Love-intellect. The Imaginings and the Embodiment of Love in Dante’s New Life

Mario Murgia



So, love gives life; and love, dispaire doth give….

“Qui me alit, me extinguit,”
from Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblemes, 183ª


It is definitely risky, yet literarily convenient, to insert an epigraph by Geoffrey Whitney in a piece on the nature of the images (or, to be more descriptive, ‘imaginings’) of love in Dante Alighieri’s New Life. ‘Risky’ because, despite the multifarious structure of the work, La Vita Nuova, strictly speaking, is devoid of actual emblems. It is literarily convenient, however, because in symbolic and visual terms, both early modern emblems and Dante’s descriptive personifications function in a parallel semantic fashion.

Allow me to explain. What has been traditionally stated about the New Life is true for the most part—Dante’s libello [or little book], as Seth Lerer states in his illuminating introduction to Dr David R. Slavitt’s brisk English version, is many things. It is, first and foremost, a treatise on the nature of love, idealised love. Also, it constitutes a verbal shrine to one of literature’s best known, and most sanctified, female figures: Beatrice Portinari, and her figurative avatars. It is a guide to good writing, an exercise on literary (self) criticism, and a manifesto on authorial intentionality—a rather rare poetical artefact in Dante’s time and cultural environment. It is definitely a text whose rhetorical vigour is grounded upon the effectiveness of its strikingly visual figures of speech and thought. However, neither the crimson-clad embodiment of supreme virtue—that is, Beatrice—nor the elaborate visions of the proverbial Love-God, are in themselves optically visible. They cannot be, as several critics have suggested, emblems, for there are in the work no direct references to actual picturae1. And yet, the visualness of these conceits (as in the Italian concetto), may actually allow readers to assign them emblematic capacities of different sorts. In this sense, Dante breaks on through to literary modernity rather than remain absolutely mediaeval, as one would, perhaps naïvely, expect from someone writing in the 1290s. In the formal multiplicity of La Vita Nuova, the poet manages to keep a balance between the imitatio of his striking personifications (indeed, typically medieval) and the sensuous vibrancy of their artistically edifying resonances (an incipiently modern trait of self-consciousness).

But in order to trace the nature of Dante’s ‘metaphorical emblems’—if readers allow such a contorted term—, it is of prime importance to define ‘literal’ ones. According to Henry Green, in his introductory dissertation (1866) on Geoffrey Whitney’s book, ‘The force of the emblem depends upon the symbol, but they differ as man and animal; the latter has a more general meaning, the former a more special. All men are animals, but all animals are not men; so all emblems are symbols, tokens, or signs, but all symbols are not emblems: the two possess affinity indeed, but not identity.’

It is precisely the specificity of Dante’s amorous verbal figures that links them with emblematic intentionality. With regard to the purpose-laden nature of emblems, Green goes on to say that:

We shall form, however, a sufficiently correct notion on this subject [emblems], if we conclude, that any figure engraven, embossed, or drawn, — any moulding, or picture, the implied meaning of which is something additional to what the actual delineation represents, is an emblem. Some thought or fancy, some sentiment or saying is portrayed, and the portraiture constitutes an emblem. Thus hieroglyphics, heraldic badges, significant carvings, and picture writings, are emblems; besides the forms, or devices, visibly delineated, they possess secret meanings, and shadow forth, or line forth sentiments, feelings, or proverbial truths.

In sum, there is no emblem, and therefore no semantic specificity, to follow Green’s train of thought, without a visual reference, or a picture. And yet, there is no denying that Dante is very much a visual poet as he is a verbal one. The sensorial evocations of both his poetry and his prose are essential to the development of the New Life’s narrative structures. There is a story to be told in the libello, but it is of the utmost importance that the actions that are put in motion by the vision (and the envisioning of Beatrice) be recapitulated and potentiated through the thematic novelties of Dantesque verse and its clever positioning amidst the seemingly explanatory prose of the book.

In this very sense, it is significant that the very first references in La Vita Nuova should be related not to physical characters, but to immaterial instances. The book that Dante first brings to attention is obviously not a graspable object, but a creation of the poet’s musings on his own intellectual capabilities. It is a book of evocations, of associations, and of poetic invention—it is expressly a book of memory:

In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria, dinanzi a la quale poco si potrebbe leggere, si trova una rubrica la quale dice: Incipit vita nova. Sotto la quale rubrica io trovo scritte le parole le quali è mio intendimento d'asemplare in questo libello; e se non tutte, almeno la loro sentenzia.

