Behind every great painting, symphony, piece of literature, or other artwork there hides a powerful emotion that fuels the artist from start to completion. When we look at a painting, we are not just seeing colored pigment suspended in oil on a stretched canvas, we are taking a close look into the heart and soul of the creator of that painting. Every piece of art is also a piece of the artist. One need only glance at one of the many self-portraits of Van Gogh to see a glimpse into his life and his inner turmoil. Similarly, one must only read the early and late poetry of Dante to gain insight into his mind, his passions, and, ultimately, his soul, and the way in which he changed throughout his life.
To understand Dante's poetry requires us to understand his motivations. Throughout his life and career, Dante's primary motivation was always love. As Dante grew older, his ideas about love and life changed and these changes are reflected in his poetry. In particular, Dante's ideas of love were focused upon a single person in his life: Beatrice. Dante first saw Beatrice when he was only 9 years old (Dinsmore 69). She became his inspiration for almost every major work he created and he viewed her as his savior, first temporally and later spiritually (Fergusson 165, Inf. II, 109-114). His La Vita Nuova is a collection of poems and prose commentary inspired by Beatrice and collected after her death in 1290. Dante's love, however, was unrequited, as he himself says in a conversation with a lady recounted in La Vita Nuova:
"What purpose have you in loving this lady, when you cannot bear her presence? Tell us about it, because surely the purpose of such love must be very strange." And when she had said this, not merely she but all the ladies showed by their expressions that they were awaiting my answer. Then I said to them: "The ultimate desire of my love was only the salutation of this lady [Beatrice] whom I suppose you refer to, and in it dwelt all my happiness, because it was the consummation of all my hopes." (Gilbert 142).
As with many artists, the pain of an unfulfilled and unattainable love drove them to a greatness that they perhaps would never have achieved had it not been for the emotional torment that they endured. It is perfectly clear that Dante loved and adored Beatrice. In fact, there is reason to believe that she knew of this "devotion of his, but she [showed] no desire for it, although she [did] object to his conduct with another woman" (Ibid.). We can imagine how profound a role Dante's almost fanatical obsession played in his writings.
As much as an effect her life had upon Dante's, Beatrice's death may have been an even greater effect upon his literary endeavors. In the last chapter of the Vita Nuova, Dante determines to write about Beatrice "that which has never been written of any other woman." Over two decades later, he made good on this promise with the Divine Comedy. It is a testament both to his skill as a poet and to his love for Beatrice that this poem is, after 700 years, still very well known and widely read. Perhaps one of the things that makes the poem so popular still is that almost everyone can relate to the way Dante feels about Beatrice. Beatrice, to Dante, symbolizes everything that is right in the world; all the good and hope and wonder that exists. He places her upon a pedestal of glass and hopes to God that it will not shatter.
In order to fully understand Dante's poetic conversion, we must first look at what life events had taken place that may have changed his outlook. Before beginning his Divine Comedy, Dante suffered several set backs in his life. The death of Beatrice in 1290 deeply wounded him, as did his exile from Florence due to the political intrigue in the city (Priest 8). Dante, while not becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church as an institution, was also firmly opposed to the attempts by the papacy to exercise temporal power in Italy (Op. Cit. 11-12).