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From heavenly virtue to Cardinal Sin: Dante's Beatrice and D'Annunzio's Elena.

A close reading of a particular passage from D'Annunzio's 1889 decadent novel II piacere, containing a lengthy description in minute detail of Elena Muti crossing a crowded room, and the effects of her passing on the surrounding crowd, reveals interesting concordances with Dante's Vita Nuova, and specifically his sonnets "Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore', and "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare".

D'Annunzio's novel is brimming with references--generally direct ones--to a rich repository of five hundred years of Italian art, poetry and literature, including that of Dante, Petrarca, Lorenzo de' Medici; to European and Oriental poetry and art, as well as to ancient Greek mythology, all of which serve to illustrate and illuminate his text as well as to infuse it with the sumptuous, gorgeous, deeply cultural and aristocratic atmosphere that befits the novel's decadent protagonist, Andrea Sperelli, born to a long line of noble aesthetes.

Il piacere is a novel of contrasts, one of the most prominent of these being the split between the sacred and the profane, reflected in various duahties--sinner/saint, redemption/perdition. Throughout the novel, D'Annunzio shows in painstaking detail and explicitly declares this dichotomy, often grazing the boundaries of blasphemy. It is made clear in the narrator's description of Sperelli:

Inoltre, giovava aUo Sperelli quel certo nome ch'egli aveva d'artista misterioso; ed erano rimasti celebri due sonetti, scritti nell'albo della principessa di Ferentino, ne' quali come in un dittico ambiguo egli aveva lodato una bocca diabolica e una bocca angelica, quella che perde le anime e quella che dice Ave (D'Annunzio 160).

This juxtaposition of a "bocca diabolica" and a "bocca angelica" is a foreshadowing of the dichotomy D'Annunzio will build up between Elena and Maria, Andrea Sperelli's two principal lovers in the story. Another similar juxtaposition is that of saints and sinners (talking of women's honor, or lack thereof, not men's):

--La stagione e gia dunque in fiore?

--Quest'anno, e precoce come non mai, per le peccatrici e per le impeccabili.

--Quali delle impeccabili sono gia a Roma? (293)

And once more combining flesh with faith, there is Andrea's comment: "La Moceto ha, dicono, il piu bel ventre della Cristianita..." (296).

Copious descriptions make it abundantly clear to the reader that Sperelli's apartment is outfitted with every possible ecclesiastical memento, relic and fabric, the "religious" or "spiritual" stage setting in which it pleases him to seduce his women:
   In certe iscrizioni tessute ricorreva il nome di Maria tra le
   parole della Salutazione Angelica; e in pih parti la gran sigla M
   era ripetuta; in una, era anzi a ricamo di perle e di
   granati.--Entrando in questo luogo--pensava il delicato
   addobbatore--non credera ella d'entrare nella sua Gloria?--E si
   compiacque a lungo nell'imaginar la istoria profana in mezzo alle
   istorie sacre (289).

The two female protagonists who comprise Sperelli's major love interests, Elena Muff and Maria Ferres, are commonly described as representing two opposite poles--Elena as the pagan sensual goddess recalling--through "an altogether obvious nomenclature" (Schoolfield 40)--the mythical Helen of Troy (or Sparta, as she is described at one stage: Helena Amyclaea), and Maria who is associated with the longsuffering, virginal and pure turris eburnea, the Virgin Mary. Sperelli's desire to conflate his two lovers into one can be seen as the ultimate fusion of these two poles, as seen in these two quotes: "egli poteva fondere le due bellezze per possederne una terza imaginaria, piu complessa, piu perfetta, piu vera perche ideale..." (341); and further on:

E l'imagine del boa suscito l'imagine della treccia di Donna Maria, suscito in confuso tutti gli amorosi sogni da lui sognato intorno a quella vasta capellatura vergine che un tempo faceva languir d'amore le educande nel monastero fiorentino. Di nuovo, egli mescolo i due desiderii; vagheggio la duplicita del godimento; travide la terza Amante ideale (D'Annunzio 344).

