude," "the glorious lady of my mind," who was not only the efficient agent of his new birth, but also the one who made him a poet, and inspired what Ruskin justly calls "the greatest religious poem yet given to men."

The first sonnet which Dante wrote, or at least the first one that has come down to us, was composed while under the exaltation produced by his second vision of Beatrice, when she saluted him "with so virtuous a bearing" that he seemed "to behold the very limits of blessedness." The Vita Nuova is a record of that new life which he began after meeting Beatrice, "the muse of his understanding and the angel of his soul." Here is the sonnet:

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
la donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta,
ch’ogne lingua devèn 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.


So gentle and so dignified appears
my lady when she greets others,
that every trembling tongue becomes dumb,
and their eyes do not dare look upon her.
She walks on, hearing herself praised,
benignly clothed in humility;
and seems to be something arrived
from Heaven as a miracle on Earth.

She appears so pleasant to those who looks upon her,
and through her eyes a sweetness touches the heart,
which cannot be understood by those who feel it not:
and it seems that from her lips emanates
a delicate spirit full of love,
that speaks to the soul: Sigh.


Dante meets Beatrice for the second time

There is nothing in the "Vita Nuova" that recalls the erotic utterances of Sappho and Anacreon; nothing that is suggestive of the "Amores" of Ovid or of the "Epithalamium to Peleus and Thetis" by Catullus. The "Vita Nuova" is not only the sweetest and most delicate of love stories, but it is also one of the most remarkable of autobiographies. It is a delicate and touching psychological account of Dante's love for Beatrice and of the emotions which she excited in his soul during her short life on earth. In no other autobiography, except, possibly, in the "Confessions" of St. Augustine, will one find such glowing fervor and such fervid intensity. And in no other poet do we find a spirit that is so passionate and so pure; so strong and so tender; so radiant and so loyal.

Dante's "New Life" tells us nothing about the physical characteristics of Beatrice, except that she had light hair and a pearl-like complexion. He gives us an image of Beatrice's personal graces by telling us of the impression she produced on him. He portrays the beauty of her soul as reflected in her deportment and in that dolce riso -- sweet smile -- which raised him above the things of earth. Dante's love, though deep and sensitive, was nevertheless as calm as it was pure and loyal. It was a love which, as he assures us, caused him to forgive everyone who had offended him and to make him feel that he no longer had an enemy in the world.

But with all this it was likewise a love which, almost from its beginning, was tinctured with sadness and melancholy. He felt himself unworthy of the great happiness which he experienced in the presence of Beatrice, and was continually haunted by the thought of her early death. Sooner than expected Beatrice at the tender age of 18 was suddenly taken from this earth.

So overwhelming was his loss that he imagined the whole of Florence mourned with him the loss of its most precious jewel. And recalling the words of Jeremias, he exclaimed in the depths of his sorrow: "How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is the mistress of the Gentiles become as a widow?" And so fully was he convinced that all the people of Florence shared his bereavement that he wrote to the principal men of the city an epistle beginning with the lament of Jeremias, "Quomodo sedet sola civitas." He was saddened by the thought that pilgrims from a distant country, who passed through the grief-stricken city, had not heard of his Beatrice, or of the great loss that Florence had suffered in the untimely death of his beloved.

Dante's grief at the loss of the angel of his soul, the muse of his intellect, was as deep as the love which inflamed his heart when he first met her at the May festival at the home of her father, and when, nine years later, she saluted him with that gracious smile which was to him as a beacon-light during the whole of his extraordinary career. But Dante did not allow his terrible loss to dispirit or unman him. It served rather as a stimulus to make him more worthy of his angel in heaven. In the last sonnet of the "Vita Nuova," in which the poet fancies seeing in Heaven “A lady round whom splendors moves in homage,” a lady whom he recognizes as his loved Beatrice, -- he tells us of having “a new perception born of grieving Love.”

"After writing this sonnet," he declares, "it was given me to behold a very wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this most blessed one, until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labor all I can, as she well knoweth. Wherefore, if it be His pleasure, through whom is the life of all things, that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman."