[‘In that part of the book of my memory before which very little is legible, there is a passage with the rubric that says: Incipit vita nova (A new life begins). Below the rubric I find written the words which it is my intention to collect in this little book—or, if not all of them, then at least their general meaning.’]2

This little book is, thus, an exercise in recollection, which, about six centuries afterwards, would be acknowledged as the starting point of any kind of insightful verse. But Dante is no Romantic, and since his initial purpose intends to fulfill the all-too-medieval need for repraesentatio, the opening paragraph of the work very soon becomes symbolic of the poet’s own craft. The symbolism here happens to be overtly emblematic—not only has Dante’s mind acquired some sort of physicality in the form of a book, but it has also been provided with a motto of its own, a sententia: ‘A new life begins,’ expressed in Latin, the language of the learned. The particular meaning of the motto, and its semantic relationship with the ‘image’ of the book, might as well be grasped from the very beginning. It is only when the libello has been read in its entirety, nevertheless, that the overall significance of such mental associations will be fully apprehended. Notice, in this sense, Dante’s vocabulary. The poet’s intention is to retrieve, if not words, at least la loro sentenzia, which Dr. Slavitt accurately translates as ‘general meaning’. And yet, however accurate, the English rendering of the term sentenzia may not be as manifold as Dante’s original. This is of course a problem of ideological (un)translatability, since the poet is most probably using the term as some kind of scholastic Latinism—a sententia is not plainly an overall interpretation, but rather a comprehensive definition, which would be more in tune with Dante’s compendious aims. From the very beginning, La Vita Nuova features the verbalization of a process that brings together vision, memory, and even didacticism. Dante’s new life as a poet and as the scribe of his own recollections thus begins as a personal imprint, a verbal emblem with a noticeable level of rhetorical specificity.

Such specificity is easily verifiable in the representation of Beatrice Portinari, the object of the poet’s devotion, passion, and love. Even if the admiration towards a female figure is one of the chief traits of medieval chivalric and heroic literature, Dante’s worldly view of Beatrice as an idealised-yet-approachable being is drawn from love à la Provençale. In the Provençale tradition of love poetry, and particularly in Dante’s re-writing of this mode, the lady is not an ethereal, unreachable entity of epic overtones, but a woman-in-town, someone who is both admirable and visible; i.e., an individual with a presence that offers a possibility of interaction. And yet, Beatrice is introduced in emblematic, and therefore symbolical, terms. Let us consider Dante’s longish account of his first sighting of the lady, when she was almost nine years old, and he, only a few months older:

Nove fiate già appresso lo mio nascimento era tornato lo cielo de la luce quasi a uno medesimo punto, quanto a la sua propria girazione, quando a li miei occhi apparve prima la gloriosa donna de la mia mente, la quale fu chiamata da molti Beatrice, li quali non sapeano che si chiamare. Ella era in questa vita già stata tanto, che ne lo suo tempo lo cielo stellato era mosso verso la parte d'oriente de le dodici parti l'una d'un grado, sì che quasi dal principio del suo anno nono apparve a me, ed io la vidi quasi da la fine del mio nono. Apparve vestita di nobilissimo colore, umile ed onesto, sanguigno, cinta e ornata a la guisa che a la sua giovanissima etade si convenia. In quello punto dico veracemente che lo spirito de la vita, lo quale dimora ne la secretissima camera de lo cuore, cominciò a tremare sì fortemente che apparia ne li mènimi polsi orribilmente; e tremando, disse queste parole: «Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi». In quello punto lo spirito animale, lo quale dimora ne l'alta camera ne la quale tutti li spiriti sensitivi portano le loro percezioni, si cominciò a maravigliare molto, e parlando spezialmente a li spiriti del viso, sì disse queste parole: «Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra».

[Nine time had the sun completed its yearly zodiacal journey returning to almost the same point, when there first appeared before my eyes the glorious lady of my thoughts who was called Beatrice (giver of blessings) even by many who did not know her name. She had passed enough time on earth for the fixed stars in the heavens to have shifted its eastward a twelfth of a degree. When I first saw her, then, she was nearly nine, and I was almost ten, she appeared dressed in the color of nobility, a subdued crimson, and was belted and trimmed in a proper style for one of her young years. At that instant, I can truthfully say that my animal spirit in the deep chamber of my heart began to tremble, and my fluttering pulses declared: “Behold, a god stronger than I am is coming and will rule me.” At that same moment, the vital spirit that resides in the lofty chambers of the skull to which all the nerves report spoke in its astonishment to my eyes, saying: “Now has your bliss appeared.” ]