His desire to contaminate the pure Maria is the ultimate profanation of the pure. The Virgin Mary is the icon of purity; it is not easy to imagine anyone placing her in the role of sexual object, and indeed for Christians, this is the ultimate blasphemy; it is taboo. However, Andrea Sperelli takes this taboo and shatters it, by expressing his desire to immolate the woman whose image is associated with the Virgin Mary:
   Era un sogno poetico, quasi mistico. Egli aspettava Maria. Maria
   aveva eletta quella notte di soprannaturale bianchezza per immolar
   la sua propria bianchezza al desiderio di lui. Tutte le cose
   bianche intorno, consapevoli della grande immolazione, aspettavano
   per dire ave ed amen al passaggio della sorella (358).

The narrator points out that the Psalms themselves have been put to the use of seducing Maria: "Egli aveva messo a fondamento della sua seduzione il versetto d'un salmo: "Asperges me hyssopo et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor" (345) (1); this is a perfect example of his bending of the sacred and the pure to the ends of profanity and base carnal desire. His religiously decorated room seems to him to be the perfect place for engaging in his carnal activity:
   Il possesso materiale di quella donna cosi casta e cosi pura gli
   parve il piu alto, il piu nuovo, il piu raro godimento a cui
   potesse egli giungere; e quella stanza gli parve il luogo piu degno
   ad accogliere quel godimento, perche avrebbe reso pih acuto il
   singolar sapore di profanazione e di sacrilegio che il segreto
   atto, secondo lui, doveva avere. La stanza era religiosa, come una
   cappella (288).

There are countless examples of this sort throughout the novel.

Where so many explicit references are given to this duality of dissolution and spirituality, it is interesting to come across a passage where the juxtaposition of sacred and profane is implicit and almost hidden. It is an intertextual reference that recalls in lexical choice, syntax and imagery, an original and influential text that forms one of the cardinal points of Italian Renaissance literature, namely Dante's collection of lyrical poetry and prose, Vita Nuova, in which he describes the story of his love for Beatrice. The passage recalls in particular, two of the most famous sonnets in Italian poetry, namely "Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore', and "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare".

The concordances are interesting, because they serve to highlight even more clearly D'Annunzio's ability to take original sources and adapt them to suit his purposes. Before we address a comparison of these passages, we should consider, in general, the significance of Beatrice for Dante, and in particular, the significance of the sonnets we are examining here. Dante fell in love with Beatrice when he was nine years old, and she eight; his love for her lasted his entire life, even after her death at the age of 24 or 25 in 1290. He wrote Vita Nuova as an explication of his love for her, and at the end of this book, resolved never to mention her again until he could deal with her in a manner more worthy: the result was his Divine Comedy, in which he finally meets up with her again in earthly Paradise, and she accompanies him through Heaven to the presence of God.

As a symbol, Beatrice is the woman who redeems Dante, who knows that he has gone astray; through his earthly love for her he can once more find his path to God. The Vita Nuova is an exploration of the concept of love, of his love for Beatrice, and the effects of this love on his life and outlook. What we must realise, in the first place, is that Dante's relationship with Beatrice is never consummated. Possibly, it may never have gone further than reciprocal greeting. In the second place, Dante's vision of Beatrice is in accordance both with the tenets of courtly love and with those of the "dolce stil nuovo', the "sweet new style" of writing love lyrics created by Dante and his circle of friends. Women in general, and Beatrice specifically, are elevated to a superior status, and accorded veneration and respect. The figure of Beatrice is presented as ideal; indeed she is "always referred to in superlative terms ("la gentilissima", "la cortesissima') implying her supremacy over other ladies with the same virtues" (Petrie and Salmons 21). In courtly love, the woman is always superior to the man, who has to work very hard to deserve her attention or her acknowledgment; at the very most, her love, which is usually adulterous. Singleton comments that "Courtly love is never a love of equals. Domina [the lady addressed in the poetry] is always above the poet and seems, as the tradition grows older, increasingly higher and higher above, until finally she begins to resemble an angel" (Singleton 68).

In the Vita Nuova, Dante elevates Beatrice to the very highest possible level, stopping short of blasphemy himself. As we see in Sonnets XXIV and XXVI, and other poems in this collection, she is elevated by Dante to resemble a Christ figure: as Bernard Levy says, "Dante describes Beatrice in almost divine terms, as an analogue of Christ as creator" (56). This may be clearly seen in the poetry, and examples of these analogues are amply illustrated by Singleton and others. I shall examine instances of these shortly.