In the Vita Nuova Dante informs us, "the first delight of my soul -- Beatrice -- was lost, no comforting availed me. None the less, after a certain time my mind, which sought a cure, set about returning to that method which some disconsolates had taken for consoling themselves. And I took to reading that book, not known to many, of Boethius, whereby he, captive and outcast, had consoled himself; also Cicero's 'De Amicitia,' referring to Laelius and his dear friend Scipio. And, although at first it was hard for me to enter into their significance, I fully entered thereinto so far as the art of grammar which I possessed and a little force of mind of my own would allow. By which force of mind I saw, as if dreamily, many things -- as may be seen in the 'Vita Nuova.' I thus found not only a remedy to my tears but utterances of authors and of sciences and of books; considering which I fully judged that Philosophy, which had been the mistress of these authors, sciences and books, was a supreme thing. And I imagined her fashioned as a noble lady; and I could not imagine her in any action other than merciful. . . . And then I began to go where she displayed herself in truth -- that is to the schools of the religious and the disputations of the Philosophizing: so that in a short time, perhaps thirty months, I began to feel so much of her sweetness that the love of her chased away and destroyed every other thought."

The great crisis in Dante's life had now passed. In his case, as in that of all truly noble souls, final and affliction had purified his heart and given him the strength required for the great work he was about to undertake. The image of his donna angelica -- his angelicized lady -- which had gladdened him in his wonderful vision, daily became brighter and more comforting. Divested of her earthly veil, she appears before him in all her beauty and goodness, with a halo of glory encircling her head. Enraptured and transformed, the ardent and faithful lover finds himself endowed with new strength and courage. From the date of that wonderful vision Dante was a new man -- a man of approved courage, and prepared to encounter all the trials and difficulties of life.

Dazzled and comforted by his wonderful vision, Dante, as he had resolved, wrote no more in praise of Beatrice until he had fully prepared himself for his great life-work --for what was to be an imperishable monument to her who was to be the protagonist of his immortal masterpiece as well as its inspiring muse. The "Divina Commedia" --that marvelous tribute to Beatrice and, through her, to "the eternal womanly" -- was gradually assuming form in the poet's mind, and he could already discern, as in a mirror darkly, the beauty and the glory of the incomparable creation of his genius.

After her death, Beatrice, in the eyes of Dante, as we read in the "Vita Nuova," Divenne spirital bellezza grande -- Grew perfectly and spiritually fair. But her beauteous image was never more vividly before him than during the countless vicissitudes of his long and troubled exile. The sweet and precious memory of his noble and gentle lady sustained him in poverty and made the bread which he ate at the table of others savor less of salt, and the stairs in the homes of strangers less difficult to ascend.

But during these long years of lost dreams, years of sorrow and disappointment and shattered hopes, years when his life seemed to be a dismal failure, his vigils and wanderings were always cheered and blessed by the almost sensible presence of one "all compact of angel instincts breathing Paradise." He felt that his loved one, still alive with the warmth of love and grace and beauty, as she was during her short existence on earth, was ever near him and presiding over his thoughts and life.

It is safe to say that, after the death of Beatrice, the happiest days that Dante ever knew were when he was condemned to what was, in the eyes of the world, the lonely and joyless existence of an exile. For it was then that flashed upon his inward eye those sublime conceptions which were to adorn the magnificent monument which he had designed in honor of the mistress of his soul.

This is in harmony with what Shelley writes in his "Defense of Poetry," when he asserts that Dante's "apotheosis of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her loveliness, by which, as steps, he feigns himself to have ascended to the throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious imagination of modern poetry. The Last canto of the 'Divine Comedy,'" he continues, "is a perpetual hymn of everlasting love."


Beatrice guiding Dante in Paradiso

To one who has studied Dante's works with care, it is impossible to conceive their author as either a cynic or a pessimist as one may indeed if he reads only the Inferno and stops there. His perpetual banishment from all that he loved so dearly was, indeed, a great blow to him. So, too, was the frustration of all his hopes for the aggrandizement of his beloved Italy. But notwithstanding all these trials and disappointments, there is reason to believe that his life was more happy than that of most men -- that it was certainly far happier than that of his persecutors. For his was the life of the spirit -- a life which from his eighteenth to his fifty-sixth year -- the year of his death -- was devoted to singing the praises of one who had entered his soul with what he, called an ever-burning fire -- col fuoco ond io sempr' ardo -- a life which was blessed by the ever-present image and by the unfailing care of one who he felt was to him both inspirer and guardian angel. For, when her faithful one, in the middle of life's journey, has wandered from his true pathway, it is Beatrice who sends Virgil to conduct him through the dark and dolorous regions of hell. And when the poet has been purified from all sin on the holy mount of Purgatory, it is Beatrice that appears to him in a triumphal car in the enchanting splendors of the Terrestrial Paradise. It is she who, in the abodes of the blessed, accompanies him from star to star and, by her sweet smile, guides him to the presence of the Infinite. And as she was to him during her sojourn on earth his very life breath and heart blood, so is she now, in the kingdom of the redeemed, the one who suggests those tender verses of love, those touching words of fragrant thanksgiving with which the poet's immortal epopee is filled.