It is noticeable that Beatrice should be, first of all, la donna de la mia mente [“the lady of my thoughts,” or rather, “of my mind”], for not only has she dwelled in the poet’s mind as a subject of constant meditation, but she has also constituted a sort of fantasy, a figment of Dante’s ingrained quasi-heroic poetical tendencies. She, however, becomes a physical entity almost immediately afterwards. As any well-trained reader of chivalric romance would expect, she is dressed in red, a colour that signals both social status and amorous passion. Visually, Beatrice is a figure of heraldic undertones, which, in an overt emblematic fashion, is granted, in Latin and by Dante’s vital spirit, an explicative sententia: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi [‘Behold, a god stronger than I am is coming and will rule me.’] The lady has been verbally invested with a subduing power that can only be conceded by the life-giving spirit inhabiting and controlling the poet’s heart and, therefore, his deepest musings on the nature of love. A bit later, a rather earthlier feeling of joy is made evident by means of sensorial perception, through the intervention of ‘the animal spirit’ that dominates the poet’s sense of sight: ‘Now has your [Dante’s] bliss appeared.’ (Here, it is inevitable to notice that David Slavitt has shifted the qualities of the spiriti that Dante personifies in the passage. His reasons for doing so obviously remain a matter of sheer speculation.)

The conceptual vigour of the previous passage lies not only in the vivid physicalisation of the idea of Beatrice, but also in its deification. Beatrice is both the representation and the incarnation of Love, a god that in La Vita Nuova is capable of taking on multiple shapes and visages, one more visually striking than the previous one. What ensues in the narrative is a dream-vision in which, amidst a fiery cloud, the awe-provoking God of Love feeds Beatrice the poet’s heart as he declares ‘I am your master.’ A frightening force to be reckoned with, the mental concept of ‘Love-Beatrice’ needs to be poetised right away. The poet implies that, after the spiritual and sensorial shock caused by the lady’s approach and its consequential vision, the analogic relationship between a pictura of sorts and its sententiae will no longer suffice in terms of poetical expression.

Pensando io a ciò che m'era apparuto, propuosi di farlo sentire a molti, li quali erano famosi trovatori in quello tempo: e con ciò fosse cosa che io avesse già veduto per me medesimo l'arte del dire parole per rima, propuosi di fare uno sonetto, ne lo quale io salutasse tutti li fedeli d'Amore; e pregandoli che giudicassero la mia visione, scrissi a loro ciò che io avea nel mio sonno veduto.

[‘As I pondered what it might have meant, I decided to consult some famous poets of the time and, inasmuch as I had already discovered in myself a talent for setting words into verse, I resolved to make a sonnet which I could greet all devotees of love and ask them to evaluate my vision.’]

Dante does a number of interesting things here with regard to his revelatory experience of love. In the first place, he makes his vision public by sharing it with ‘many troubadours,’ and not just ‘some,’ as the English version reads. Secondly, Dante acknowledges his own talents and capabilities as a poet, and finally, he promotes the practice of what nowadays would be known as literary criticism. This process of aesthetic communication, self-recognition, and professional assessment results in the appearance of the first poetical piece in the book—a sonnet.

A ciascun’alma presa, e gentil core,
nel cui cospetto ven lo dir presente,
in ciò che mi rescrivan suo parvente
salute in lor segnor, cioè Amore.
Già eran quasi che atterzate l’ore
del tempo che onne stella n’è lucente,
quando m’apparve Amor subitamente
cui essenza membrar mi da orrore.
Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo
meo core in mano, e ne le braccia avea
madonna involta in un drappo dormendo.
Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea:
appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.

To anyone whose heart and soul have been smitten
and to whom these presents come (so that they agree
and confirm that they, too, suffer what happened to me
and therefore can vouch for the truth of what I have written),
Greetings—in Love’s name, whose tyranny
oppresses us all. It was a third of the way through the night,
the hour when myriad stars twinkle their light
when Love in his awesomeness appeared to me.
In a spirit that seemed quite cheerful. Love held in his hand
my heart, and in his arm, my lady, asleep,
wrapped in a blanket. Gently, he woke her and
fed her my burning heart. You can understand
how frightened she was as she ate it. I saw him weep,
as he disappeared, grief stricken, and unmanned.

I am tempted so say that Dante’s agile yet grievous verse-summary is but the motto of the mental pictura of his impressive vision, which I have not quoted directly for the sake of brevity. The sonnet is not only a re-writing, a paraphrase of the poet’s account of his hallucination; it is, at the same time, a poetic condensation of the image that his previous narration has imprinted on the reader’s mind. What we have got here is nothing but the poetic rendering of a conceptual figure conceived by means of the poet’s visual imagination. And even if this may sound like an allegorising process unfolding in Dante’s poem, the piece does not remain at the level of immediate visual and/or semantic association, as allegorical emblems typically do. Actually, what Dante does here is take advantage of what very soon becomes one of La Vita Nuova’s central figures of thought, or conceits, if you will—personification.