We should now ask: What, or who, is Elena Muti for Andrea Sperelli? She is a woman with whom he falls in love at first sight. He succeeds in seducing her, and they enter into an intense sexual relationship which she eventually abruptly terminates, giving him no explanation. This breaks his heart and leads him down a road of greater dissolution than any he has ever traversed. What is significant about this relationship, while it lasts, is that in a sexual sense it is on completely equal terms, but while Andrea longs to objectify Elena and possess her, he will never succeed in doing so, because she is as strong as he is, if not stronger. Sexually, Elena is as dominant as Andrea is, and as uninhibited.
   Ambedue non avevano alcun ritegno alle mutue prodigalita della
   carne e dello spirito. Provavano una gioia indicibile a lacerare
   tutti i veil, a palesare tutti i segrefi, a violare tutti i
   misteri, a possedersi fin nel profondo, a penetrarsi, a mescolarsi,
   a comporre un essere solo (144-45).

She may affect purity or chastity in public, but this is only out of a sense of social decorum: she admits to him after she finally allows him to seduce her, "Mi sarei data ate la sera stessa ch'io ti vidi" (145). And the narrator comments: "Ella ne provava una specie d'orgoglio ..." (145). After Andrea meets her, he hears rumors about her that she is suspected of adultery with another woman's husband. Although he hopes that they are not true, this does not dim his ardor for her in any way and he persists in pursuing her until she "surrenders". Much later, after Elena's return to Rome with a husband in tow, after rejecting Andrea again, she takes another lover, a friend of Andrea's.

She is, therefore, a woman who is neither pure nor virtuous. She is, however, a woman who has great power; she takes a position of command in a relationship; she has the power to break things off and to decide when to start things up. She is a profoundly sexual woman, who has no qualms about having a sexual relationship within or without the bounds of marriage. Her only criterion, it seems, is that the man she sleeps with (or marries), be socially, economically, or biologically superior to her: she needs an Alpha male. It is perhaps when it becomes clear to her that Andrea is not Alpha enough, that she leaves him. (2)

With reference to D'Annunzio's passage that we examine here, it should be noted that this event takes place before Andrea seduces her, when he can still perceive her as being untouched--by his hands, at least; so we should read the passage keeping in mind that Elena is still a mysterious, remote woman for Andrea, one with whom he is already madly in love, but who exerts a strong sense of enigma.

Let us examine the texts, so that we may see the differences and the similarities, and the significance of these. We need to analyse the key points of these texts, in order to understand the meaning of central concepts of the sonnets, and hence to compare and contrast them with D'Annunzio's text. The two texts are presented below, the first being D'Annunzio's. This contains a description of Elena Muti making her entrance at a society event:

Ella s'avanzava nell'istoriata galleria del Caracci, dov'era minore la calca, portando un lungo strascico di broccato bianco chela seguiva come un'onda grave sul pavimento. Cosi bianca e semplice, nel passare volgeva il capo ai molti saluti, mostrando un'aria di stanchezza, sorridendo con un piccolo sforzo visibile che le increspava gli angoli della bocca, mentre gli occhi sembravan pih larghi sotto la fronte esangue. Non la fronte sola ma tutte le linee del volto assumevano dall'estremo pallore una tenuita quasi direi psichica. Ella non era pih ne la donna seduta alla mensa degli Ateleta, ne quella al banco delle vendite, ne quella diritta un'istante sul marciapiede della via Sistina. La sua bellezza aveva ora un'espressione di sovrana idealita, che meglio splendeva in mezzo alle altre dame accese in volto dalla danza, eccitate, troppo mobili, un po' convulse. Alcuni uomini, guardandola, rimanevan pensosi. Ella metteva anche negli animi piu ottusi o fatui un turbamento, una inquietudine, un'aspirazione indefinibile. Chi aveva il cuor libero imaginava con un fremito profondo l'amore di lei; chi aveva un'amante provava un oscuro rammarico sognando un'ebrezza sconosciuta, nel cuore non pago; chi recava entro di se la piaga d'una gelosia o d'un inganno aperta da un'altra donna, sentiva ben che avrebbe potuto guarire.

Ella s'avanzava cosi tra gli omaggi, avvolta dallo sguardo degli uomini. All'estremita della galleria, si uni ad un gruppo di dame che parlavano vivamente agitando i ventagli, sotto la pittura di Perseo e di Fineo impietrato. Eranvi la Ferentino, la Massa d'Albe, la marchesa Daddi-Tosinghi, la Dolcebuono (D'Annunzio 133-4).

