Mary Jo Bang Wonders Why It Takes So Long to Meet Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno
Considering the Scarcity of Female Characters in the Cantos
Beatrice, Bice, beloved of Dante. What a surprise she is when, rather late in the game, we finally meet her in person. To get to that point, of course, we have to read all 34 cantos of Inferno (where she’s only spoken of and not that often) and then have to read 30 of the 33 cantos of Purgatorio. And meanwhile, because so much happens to our eponymous hero, and we get introduced to so many other captivating characters along the way, she tends to fade into the background. At least she did for me.
Of the enduring figures in the Divine Comedy, relatively few are female. We do meet a few nuns who abandoned their vows on the lowest rung of Paradise. (Yes, in Dante’s version of the afterlife, even Paradise has rungs: Good, better, better-yet, etcetera, until you get to best-ever.) Many of the women in the Comedy are simply names known from history and literature. Cleopatra is, as you might expect, in Hell’s second circle, for lusters, as is Helen, “Whose bad-girl behavior set in motion years / Of nonstop mayhem.”
The most well-known woman of the Comedy is undoubtedly Francesca, whom we meet on that same Inferno circle where Helen and Cleopatra are being eternally battered by the howling winds of sexual desire. Commentators believe the character of Francesca was based on Francesca da Rimini (nee di Folco Portinari) who, forced into a marriage of political expedience at the age of 20 to a much older man, fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Paolo (also married). After an illicit relationship of ten years, the husband surprised his wife and brother in bed and killed them both. The way Francesca tells it, Paolo fell in love with her and since anyone who is loved has to love back, she was helpless to resist (Inf. V. 100–105):
Love lit a fire in my lover’s gentle heart.
He fell in love with the pretty girl I was.
I still resent the way that girl I was was taken from the world.
Love, which is impossible to not return when one is loved,
Made me love him back, so that even now
We’re one in Hell, as we were in the world.
In our sympathy for the ill-fated lovers, encouraged by Dante—his empathic connection is so great he faints at the end of her story—we tend to overlook the fact that Francesca is in hell at least partly because she deflects the blame for her offense instead of taking responsibility for it. Responding to Dante’s question of when she first felt “some spark— / That dubious sense that even the air is softly sighing— / That this was love and worth perdition?” she describes the scene so charmingly, that we too fall in love (Inf. V. 127–138):
One day, to amuse ourselves, we were reading
The tales of love-struck Lancelot; we were all alone,
And naively unaware of what could happen.
More than once, while reading, we looked up
And saw the other looking back. We’d blush, then pale,
Then look down again. Until a moment did us in.
We were reading about the longed-for kiss
The great lover gives his Guinevere, when that one
From whom I’ll now never be parted,
Trembling, kissed my lips.
That author and his book played the part
Of Gallehault. We read no more that day.
First, the fault was Paolo’s love, now it’s the author of the book the two were reading—Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake), a 13th-century Old French prose poem in which the knight Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur of Camelot. The book acted like “Gallehault,” the traitorous character who becomes friends with Lancelot and arranges for the smitten knight to secretly meet with Guinevere, whom he has already convinced to kiss Lancelot.Is it her weakness that makes Francesca so attractive to readers? She certainly fits the mold of the classic tragic heroine who sacrifices all for love.
Is it her weakness that makes Francesca so attractive to readers? She certainly fits the mold of the classic tragic heroine who sacrifices all for love. Countless notable poets, playwrights, composers, and visual artists have been inspired over time to memorialize Francesca, resulting in a vast Francesca-sparked corpus that includes paintings, sculptures, symphonies, chamber music, and not just one but two Italian Paolo e Francesca films (1950, 1971). If you look, however, at the listing on the Wikipedia page for Francesca, you’ll notice all but one of these commemorating works are by men. The single exception is a composition by Olga Gorelli, d. 2006, a lesser-known Italian-born composer who immigrated to New Jersey.
Whatever the source of her appeal, Francesca forces Beatrice into second place for the most famous woman of the Comedy. Unlike Francesca, who’s remembered for what she does, Beatrice is usually remembered for simply being the object of Dante’s love. Except for the Pre-Raphaelites, she’s had far less of an impact on artists. There is an asteroid named after her, 83 Beatrix, the last of the nine asteroids identified between 1849 and 1865 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. And she does feature as the girlfriend of Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events, a children’s book by Daniel Handler that went on to spawn a series of thirteen books that feature Snicket (and a Netflix television series, and a movie, and a board game, and a video game, and a card game).