In his book on allegory, Angus Fletcher proposes that poets who solely occupy themselves with emblems produce somewhat static verbal pictures, almost devoid of action. He goes on to state that ‘Unless he is a pure emblematist, the poet is likely to complicate his poem […]. The poet makes what Spenser called “a pleasing analysis of all,” and in the course of this analysis an action unfolds, with agents to carry it. The agency here is of two sorts: the agents are intended to represent abstract ideas or to represent actual historical persons.’ (2012, 25). Dante, according to Fletcher’s proposal, would ‘complicate’ his poem by appealing to sentimental solidarity from his audience (A ciascun’alma…), by transforming Love into a horrendous human-like entity (…Amor… cui essenza membrar mi da orrore…), and, finally, by turning the sleeping lady into a horrified cannibal, no less (…lei paventosa umilmente pascea…). The poet has thus metamorphosed a highly individualised experience of love into a concrete vision—and perhaps even a re-vision— of human horror and humanized grief, incarnated in both the voice of the poet and the figure of Beatrice. Dante, indeed, has complicated the rhetorical possibilities of his emblematic lines.

As the libello develops, so do its imagistic and rhetorical complexities. Maybe one of the most extensively widely and (over)interpreted pieces of La Vita Nuova is the canzone that Dante chooses to insert in the 19th section of the book. It is the song that begins Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore or, quite literally, ‘Ladies, you who possess love-intellect.’ As commonplace words and wordings begin to fail the poet’s laudatory intentions towards the lady, Dante envisions a more sophisticated, probably even more obscure and alternate, manner of describing, not necessarily Beatrice herself, but his elevated and impassioned feelings for her. At this point in this longish composition, Dante chooses to address diverse interlocutors right after he has imagined an appropriate form for his canzone. The piece’s words take shape almost automatically when Dante sets out to pen his song: Allora dico che la mia lingua parlò quasi come per sé stessa mossa…[‘I am saying now that my tongue spoke almost as though it moved by itself….’ My translation]. The fact that, even before the ballad begins, Dante should personify his tongue—either his language or his actual organ—foreshadows the type of rhetorical techniques to which the poet will resort in order to achieve poetic virtue. Such virtue will necessarily depend on the layout of images and, more importantly, of personifications that will determine the rhetorical intricacies of the song. The opening lines of the canzone read as follows:

Donne ch’avete intelleto d’amore,
i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire,
non prech’io creda sua laude finire,
ma ragionar per isfogar la mente.

[Ladies, you who can understand love, let me
speak to you of my lady, I cannot praise
her highly enough, but poems can be ways
of bringing relief to a sorely distracted mind.]


The ladies that the poet is addressing have a twofold function here. They serve, firstly, as buffers for Dante’s admiration since it would be improper to speak to Beatrice openly and directly, even if she has greeted him before. Secondly, these faceless figures are the initial recipients of the poet’s conception of the intellectual function of poems, which, in time, constitutes the proem to the piece. Notice the presence here of a very Thomistic spiritual notion—the concurrence of intellect (intelletto), will (vo’ con voi), and mind (mente) determine the nature of the human soul, and here, Dante's main concern, i. e., the expression of love through appropriate verse-writing. The poet imagines and conceives his craft as the means whereby this specific sentiment and its consequences in the artist’s mind can be re-coded, and then, apprehended and experienced. Of course, the catalyst of this process is Beatrice’s virtue:

Io dico che pensando il suo valore,
Amor sì dolce mi si fa sentire,
che s’io allora non perdessi ardire,
farei parlando innamorar la gente.

[When I consider her worth and quality,
love lulls me into such a pleasant daze
that I am dumbfounded. Could I but blurt one phrase
anyone who heard my words would find
himself also in love….

This is indeed a new kind of poetry, one that offers the possibility to treat love as a public, human matter in a highly moralising manner. The basic function of this kind of poetry is therefore educational, and it is precisely in its didactic purposes—which, in time, are reinforced by the ensuing personification and divinisation of Love-Beatrice— that the canzone reaches an emblematic level. Most noticeably, in its closing lines, the ballad itself is personified in a direct address on the part of the poet. It is as though Dante actually intended his composition to come to life and speak its own words without depending on his own human, and therefore potentially limited, communicational skills.