I will now examine the two sonnets by Dante from Vita Nuova.
   Sonnet XXI

   Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore

   Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore,
   per che si fa gentil cio ch'ella mira;
   or'ella passa, ogn'om ver lei si gira,
   e cui saluta fa tremar lo core,
   si che, bassando il viso, tutto smore,
   e d'ogni suo difetto allor sospira:
   fugge dinanzi a lei superbia ed ira.
   Aiutatemi, donne, farle onore.

   Ogne dolcezza, ogne pensero umile
   nasce nel core a chi parlar la sente,
   ond'e laudato chi prima la vide.

   Quel ch'ella par quando un poco sorride,
   non si po dicer ne tenere a mente,
   se e novo miracolo e gentile.

   Sonnet XXVI

   Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare

   Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
   la donna mia quand'ella altrui saluta,
   ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
   eli occhi no l'ardiscon di guardare.

   Ella siva, sentendosi laudare,
   benignamente d'umilta vestuta;
   e par che sia una cosa venuta
   da cielo in terra a miracol most-rare.

   Mostrasi si piacente a chi la mira
   Che da per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
   che 'ntender no la puo chi no la prova:
   e par che de la sua labbia si mova
   un spirito soave pien d'amore,
   che va dicendo a l'anima: Sospira.

Throughout the Vita Nuova, which is a unique autobiographical text composed of prose passages and poems of different types, Dante introduces each poem, explaining the topic of each one; thereafter he comments on the structure, the content and the meaning of the poem. In the sonnet "Amore e 'l cor gentil sono una cosa" (3), in section XX, Dante presents the "early Italian lyric tradition" of love poetry, presenting his view of the nature of love--which is "inseparable from the 'cor gentil', or, (naturally) noble heart, activated and developed by the presence of the beloved" (Petrie and Salmons 86). Having presented this notion of the "cor gentil', Dante shows the power of his beloved, Beatrice, in awakening love. In the introduction to "Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore", Dante explains how Beatrice is capable of awakening Love not only where it sleeps, but where it does not even potentially exist:
   XXI. Poscia che trattai d'Amore ne la soprascritta rima, vennemi
   volontade di volere dire, anche in loda di questa gentilissima,
   parole per le quali io mostrasse come per lei si sveglia questo
   Amore, e come non solamente si sveglia la ove dorme, ma la ove non
   e in potenzia, ella, mirabilemente operando, lo fa venire. E allora
   dissi questo sonetto, lo quale comincia: Ne li occhi porta.

What are the central concepts and significance of the two sonnets? The first is found in section XXI of Vita Nuova; this, and the equally famous one that precedes it ("Amore e 'l cor gentil sono una cosa") both "show the miraculous effects of Beatrice's presence. She can make everyone gentile, and hence can arouse love even where it is not dormant" (Petrie and Salmons 88). After the sonnet has been presented, Dante goes on to explain how this woman brings a potentiality into being through the noble aspect of her eyes; then, how she does so through her noble mouth. He divides the sonnet into two parts with an appeal to women, saying, "Aiutatemi, donne, farle onore"--and in the second part describes the sweetness and humility that come to all those who hear her speak, and the indescribable effect of her slightest smile.

Below, I dwell on the effects of Beatrice's passage as presented in the verses of this sonnet, because these are the essential components of my discourse in comparing D'Annunzio's passage with Dante's texts.

Negli occhi porta la mia donna Amore,/ per che si fa gentil cio ch'ella mira: In these verses, the love that Beatrice carries renders noble everything she sees. Gorni observes that "Beatrice non e solo un benefico demiurgo attualizzante, ma anche creatrice dal nulla di Amore, suo compimento perfetto (lo fa venire), anche la ove non preesistano potenzialita" (111), in other words, she calls forth love even in hearts that are hard and cold. This, therefore, is miraculous. She is substituting nature, in the way she gives rise to new life. Her eyes are the force that brings about this change. The love that Beatrice arouses is to be seen as Christian, not sexual; a positive force, akin to charity, the greatest of the three Christian virtues: according to the Apostle Paul, "Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (1 Corinthians, 13.13). Love is defined as a "Divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for His own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God" (Sollier 397).

si che, bassando il viso, tutto smore, / e d'ogni suo difetto allor sospira: Gorni interprets the traditional pallor of the lover as penitence, signifying that Beatrice is bringing salvation to the soul: "Il tradizionale pallor amantium e qui interpretato in versione penitenziale, e insomma salvifica" (112).

fugge dinanzi a lei superbia ed ira./ Aiutatemi, donne, farle onore: With Beatrice's passage, two capital sins (pride and wrath) are banished from those who perceive her, such is her ennobling and saving grace.

