Historical Love Stories: Dante and Beatrice

The star-crossed romance between the Supreme Poet and his muse.

In the month devoted to all things romantic, we explore some of the most fascinating Florentine couples together with the art historian and owner of Exclusive Connection tours, Lucia Montuschi. Let’s set off in search of the passionate tales of times gone by, starting with the thwarted love between Dante Aligheri and Beatrice Portinari, separated as they were by class divides.

Lucia tells us “A lot of things are said about Dante and Beatrice, but based on very little information; they’ve become a legendary love story like that of Romeo and Juliet! Dante saw Beatrice for the first time at the age of nine and then saw her again nine years later at the age of eighteen and he was completely taken by her. Today, we would say that it was love at first sight. 

A 19th-century romantic account details that the two met at the well inside Palazzo Spini Feroni, now home to the Ferragamo Museum, however this meeting could not have been repeated, the social classes were totally incompatible for those times. In a turreted and walled Florence with great family rivalries, Dante was a political figure with important offices who had been elected prior and was an active intellectual experiencing this historical moment together with San Francesco and Giotto, laying the foundations for the early Renaissance and new humanism: emerging relationships with language, spirituality and painting.

In spite of all these accolades, Dante still remained an Alighieri, nothing in comparison to a Portinari. Beatrice was the daughter of Folco Portinari, prior of Florence. He was a banker and very wealthy man who is still today linked with the history of Florence due to the donations made thanks to Monna Tessa, Beatrice’s nurse, given for the construction of Santa Maria Nuova Hospital.

The family became a cornerstone for Florentine patronage, we just have to think about the work of Tommaso, a trader for the Medici in Bruges, who brought the famous Portinari Triptych to Florence where it was exhibited for a long time in the Church of Sant'Egidio, before being exhibited in the Uffizi Galleries.

As you can see they were very high bourgeoisie! A marriage between them was not even conceivable. She married a Bardi, a family with a very important chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce at the wings of the transept. Bardi and Portinari were great entrepreneurs in Florence at the time of the creation of the Florentine bank and economic success. Dante, on the other hand, married Gemma Donati, also for social convenience.

In short, their impossible and never actualized love transformed into Dante’s creation of something sublime. It remained in the poet's mind, where he raised her to the level of an angelic woman who guided him through heaven in his poetry. She was an ethereal figure and great beauty, "so kind and so honest she seems", portrayed several times as a fairy, both weightless and elevated.

In the end, Beatrice died very young, it seems that it was while in childbirth. She was buried with her husband, as was usual, in the Bardi chapel of Santa Croce, but everyone looks for her in the church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, where the two met for the second time near Dante's house, and where the Portinari family had a chapel.

When we enter the church and visit her tomb, next to it we find a basket in which visitors leave love letters. This is because, even though it’s a legendary story, any form of love is always contemporary. Think about not being able to find a way to unite, of living out a platonic love at a distance, perhaps separated by a screen...who among us can’t relate? This was an intimate, personal and profound love that perhaps never knew earthly life, but the feelings of which will never fade".

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