We first hear of her in Canto 2 of Inferno when the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil explains how he’s the edge of the dark forest from which Dante just emerged (forest equals psychic crisis). Because Beatrice came down to Limbo and, with tears in her eyes, pleaded with him to rush to where Dante was and rescue him from the three beasts blocking his way. If you only read Inferno, and that is the case for many readers, her brief appearance via Virgil’s report will give a false impression of her as a typical damsel in distress, even if the source of distress is Dante’s plight and not her own. Beatrice’s name gets dropped by Virgil a few more times in Inferno and Purgatorio, most often as a prod to hurry Dante along when he’s tired and wants to take a rest. In each case, Dante immediately perks up, as if he’s the Pavlovian dog that salivated at the sound of the feet of the lab assistant that brought its kibble.
According to the poems in Dante’s book of sonnets with prose explications, Vita Nuova, she became the object of his affection when he was nine (and she was eight), when he was taken by his father to her house for a May Day celebration. He writes that he only saw her one other time, at the age of 18 (twice nine, which is divisible by the divine number three, the Trinity)—when she said hello to him (at precisely nine o’clock) while walking with two other women (another group of three). She goes on to marry a banker and dies three years later at the age of 25. On hearing of her death, Dante has a vision of her rising to Heaven surrounded by angels. Afterwards, he considers her his spiritual guide.
Until we meet her in Purgatorio 30, we have no idea what sort of woman Beatrice is, neither in life nor in the Comedy. Dante describes her in Vita Nuova as glorious, excellent, and gentilissima, very kind or very polite, which hardly constitutes a penetrating character analysis. He actually has more to say about the dress she had on when he met her as a child and his initial overwrought reaction:
She was wearing an extremely dignified little dress: demure, blood-red, belted and modestly trimmed in a manner that was perfect for a girl her age. I can honestly say that at that moment, the animating spark of life that lives in the deepest recess of the metaphoric heart exploded with such force that I felt it in every fiber of my being. I was shaken by what it implied: A stronger god than I is about to take control. That’s exactly when the animal within—which occupies that attic room where all the sense perceptions travel, especially the visual—was filled with awe and said to the eyes: Get ready to see blessedness. Then the primitive part of nature, at the most basic level of the gut, began to cry and crying said: Hello misery, my suffering is going to go on forever.
Several times in Purgatorio, Virgil defers to her when he reaches the limits of his pagan knowledge and can’t answer Dante’s questions, each time saying something like, “I’ve told you all I know. Ask Beatrice when you see her.” I took Virgil’s deference at face value: she’s Christian, she has Christian faith, she’ll know what a pagan can’t fathom. Of course, that was my mistake. Each time the poet Dante has Virgil say “ask Beatrice,” he is laying the groundwork for a character so psychologically astute that she’s nothing short of amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it’s not difficult to see why, beginning with Dante’s death, there was pushback against the Beatrice character. Guy Raffa, in his recent book, Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy (Harvard University Press, 2020), writes about how Cecco d’Ascoli, a lecturer in astrology at the university of Bologna, was particularly scathing in “dismiss[ing] Dante’s embrace of Beatrice, a flesh-and-blood woman, as his intellectual and spiritual guide. Declaring that attributing intellect to women was like ‘looking for Mary in the streets of Ravenna’” (35). I think we can safely read “in the streets” as “among street-walkers.”
As a character, she’s truly ahead of her time, and further proof that Dante as a poet was ahead of his. I was in awe watching her confront our hero and chip away at his defenses. It was like watching an old Perry Mason movie where we sit on the edge of our metaphoric seats as we get closer and closer to the complicated truth. She arrives on the scene in Purgatorio in Canto 29 but neither we nor Dante realize it. Dante, having made it up the seven-tiered Mount Purgatory (a level of penance for each of the deadly sins), is now at the Terrestrial Heaven, the old abandoned Eden, standing along the River Lethe with a small group that includes a woman named Matelda (Beatrice’s quasi-assistant, as we’ll find out later). He’s transfixed by an elaborate pageant: seven tree-sized candelabra with banners of colored smoke forming a canopy; twenty-four elders walking two-by-two crowned with fleur-de-lis; four animals, each with six wings; a two-wheeled chariot drawn by a part-lion/part-eagle griffin; two groups of dancers at the chariot’s wheels; and then seven more elders (two, four, and one last straggler), crowned with red flowers. Then, a cliffhanger ending where a clap of thunder brings the parade to an abrupt halt.