Ogne dolcezza, ogne pensero umil / nasce nel core a chi parlar la sente: In contraposition to the two capital sins that she banishes, Beatrice generates two heavenly virtues in the hearts of those who hear her voice: sweetness--which is akin to kindness, and humility, an important Christian virtue, and the direct opposite of Pride.

ond'e laudato chi prima la vide. / Quel ch'ella par quando un poco sorride: An ambiguous, much-debated passage. Scherillo explains "laudato" as deriving from Beatrice's inspiration of virtue and goodness in those she meets: "poiche ogni sentimento di bonta nasce nel cuore a colui chela sente parlare, chi ebbe la fortuna d'incontrarla subito sulla sua via, di vederla primamente, e laudato, elogiato ed ammirato, dalle genti" (135). Gorni interprets "laudato" as being the equivalent of "ex hoc beatam me dicent" of the Magnificat" ("from this they shall call me blessed") (113).

Quel ch'ella par quando un poco sorride: For Gorni, Beatrice's slight smile expresses a higher degree in the Dantescan theory of the Beatricean miracle, as it correlates to Beatrice's "sorrise e guardommi"--she smiled and looked at me--in Dante's Paradiso XXXI, 92 (113).

non si po dicer ne tenere a mente: This expresses the ineffability of the woman, and according to Gorni, also correlates with Paradiso XVIII (11) "ma per la mente che non puo ridire"--the mind that cannot relate what it saw, so inexpressible it is in human terms (113).

se e novo miracolo e gentile: "New" is interpreted here as "unheard of". Once again the miracle is to be seen in divine terms.

Natoli groups this sonnet in a "trinity" with the two preceding poems, seeing the tone being lifted higher in each progressive one and culminating in this one: from "amore terreno si passa all'amore intellettuale, che confina con l'amore spirituale, che e figlio della Grazia divina" (129). The notion of the supremacy of spiritual love and its connection to divine grace is seen as central to this sonnet.

The second sonnet, from section XXVI, reflects similar concepts to those in XXI, but depicts Beatrice as even more Christ-like in the effects she generates during her passage through groups of people. In his introduction to the section, Dante describes her humility, the honesty she inspires in those who are near her, and her appearance of being more than human, an angel come from heaven:
   Ella coronata e vestita d'umilitade s'andava, nulla gloria
   mostrando di cio ch'ella vedea e udia. Diceano molti, poi che
   passata era: "Questa non e femmina, anzi e uno de li bellissimi
   angeli del cielo". E altri diceano: "Questa una maraviglia; che
   benedetto sia lo Segnore, che si mirabilemente sae adoperare!"

In Dante's sonnet, "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare", key significance for our analysis is to be found in the opening verse: Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare la donna mia, quand'ella altrui saluta, for the greeting that Beatrice makes. The verb "salutare", and the noun "salute" or "saluto", does not simply mean "to greet"; more importantly, "salute" in Dante's time had the triple meaning of "health", greeting, as well as "salvation", the salvation brought by Christ. Hence, this sonnet should be read in the light of Beatrice's powers of salvation. The entire sonnet reflects a lack of physicality in the depiction of Beatrice, showing rather her spiritual qualities and the effects she exerts on others who hear her greeting or see her eyes. Her "lips" are mentioned, but in connection with the effect they exert: moving a tender spirit that communicates with the soul. This sonnet transmits the idea of the woman as a direct emanation of divine power, which through her greeting can give salvation to man. She transmits a sentiment of love which strikes the heart and makes men lose their power of speech, allowing them only to sigh. Beatrice may not be reached physically, but only through nobility and kindness of the soul. Here, Christian culture fuses with courtly lyrical tradition in venerating the woman as angel, and beyond angel, as Christ-like figure.

ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta,/ eli occhi no l'ardiscon di guardare: Once more, words are not enough to express one's sentiments at beholding Beatrice, the way Dante will be unable to express or even remember his sentiments on beholding God once he comes into his presence in Paradiso.