Dante kept the promise which he had made to his Beatrice, who, since the age of nine, had been an ever increasing need of his soul and who gave to it "its unity and the ceaseless rhythm of its song." And he kept it as only he could keep it. For only he could keep it who was deeply imbued with the childlike faith of the Middle Ages; who was a master of all the knowledge of his time; who was a consummate theologian. And how Dante's heart must have thrilled with joy when, after so many vicissitudes, he as finally able to pen the last verse of the Paradiso: “L'Amor che move ii sole e l' altre stele” --The Love which moves the sun and the other stars, and to offer to his Beatrice in Heaven what he had vowed to her in the heyday of his generous manhood.  And what a joyous paean rises from the poet's loyal heart, when, in his last vision of his angel Beatrice in the deep-domed empyrean, he intones those sweet notes of undying love: Dal primo giorno, ch'io vidi 'l suo viso In questa vita, infino a questa vista Non e 'l seguir al mio canto preciso --  From the first time I beheld her face In this life to the moment of this look The sequence of my song has ne'er been severed.


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

No nobler tribute was ever addressed to a woman than the last words addressed by Dante to his angel Beatrice, in which he gives such sublime expression to the sentiments of his grateful and overflowing heart. There is no more beautiful picture in all literature than that which represents the poet lover fixing his gaze on his gracious guide and inspirer, and addressing her in these touching words:

O Donna, in cui la mia speranza vige,
  E che soffristi per la mia salute
  In Inferno lasciar le tue vestige;
Di tante cose quante io ho vedute,
  Dal tuo potere e dalla tua bontate
  Riconosco Ia grazia e la virtute.
'Tu m' hai di servo tratto a libertate
  Per tutte quelle vie, per tutti i modi
  Che di ciò fare avei la potestate.
La tua magnificenza in me custodi,
  Si che l'anima che fatta hai sana,
  Piacente a te dal corpo si disnodi.


O Lady! thou in whom my hope is strong,
  And who for my salvation didst endure
  In Hell to leave the imprint of thy feet,
Of whatsoever things I have beheld,
  As coming from thy power and from thy goodness
  I recognize the power and the grace.
Thou from a slave hast brought me unto freedom,
  By all those ways, by all the expedients,
  Whereby thou hadst the power of doing it.
Preserve towards me thy magnificence
  So that this soul of mine, which thou hast healed,
  Pleasing to thee he loosened from the body.

A smile from Beatrice seated on her throne of glory tells her ever-faithful one -- her fidel d'amore -- that his prayer is answered and that she will be his mediatrix in heaven as she was his inspirer on earth.

The girl of nine years, garbed in "a subdued and goodly crimson," whom he first met in the home of her father on that memorable Mayday, when “His soul sprang up astonished, sprang full statured in an hour,” became his beneficent genius and the inspirer of that noble work that the world has named "divine." And as she made him the greatest of poets, so he transformed and transfigured her and "made of her the perfect type of Christian virtue, the ideal symbol of divine science, the living image of that infinite happiness enjoyed by the elect," and, at the same time, he erected in her honor a monument more glorious than any ever dedicated to the memory of an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon -- one that will continue to delight, instruct and elevate the world as long as the good, the beautiful, the true shall continue to move the hearts and stir the souls of humankind.


The above is a succinct literal rendition of the love of Dante for Beatrice which powerfully inspired him to write a masterpiece dedicated to her thus achieving the fame reserved to a few supreme poets. In fact what Dante had already shown us in the 13th century AD is that to heal one’s soul and psyche a man needs to respect the eternally feminine in himself, and vice-versa. However, we need to wait some 700 years before a satisfying psychological explanation is offered by Carl Jung. He postulated a masculine animus in every woman and a feminine anima in every man. To deny them is for a man to become a cruel pitiless man and for a woman to become a spineless clinging violet. Every individual is a psychological hybrid. But it is important to keep in mind that Jung meant “masculine” and “feminine” as transpersonal archetypes, not as sex linked characteristics. It is one of the complications of individual psychology that in all cultures the integrity of the personality is violated when it is identified with either the masculine or the feminine side of the symbolic principle of opposites. The fallacy on the part of some feminists is to think that the problem of the exploitation of women by men can be solved by simply taking away power from men and conferring it to women; which is to say, to become like a man, when in fact the problem will be solved when men acknowledge the “eternal feminine” in themselves.


