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La Beatrice di Dante

The concluding part to an essay ("Dante's Beatrice") by this Italian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

In The New Life, therefore, we have a Beatrice oscillating between woman and angel; in The Banquet, a Beatrice consumptive from symbol and allegory, a creature without blood or flesh like Anacreon's cicada; in The Divine Comedy, in which everything is completed and merged, here we find ourselves face to face with a whole Beatrice, simultaneously woman and angel, sentiment and reason, symbol and reality. Sketched from the sentiment in The New Life, affected by The Banquet's syllogisms, she is represented as completely derived from the genius of The Divine Comedy, in which Faith, Science, and Art beautifully embrace one another like The Three Graces of Canova.

For sure, we do not find herein all the characteristics of a mortal creature, transported alive and palpitating from the immortal realm of art; nor are we speaking directly and powerfully to the heart like Francesca, Desdemona, or Margarete. Yet I say given such a Beatrice, this youngest of angelets, quickly vanished from the world in this way. And given all the circumstances of time and place in which she was born and in which the genius, the love, the character, and the poetry of Dante occurred, she is as she ought to have been. She is not an idea or the symbol of art embodied in a living creature, but a living creature whom Faith, Science, and Art lift upon their wings and then confuse with the light of the supernatural and the infinite.

If you were to snatch her from such an environment, she would lose both substance and life; and she would be destroyed by your hands like the delicate wings of a butterfly. Behold her from afar and leave her in that world in which she was born and where she grew up. Then you will see her drawn only against a diffuse light, like the image of the Madonna seen in dreams and depicted by Fra Angelico. This Beatrice, however, as it were, does not miraculously leap out from the brain of Dante. She is the result of a slow and extremely long elaboration, not only from the mind of our Poet, but also from tradition and the popular poetic consciousness.

Works of art in accordance with the laws are the processes of the creations of nature: isolated phenomena that do not simply appear, but rather are derived from the miraculous disruption of laws. Everything is the product of an ordered and more or less visible labor, and only in a state of superstitious ignorance could one call portentous the existence of a fact whose concatenations and projections are not known. Since art was able to reach all representations of Beatrice, the hetaera of Athens and the matron of Rome would have had to transform themselves gradually into the woman of the Gospels; that Semele and Psyche, victims of the supernatural, became the Virgin Mother, spouse of the Holy Spirit, indicate origins of divinity incarnate.

The religion of Christ provided art with two types of women: the virgin mother – the enigma – and the regenerate adulteress – the scandal. The first is thrust into flight on the art of the supernatural, that is, of mystery, and was the legitimate mother of all the madonnas sung by the medieval poets, in particular by our poets who have babbled on in this matter almost until now. The second, placing art on that spectrum between forgivable and forgiven sensuality, flies upon faith, on the florid path, to slide back ultimately into the brothel. Manon Lescaut, Marion Delorme, and La Dame aux camélias are natural outgrowths of the famous phrase: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

From all these evanescent madonnas of the Platonic Italian cycle, the firmest, most decisive and most luxuriant figure is certainly that of Beatrice, who is not a complete woman, but rather a complete creature of art. Mandetta, Selvaggia, Laura, to name only some of the most beautiful, remain inferior to the creation of Dante: they have less of the symbolic and more of the real. They are neither women nor ideas; their beloved names are repeated in all tones and with all the sweetness of their lovers. The being who is complete, human, and living, the true divination of the woman of medieval art, is Francesca. She is neither an angel nor a prostitute, but very humanly and almost fatally culpable; not wholly damned by an ascetic and Pharisee art, and not wholly regenerated by an art that is both stingily liberal and unabashedly vulgar. Thus she is a complete woman in the human and artistic sense of the word, whose fatal weakness is a piteous halo, the infinite martyrdom, and love.

After her we would be at pains to find in all of Italian poetry a perfect figure of woman. In Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, Sophronia is a statue, Erminia an idyll, Armida an animate symbol recalling both Medea and Ariadne. Ariosto's women are either extravagantly true or extravagantly beautiful: either they are stern and indifferent warriors who later evaporate in a pastoral honeymoon, or legendary figures of magic, or adventurers of seductive nakedness. The best of all of them, Olympia, is simply the restoration of two ancient pictures: one painted by Catullus on two old designs from Euripides and Apollonius of Rhodes; the other a watercolor on similar plans by Ovid.   

For the poets of the sixteenth century, woman was either a sheet of white paper on which their Platonic courtesan songs were inscribed in a beautiful hand, or a filthy sheet of paper on which, gentlemen as they were, they dared to write nothing, leaving to Marino the glory of capsizing on the splendid cornucopia of his obscenities. Among the women of modern poetry, noteworthy are only those of Leopardi; yet Eloisa, Aspasia, and Nerina do not actually live from a life of their own, as they are merely reflections of the poet's soul. 

Of the others it is better not to say a word. It is not worth mentioning that they remain figurines of decalcomania carved with the base shears of Romantic sentimentalism and badly glued to the bottom of a cooking tray, from which the only thing that might surface is the covetous scent of a prepared dish and a simpering crowd of convalescents. Very few of these accused parties, yawning, show any sign of life, because even those born with scrofula would go to take a cure at an ospizio marino.

Our poets need to persuade themselves one blessed time that they may write about their pastoral visions and their stoves, that they may descend from their clouds in which they have lived hitherto, that they may live on earth with mankind and breathe with full lungs the wholesome oxygen of reality. Woman here will not be as singularly feminine as in novels; she will not dominate them like she dominates gentlemen; she will not be an idea or a symbol as in Platonic writings. She will no longer be in the heavens or on the altar, but on earth, amid society, and first and foremost in the family, which is the true domain and perhaps the only one of her virtues.  

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