Ella si va, sentendosi laudare, / benignamente d'umilta vestuta; / e par che sia una cosa venuta / da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare: Once again we see the significance of the heavenly virtue "humility", a great medieval virtue, which is Beatrice's greatest virtue.

Mostrasi si piacente a chi la mira, / che da per li occhi una dolcezza al core, / che 'ntender no la puo chi non la prova: Here, Beatrice,

Christ-like, beatifies through her eyes.

Two sections earlier, in section XXIV of the Vita Nuova, another very significant passage is presented. The introduction (beginning "Appresso questa vana imaginazione") shows how Dante draws parallels between Beatrice and Christ, by describing a woman known as Giovanna who walks before her, thus recalling John the Baptist who preceded Christ, the 'true light' who illuminated "noi nelle tenebre" (Scherillo 170). Singleton sees the passage as a turning point, one which sees "a new light dawn" in Dante's story of love, and the emerging of "what is perhaps the controlling metaphor of the whole construction: a certain resemblance of Beatrice to Christ" (21). What Singleton emphasizes is that where people might see Dante's depiction of Beatrice as an allegory of Christ, it is "not allegory. Where one has read Beatrice in the story up to now, or in the story as it continues, one may not now substitute Christ. Beatrice is as Christ, and because this is true, the lady who comes before her is as John the Baptist" (21-22). This is essential in our understanding of the figure of Beatrice, and in understanding the difference between the depiction of Beatrice by Dante, and of Elena by D'Annunzio.

By now in the Vita Nuova, by Sonnet XXVI as we have read it, Beatrice is more than the lady of courtly love tradition; more than an angel; but is as Christ himself, the redeemer of men who brings salvation to whoever sees her. Not only does she inspire love in hearts where it could not possibly have arisen, but she also brings about new life. Turning our attention now to D'Annunzio's passage, it is possible to see some startling similarities and some concordances which are, indeed, mirror images--namely, in reverse--of Dante's text. It is also pertinent to note an incident a few pages earlier in Il piacere, which foreshadows the passage here under examination, and also strongly recalls Dante's Vita Nuova: namely, the greeting that Elena denies Andrea--which echoes Beatrice's denied greeting to Dante: "Egli non aveva visto negli occhi di Elena il singolar saluto a cui aveva tanto pensato; egli non era stato distinto da lei, in mezzo agli altri, con nessun segno. 'Perche?' Si sentiva umiliato" (D'Annunzio 123). Dante says much about this denied greeting; one quote is: "mi nego lo suo dolcissimo salutare, nello quale stava tutta la mia beatitudine'. In the cases of both men, the negation of the woman's greeting is followed by the young men's extreme distress.

The signal that recalls Dante's sonnets is the first words of D'Annunzio's passage, repeated again in the second paragraph: "Ella s'avanzava', which lend the passage a solemn, processional air that is present nowhere else in this novel, and alert us to the presence of a different register. While this exact verb (avanzare) is not used in Dante (who uses andare), the verb tense, the use of a pronominal, the syntax and the verb of movement are, and D'Annunzio's two-fold repetition of the phrase "Ella s'avanzava" is a signpost to Dante's repeated descriptions of Beatrice who proceeds--"Ella s'andava'--through crowds of people who turn to see her and are profoundly moved by her passage. So, the first obvious similarity is the image of a woman moving slowly forward through a crowd, arousing not only interest but marvel, and exerting a force that generates change in men's hearts. In both passages we have a woman who is seen as someone far superior to the women around them, and indeed far superior to a flesh-and-blood woman. In each passage we have the physical characteristics recurring of head, heart, eyes and lips. Elena in this passage is dressed all in white; concordances with Beatrice could be traced to Dante's second meeting with her, in which she was "vestita di colore bianchissimo"--dressed in a superlative white: Petrie and Salmons observe of this that De Robertis "sees overtones of the transfiguration of Christ in this description (see Mark 9.2: "And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white") (48n). This whiteness is repeated, in D'Annunzio--"Cosi bianca e semplice, nel passare volgeva il capo ai molti saluti". Significant in Dante is the act of greeting; here too it is a pre-eminent part of the action in the description.