Canzone, io so che tu girai parlando
a donne assai, quand’io t’avrò avanzata.
Or t’ammonisco, perch’io t’ho allevata
oer figliuola d’Amor giovane e piana,
che là ove giugni tu dichi pregando:
“Insegnatemi gir, ch’io son mandata
a quella di cui laude so’ adornata”.
E se non vuoli andar sì come vana,
non restare ove sia gente villana;
ingègnati, se puoi, d’esser palese
solo con donne o con omo cortese,
che ti merino là per via tostana.
Tu troverai Amor con esso lei;
raccomàndami a lui come tu dei.

[Canzone, I know that you will journey far,
speaking to women when I send you on
your way and into the world. When you have gone
because you are my offspring, allow me to say
what your duties and my purposes are:
to ask of any, hither, thither or yon,
to help you find the lady, that paragon
whose praises are in you on proud display.
Avoid all cruel and vulgar people, for they
are a waste of your time. Gentle ladies and men
will tell you where Love is, and he again
will direct your feet to find her the fastest way.
Speak well of me to Love. Hold your head high
And convey to him my respects. I pray you, try.]

These lines basically express what the canzone (and, by extension, love poetry in general) is supposed to do, or rather, what the poet imagines it should do. Its main purpose is both communicational and explanatory. And yet, this exercise in public poetry is intended for the initiated, so to speak—only a limited number of people, those who share the poet’s privileged intellectual and moral status, shall understand it. Love poetry, as well as the full apprehension of its nature and its significance, is after all the privilege of an elite that can actually read the verbal incarnation of the feeling. I do not believe I am taking too long a shot when I say that the closing section of the ballad might as well summarise Dante’s purposefulness as a poet who seeks rhetorical novelty. It also outlines, I believe, the scope of The New Life as some kind of a prelude, an initial comment, to longer, more complex and intellectually demanding poetical undertakings.


I began my little disquisition by referring to emblems, those evocative aesthetic constructs whose basic purpose, the enlightening of their beholders on a particular matter, depends on the symbiotic relationship between two disparate communicational codes: that of visual images and that of written language. Being a man of his time, Dante understood the intellectual, moral, and sentimental possibilities of the relationship between image, language and mind, even if images were created, not by visual means, but by the effect of words on the intellect. It is in this regard, that Dante’s Vita Nuova exploits and begins to push away from the basic associationism that is usually linked with medieval emblematic art. Dante’s era was a time when teachings were best apprehended through the discovery of ‘other meanings’ in the seeming plainness of the lines in a drawing or the lines of a poem. It was the duty of a fairly modern poetical mind, in the late 13th century, to realise that, as Geoffrey Whitney would state three hundred years later, love gives life, not only to human beings, but also to the poetic mind. The despair caused by love… well, that is a subject for a different occasion.


  1. See, for instance, Arshi Pipa’s 1985 essay “Personaggi della Vita Nuova: Dante, Cavalcanti e la famiglia Portinari.” Here, the poet, linguist, and critic states that, in the New Life, Dante parts from the imposing figure of his poetic role model and friend Guido Cavalcanti in order to direct his aesthetic attention to the Portinari family. È un modo questo di Dante, tipicamente medievale, di esprimersi per emblemi, che qui sono persone appartenenti a una nobile e pia famiglia fiorentina [‘This is Dante’s typically mediaeval way of explaining himself through emblems, which here are people belonging to a noble, pious Florentine family.’ My translation] (106)   // back
  2. I am using here David R. Slavitt’s outstanding English translation.    // back


         Alighieri, Dante (2010). Vita Nuova, ed. by Maria Corti. Milan: Feltrinelli.
         Alighieri, Dante (2010). La Vita Nuova, trans. by David R. Slavitt. Boston: Harvard University Press.
         Fletcher, Angus (2012). Allegory. The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
         Pipa, Arshi (Summer, 1985). “Personaggi della Vita Nuova: Dante, Cavalcanti e la famiglia Portinari” in Italica, vol. 62, no 2. American Association of Teachers of Italian, p. p. 99-115.
         Whitney, Geoffrey (1866). A Choice of Emblemes, ed. by Henry Green. London: Lovell Reeve & Co.

    MARIO MURGIA was born in Mexico City in 1973. He is probably the only Mexican Milton scholar and has been writing poetry since the age of 11. Being of Italian descent (his father was from Sardinia), he has always been aware of the joys of language-shifting, which has made of translation one of his most rewarding pleasures.

    Editor's Note. Mario Murgia is, with Flaminia Ocampo, guest editing the next issue of The Battersea Review, which will be a Spanish Number.