As Canto 30 begins, Dante makes out the shape of a woman through a flurry of lilies a choir of angels is lavishing on the chariot: red dress, green cloak, white veil held in place by an olive wreath. The olive wreath cues Minerva, goddess of justice, the art of war, and wisdom, which, as it turns out, fits Beatrice to a T. The veil keeps Dante from recognizing her, although he senses “traces of my ancient flame.” He turns to share this with Virgil only to discover that “Virgil had slipped away, having left us / Dumbfounded after him. Virgil, dearest father, / Virgil to whom I gave myself for safekeeping.” At which point, tears. And to be honest, my eyes welled up too. This is, by any measure, the saddest moment in the Comedy. It stands for every loss we’ve ever endured, which makes it all the more stunning when the veiled woman speaks: “Dante, just because Virgil’s run off / Don’t cry yet; save your crying; / There’s another sword coming to make you cry.” What pre-modern heroine have we ever heard talk like that, outside perhaps a few Greek and Roman goddesses? Plus, when we do get to hear someone like Beatrice speak, the speech is usually presented from the vantage of a male translator, who softens what they have to say even when they’re at their most acerbic:
“Dante, because Virgil leaves you, do not weep yet,
do not weep yet, for you must weep for another sword!”
Charles Singleton 1973
“Dante, though Virgil’s leaving you, do not
yet weep, do not weep yet; you’ll need your tears
for what another sword must yet inflict.”
Allen Mandelbaum 1984
“Dante, that Virgil is no longer here,
Do not yet weep, do not yet weep for that.
A different sword cut, first, must make you weep.”
Robin Kirkpatrick 2007
Evidence of how Beatrice is meant to sound is in Dante’s response. He eyes the speaker and thinks: haughty, imperious, an admiral overseeing a fleet. Then, a taunting revelation and two razor-sharp questions: “Look really well, I’m really Beatrice, I really am. / How were you able to access the mountain? / You know, don’t you, everyone here is happy?” Suddenly, he’s a shamed child looking down at his feet, and she’s no longer a military man but a “mother on her high horse.” He then becomes hard-packed snow trapped by winds on the ridge of mountain (what better metaphor for when our defenses click in?). When the angels begin to sing softly, which he takes as a plea on his behalf that she lighten up (“As in ‘Lady, must you crush him?’”), the ice around his “strangled heart” cracks, and then melts, and he begins to sob uncontrollably—
Beatrice ignores Dante (“the sniveling one / Over there”) and addresses the angels, reminding them of all she’s done to try help him, coming to him in dreams, begging for divine intervention, and how he always resisted. The stakes are too high now to compromise—after all, he was at the edge of the abyss and about to give up. She knows what’s in his mind. He’ll later say (in Paradiso), she “saw through me as well as I saw / Myself.” Unlike Francesca, she’s not going to throw it all away for love. Dante has to suffer in order to achieve contrition and he has to achieve contrition to enter Paradise. Beatrice tells the angels:
God’s supreme decree would be shredded to bits
If Lethe were crossed and a meal like that
Got eaten without the piper being paid
In scalding hot tears of remorse.
She then turns to Dante—“O you, on the other side of the holy stream,” / Getting right to the point, as if the edge / Of what she’d already said wasn’t sharp enough”—and confronts him for having allowed himself to get drawn in by “some young thing or fly-by-night novelty.” “Lift up your beard,” she tells him, and he totally gets it. “[B]y her saying ‘beard’ and meaning ‘face’ I felt all the venom behind the pretext.” She is glorious, with a candor that results from a clarity of thought. What looks like heartlessness, or arrogance, is the awareness that if she shows Dante mercy, she’ll jeopardize the outcome. She’s not about to fail. Not Beatrice. She tells him, “This judge knows things!” After a lifetime of mythologizing Beatrice into a lodestar that would show him the way and, once there, wrap him in her loving arms, he’s come face to face with reality: to earn the respect of this woman, who sits in God’s inner circle, he can’t behave like an immature beardless boy.
Once the Dantean crisis is resolved—confession, remorse, sinful memories erased, memories of goodness restored—he goes with Beatrice to Paradise and becomes one with the cosmos. He finally faces God, where, in a flash of insight, his will and wishes become one with the love that moves the sun and other stars. Knowledge is everything but it has to be achieved. Beatrice’s excellence, which shines through her eyes and mouth, is the result of having knowledge and acting on it. Oh, to be Beatrice. To always know all there is to know and be guided by it. No faltering, no flub-ups.
Excerpted from Purgatorio by Mary Jo Bang. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2021 by Mary Jo Bang.