Petrie and Salmons observe that "Beatrice moves through the Vita Nuova surrounded by a sort of chorus of other noble ladies. Her radiant virtue is reflected in their virtue, although her superiority is always evident" (23). In D'Annunzio's passage too, it is clear that Elena is also surrounded by ladies: "All'estremita della galleria, si uni ad un gruppo di dame che parlavano vivamente". Elena too is superior to the ladies who surround her, who are indeed portrayed as somewhat grotesque, especially in comparison with her ideal beauty: "La sua bellezza aveva ora un'espressione di sovrana idealita, che meglio splendeva in mezzo alle altre dame accese in volto dalla danza, eccitate, troppo mobili, un po' convulse".

In Dante, the ineffability and superhuman qualities of Beatrice are stressed. This too comes out in D'Annunzio's passage, as Elena is depicted as being someone not quite mortal, someone not containing blood and earthly life: "Non la fronte sola ma tutte le linee del volto assumevano dall'estremo pallore una tenuita quasi direi psichica'. In her suffering aspect, Elena could possibly be seen to be likened to the Virgin Mary, although this is not a figure that Beatrice tends to be likened to, and in D'Annunzio, the correlation with the Virgin Mary is ascribed to Maria Ferres. I would like to be so bold as to interpret this suffering as an association that could be made to the sufferings of Christ, and that in this way D'Annunzio is making his Elena into a figure, like Beatrice, who is like Christ.

Having said this, there is another passage just a little further on in the novel, which says: "E la scala della Trinita, glorificata dalla lenta ascensione del Giorno, era la scala della Felicita, per l'ascensione della bellissima Elena Muti" (147). This commingling of Christian symbolism makes it difficult to distinguish, in the association with Elena, between the Christ figure and that of the Virgin Mary; both are held to have ascended to heaven. Elena Muti, here, in keeping with the juxtaposition of sacred/profane, is ascending to Andrea Sperelli's house for an amorous encounter. We can interpret this in two ways: she is ascending to heaven; but also descending to sin.

A further similarity to Vita Nuova is to be found in Dante's section XXVI, where he says: "Diceano molti, poi che passata era: 'Questa non femmina, anzi e uno de li bellissimi angeli del cielo". This "non" is echoed threefold in D'Annunzio:

Ella non era piu ne la donna seduta alla mensa degli Ateleta, ne quella al banco delle vendite, ne quella diritta un'istante sul marciapiede della via Sistina. La sua bellezza aveva ora un'espressione di sovrana idealita (D'Annunzio 134).

Here in both cases we are seeing the use of Negated Antonymy (4), in which the assertion of X and the negation of Y serve to reinforce the assertion of X. In both cases, Dante and D'Annunzio are asserting that the women are superior beings: an angel, in Beatrice's case; someone who is of "sovereign ideality", and hence more than a flesh-and blood creature, in Elena's case.

In both cases, the passage of the woman causes a discernible effect--both physical and spiritual--on the men who perceive their passage and are subject to their gaze or greeting. Both women cause commotion and emotion in men: in Dante, their hearts quicken (or beat fast); they turn pale, they fall silent. In D'Annunzio, they remain pensive, they feel "un turbamento, una inquietudine, un'aspirazione indefinibile'. Beatrice and Elena both exert an undeniable curative power: Beatrice's miraculous gaze causes sweetness to arise in the hearts of men, ennobles them, and causes cardinal sins to fly from them. Elena too has a curative effect: "chi recava entro di se la piaga d'una gelosia o d'un inganno aperta da un'altra donna, sentiva ben che avrebbe potuto guarire" (D'Annunzio 134).

But it is at this point where the greatest differences between the two poets' work arise, and the greatest difference between the two women is seen to lie. Whereas Beatrice is redemptive, in a Christian sense, by causing the banishment of the greatest cardinal sins, namely pride and anger, Elena, on the contrary, is responsible for provoking in men two, possibly three of those seven cardinal sins: namely, lust and cupidity, and possibly envy: "Chi aveva il cuor libero imaginava con un fremito profondo l'amore di lei; chi aveva un'amante provava un oscuro rammarico sognando un'ebrezza sconosciuta, nel cuore non pago" (D'Annunzio 134).

An essential point to note is that in Dante's text, Beatrice is conferring smiles and dispensing greetings--the Christ-like "salute" or "saluto" that brings salvation: while on the contrary, in D'Annunzio's, Elena is passively receiving those greetings from others--at no stage is it said that she is actively greeting. She merely seems to acknowledge the greetings of others, receiving, not giving.

