Dante as Muse

Well you heard about my little adventure in Florence so it should not come as a surprise that I have found a new historical figure to bring into my fold of muses. Dante and his Beatrice are one of history’s famous love stories–for those who do not know their tale, it is quite simple. They never kissed, never wrote love letters. Their romance is a good example of what would be called “Courtly Love.” Traditionally, Dante first saw Beatrice when he was nine years old, she a year younger, at a May Day party. He fell in love instantly and spent the rest of his life writing about this unattainable love. Nine years later, he saw her once again as he crossed paths with her and two female companions. Beatrice died young at age 24, only a few years after this encounter–but decades later in his middle age, Dante still wrote for her. By all accounts, she had imprinted on his soul, never leaving his mind.  In the most touching memorial to her, Beatrice is one of Dante’s guides into Paradise in The Divine Comedy. I always latched on to that detail…a beautiful, elegiac tribute to a woman that he could never have who had long since gone to the grave.

“She passes by, not haughty like her two companions—her emerald eyes flash back at me, intellect buzzing from behind them. Nodding slightly to her women gossiping over a banker’s wife, Beatrice smiles, half-hidden by the flutter of her hand. I wonder what she observes that we do not: a voice from the square that reminds her of her new husband; a child skipping rocks into the Arno; the thankful awareness of her body that has endured an illness to stroll the streets of Florence once more. Perhaps she looks past me on her left to the river, an opaque green alongside the yellowed stone buildings that curl along its banks. Beatrice’s pristine white dress melds with the paleness of her skin, youthfully brilliant in the Tuscan daylight. My eyes can focus on nothing else—she reflects everything. She has grown into a woman perpetually in motion. It has been nearly a decade since Beatrice, a girl of eight years old, blessed me with her stare during the May Day celebrations at her father’s palazzo. I have forgotten many stares, but not hers, the girl with the unpracticed smile. I held it like a scar upon my chest; neither the kisses nor the vows of my wife will wash it away. Gemma too has many scars upon her petite body, stiff under my hands, but we do not talk of loves past. I find beautiful symmetry in the fact that we married close apart, Beatrice. I offered congratulations when your father married you to your affluent banker; I had no reason to be jealous as I was already wed. Still, I mourned that your husband did not know you as a child, clad in crimson, entertaining me with made-up tales of the Romans. How could a man truly love you without that intimate knowledge of who you once were? Beatrice, you stride forward with intent like a mercenary on the hunt for the next venture. Your heart-shaped face swings from side to side—you will not miss a single color, cloth, or tradesman. You love even the ordinariness of a Florentine street. We will not meet again in this life. You will die young, still laughing to yourself at the things that only you can see. I will be exiled from our Florence many more years than you lived—despite spending my career trying to get back there, I will never stroll the place where I last saw you alive. You do not know this fact and neither do I so you keep walking without footsteps, tipping your head slightly to face the sun. I do not turn to watch you round the street corner, as I am certain, in the way only young people are, that we will encounter each other in time.”

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