Carl Jung (1875-1961)

The “anima” is the personification of all feminine psychological tendencies within a man, the archetypal feminine symbolism within a man's unconscious. The “animus” is the personification of all masculine psychological tendencies within a woman, the archetypal masculine symbolism within a woman's unconscious. The anima and animus draw their power especially from the collective unconscious, but they are also conditioned by a person's individual experiences. Jung said that the animus is more likely to be personified by multiple male figures, while the anima is frequently a single female as is indeed the case with Dante and Beatrice.


Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933)

The unindividuated man identifies with those personal qualities that are symbolically masculine; he develops these potentialities and to some extent integrates their unconscious influences into his conscious personality. However, he does not recognize qualities that are symbolically feminine as part of his own personality but rather projects them onto women. He will project his anima—those particular characteristics and potentialities that are significant components of his personal unconscious and therefore carry a special emotional charge—onto a few women for whom he will then feel a strong and compelling emotion (usually positive but occasionally negative). Infatuation (an instant, powerful attraction for a woman about whom he knows little) is one of the signs of anima projection, as is a compulsive possessiveness. The diagram below may be helpful:


Vice-versa, the unindividuated woman identifies with those personal qualities that are symbolically feminine; she develops these potentialities and to some extent integrates their unconcious influences into her conscious personality. However, she does not recognize qualities that are symbolically masculine as part of her own personality but rather projects them onto men. She will project her animus—those particular characteristics and potentialities that are significant components of her personal unconscious and therefore carry a special emotional charge—onto a few men for whom she will then feel a strong and compelling emotion (usually positive but occasionally negative). Infatuation (an instant, powerful attraction for a man about whom she knows little) is one of the signs of animus projection, as is a compulsive possessiveness. The diagram below explains this phenomenon:


Since the unindividuated man has not consciously developed any of his symbolically feminine qualities (e.g. emotion, need for relatedness), his personality is apt to be taken over or "possessed" by these qualities at times, so that his emotional behavior and relationships may be acted out in childish and immature ways that are apparent to others but not to him.

Vice-versa, since the unindividuated woman has not consciously developed any of her symbolically masculine qualities (e.g. logic, leadership, need for independence), her personality is apt to be taken over or "possessed" by these qualities at times, so that she appears opinionated, argumentative, or domineering to others, though she will not think of herself that way. In the words of Jung, "Just as the anima of a man consists of inferior relatedness, full of affect, so the animus of woman consists of inferior judgments, or better, opinions."

We can avoid anima/animus possession and withdraw projections by integrating the contrasexual archetype into consciousness, realizing we are cutting off our human potential by recognizing and developing only those symbolic qualities that match the sex of our bodies. The anima leads a man into unexplored depths of feeling, relationship, and sensitivity; the integrated animus leads a woman into the world of the spirit, erudition, and the power of the word. 

In the case of Dante it is obvious that at the beginning of his journey which begins “in the middle of the journey of our lives” Dante has lost the integration of the “eternal feminine” in himself and is therefore on the wrong trajectory. He has to recover that integration. The inspiration comes from what he calls the “donna angelicata” the angelic woman who becomes his guide in the realm of the blessed. Indeed, grace builds on nature, as Aquinas taught us. The saving grace of Dante is that he never forgot the “eternal feminine” in his nature as represented by Beatrice. Perhaps there is a lesson there for modern man in search of a soul (which is the title of one of Jung’s books). To save one’s soul a man needs to accept the anima in himself, and vice-versa, a woman has to accept the animus in herself. Had Dante and Jung taught us nothing else, they would have taught us plenty and very well indeed.

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Francesco Tampoia2014-10-01 19:54:47
Dear Emanuel
Thank you for your ‘Dante and Beatrice: A Great Love Story’
I enjoy it very much

francesco tampoia2014-10-01 20:14:17
Dear Emanuel
Thank you for your ‘Dante and Beatrice: A Great Love Story’
I enjoy it very much

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