So here, the resemblance ends, and while we can see associations between these two powerful Dominae, who are much loved and all-powerful to the authors writing about them, and who move the hearts and spirits of those that perceive them, it is more than clear that while Beatrice brings redemption, sanctifying people and lifting them up towards God, Elena rather is bringing perdition; she is drawing men towards the sins of the flesh, those base sins that turn people away from reason, away from salvation and away from their true path, which is that of divine love, love for God. (5) And while Dante through Beatrice does indeed find that path to redemption, Andrea through Elena is drawn to his downfall and to the loss of all hope. The Vita Nuova ends with the words
   E poi piaccia a colui che e sire della cortesia chela mia anima sen
   possa gire a vedere la Gloria della sua donna, cioe di quella
   benedecta Beatrice, la quale gloriosamente mira nella faccia di
   Colui 'qui est per omnia secula benedictus'".

Dante is "coming closer to seeing God by seeing Beatrice see God" (Hollander 11), but it is clear that Sperelli does no such thing. He has compromised his soul by seeking the base pleasure of the material. D'Annunzio's text is an inversion of Dante's, and the concordances that D'Annunzio draws between his text and Dante's Vita Nuova serve to underscore and emphasize more deeply the profound association and opposition of the sacred and the profane in his novel.


Alighieri, Dante. Vita Nuova. Eds. Jennifer Petrie and June Salmons. Dublin: University College, 1994.

--. Vita Nova. Ed. Guglielmo Gorni. Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1996.

D'Annunzio, Gabriele. Il Piacere. Milano: Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, 1988.

Hollander, Robert. "Vita Nuova: Dante's Perceptions of Beatrice". In: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, No. 92 (1974): 1-18.

Levy, Bernard S. "Beatrice's Greeting and Dante's "Sigh" in the "Vita Nuova'. Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, No. 92 (1974): 53-62.

Natoli, Gioachino. Dante rivelato nella Vita Nuova. Italy: Societh Editrice Dante Alighieri, 1952.

Scherillo, Michele. La Vita Nuova di Dante. Milano: Ulrico Hoepli, 1911.

Schoolfield, George. A Baedeker of Decadence: Charting a Literary Fashion 1884-1927. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Singleton, Charles S. An essay on the Vita Nuova. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sollier, J. F. "Love". In: Herbermann, Charles G. Ed. Catholic Encyclopedia: an international work of reference on the constitution, doctrine, discipline and history of the Catholic Church. Vol. 9. New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1913.

Murphy, M. Lynne. "Antonyms as lexical constructions: or, why paradigmatic construction is not an oxymoron". Constructions. 1 August 2006. University of Sussex. Web. 9 May 2010.


University of Cape Town


(1) "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow". Psalm 51:7. See Schoolfield 40.

(2) Subsequent events can be interpreted as emasculating; namely, when Andrea is penetrated by the sword of the man with whom he is duelling. Her later lover, Galeazzo Secinaro, is portrayed as strong, manly: "Era alto, quadrato, vigoroso, d'una eleganza non fine ma disinvolta" (D'Annunzio 393).

(3) Amore e 'l cor gentil sono una cosa,/ si come il saggio in suo dittare pone,/e cosi esser Fun sanza l'altro osa/com'alma razional sanza ragione./ Falli natura quand'e amorosa,/Amor per sire e 'l cor per sua magione,/dentro la qual dormendo si riposa / tal volta poca e tal lunga stagione./Bieltate appare in saggia donna pui,/che place a gli occhi si, che dentro al core/nasce un disio de la cosa piacente;/e tanto dura talora in costui,/che fa svegliar lo spirito d'Amore./E simil face in donna omo valente.

(4) "Negated Antonymy juxtaposes the assertion of X and the negation of Y in order to reinforce their contrast and thus emphasise the assertion of X. This is often effected through the negated contrastive constructions in (9): (9a) X, not Y; (9b) not Y, but X; (9c) X instead of Y; (9d) X as opposed to Y" Antonyms as lexical constructions: or, why paradigmatic construction is not an oxymoron" (Murphy).

(5) Related to this notion of Elena drawing men to their downfall is a paraBel that one can draw between Elena and the figure of Lilith, further proving the dangerous nature of Elena, and her extreme contraposition to Beatrice, who draws one towards salvation. An article of mine, "Elena, Lilith and the road to perdition", in this regard, is currently in production.
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Date:Dec 22, 2013
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