La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri, Published by George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., ~ 1916

{Ed. Note: This outstanding review of Dante’s La Vita Nuova is courtesy of Librarything user Django6924.}

Dante’s La Vita Nuova is one of those canonical books which, like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, are more often read about than read today. It is always ranked among the most influential of Renaissance books–not the least because La Vita Nuova was written in the vernacular and thus paved the way for other European writers to write in their own tongues rather than in Latin (still considered at that time the only “correct” language for serious literary composition), and also because La Vita Nuova is considered by most scholars to be essential for understanding the context of Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

It is also one of the earliest and most remarkable expressions of a concept of the nature of Love which the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance bequeathed to Western thought.  This concept is what we generally call Romantic Love–a relationship emphasizing emotions—especially affinity of thought and feeling, compassion,  and devotion and service to the loved one—rather than physical intimacy. Unique to this concept of Love, was that it existed outside the bonds of marriage, which was seen as a formal, legalistic arrangement necessary for social order.  The conventions became highly codified during the late middle ages at the courts of Aquitaine, Province and Burgundy, giving rise to the term “courtly love.” (See Amy Kelly’s fine book Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings for a detailed history of this.)  This was a love that was passionate, yet chaste, in some ways enslaving while yet ennobling, love that is in fact a religion.  It was Dante who depicted the apotheosis of this type of Love in his works La Vita Nuova and La Commedia.

The work begins:

In that part of the book of my memory before the which is little can be read, there is a rubric saying INCIPIT VITA NOVA–Here beginneth the

NEW LIFE

Under such rubric I find written many things and among them the words which I propose to copy into this little book; if not all of them, at least their substance.

The book contains 42 brief chapters in the style known as prosimetrum, a combination of prose and verse: there 25 sonnets with Dante’s commentaries on the poems, placing them in the context of his life; there is one ballata and four canzoni; one canzone unfinished. The sonnets were written over a period of ten years (1283–1293) and chronicle Dante’s love for Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banking family.

This was a love at first sight, when she was eight and he was nine and he saw her at a party at her father’s house on May Day, 1274.

At that moment, I saw most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: ‘Ecce deus fortiior me, qui vienens dominabitur mini.
***
I say that, from that time forward, Love quite governed my soul; which was immediately espoused to him, and with so safe and undisputed a lordship (by virtue of strong imagination) that I had nothing left for it but to do all his bidding continually.

According to his account, did not see her again until nine years later, when he glimpsed her walking along the River Arno, dressed in white and accompanied by two older women. She turned and greeted him,

…with so virtuous a bearing, that I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of blessedness.

He retreated to his room to dwell on the significance of his reaction and fell asleep.  He had a dream which would become the subject of the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova. In it, the figure of a lord “of terrible aspect” appeared, bearing the sleeping Beatrice in his arms, wrapped in a crimson cloak.  In his hand he carried Dante’s burning heart.  After a while the lord wakened Beatrice and made her eat the flaming heart, which she did as one afraid.  Then the lord’s aspect changed from joy to bitter weeping and, gathering Beatrice in his arms,

…it seemed to me that he went with her up towards heaven; whereby such a great anguish came upon me that my light slumber could not endure through it, but was suddenly broken.

At which point he got up and wrote the sonnet describing the dream. Dante showed the sonnet to his best friend (Guido Cavalcanti) who explicated that in Beatrice, Dante had beheld “all worth.”

This was their last encounter.  Beatrice married a friend of her father’s, another banker, in 1287. She died three years later in June 1290 at the age of 24. Yet Dante’s obsession (which is how I think most people today would classify his feelings) persisted the rest of his life, even after his own marriage.  In addition to La Vita Nuova, Beatrice is a central figure (of supreme importance, in fact), in The Divine Comedy, where she is Dante’s guide through the Purgatorio and the Paradiso to the Blessed Vision.

What caused Dante to fall in love with Beatrice? On the basis of these brief encounters, the first when both were children, he could have had very little insight to her character, which is the fundamental reason for his adoration (he does not seem very concerned with her appearance – he once describes her complexion, and her “emerald” eyes).  He claims his love is because:

She has ineffable courtesy, is my beatitude, the destroyer of all vices and the queen of virtue, salvation.

The key to his great devotion is in Dante’s own analysis in the opening of the book–“by virtue of strong imagination.”  It is the poetic, creative principle that allowed Dante to see Beatrice and his love of her as an ennobling force which led him to reject his baser feelings and strive to be worthy of her.

It is perhaps well that Dante had no closer association with his beloved.  Even the greatest imaginative faculty would be hard-pressed to maintain such an idealized view of a flesh-and-blood human being, especially in the context of matrimonial life.  Indeed, the concept of Romantic Love has been under attack for centuries, and whether it’s the thoughtful criticism of authors such as Jane Austen, or the out-and-out assault by advocates of sexual freedom, the problems that arise when one wants to base a relationship on such impossible ideals should have made the idea of Romantic Love untenable seven centuries after La Vita Nuova.  A cursory examination of the mass media, and a perusal of dating sites on the internet, however, shows that the idea still has an improbable vitality today.

Dante could have not found a more sympathetic advocate for his “little book” than the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), whose translation of the work became a touchstone of the pre-Raphaelite movement.  The sonnet translations are some of his finest work (although it has been claimed he so “disliked the paragraphs in which the poems are analyzed that he could not bear to translate them and had to ask his brother, William, to undertake this part of the task for him“).  Rossetti found La Vita Nuova so compelling that he attempted to have a similar relationship with his own great love, Elizabeth Siddal, who became his own muse and model, and whom he painted many times as Dante’s Beatrice.  Needless to say, such devotion could not be sustained within the reality of marriage and their love faded, but never died.  When she overdosed on laudanum, he was overcome with grief and seven years later immortalized her in a painting significantly entitled “Beata Beatrix,” depicting Beatrice Portinari at the moment of her death.  Christina Rossetti wrote a poem that best describes her brother’s infatuation–and points out the limitations of Romantic Love in real world relationships:

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

About the Edition

Rossetti’s translation of La Vita Nuova provided the basis for the wonderful edition featured here–published by George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., in 1916 (the date is apronximate as there is no copyright date in the book and different sources are conflicting).  Like most Harrap books of the period, it also lists Brentano’s in New York on the title page. The Harrap Company specialized in fine illustrated editions of historically significant literature, and utilized printers throughout Great Britain.  There is surprisingly little information available online about the company, and I have not been able to find much about the production details of this book.  There is a simple colophon at the end of the book that gives the following bare details:

Printed in Great Britain
By
Geo. Gibbs & Co.,
Colour Printers
Leicester

This book is an amazingly sumptuous production, especially considering the time it was issued when austerity measures  must have been in force during the Great War.  I have other Harrap books that are Limited Editions – my favorite edition of Tristram Shandy, and the famous edition of Goethe’s Faust  with Harry Clarke’s phantasmagoric illustrations – but there is no limitation indicated for La Vita Nuova.  The printing is superb–especially the reproduction of the tipped-in color plates by Evelyn Paul (about whom more later).  The colors are vibrant and there is an amazing quantity of gilt in the illustrations, which may be hand-applied. This needs to be seen in the actual work to be truly appreciated – I’m afraid the photographs don’t do them justice. The bulk of the letterpress is in a traditional font, but several passages appear to be hand-illuminated. There are also several instances where important words and all references to ‘The Divine’ are printed in gold, rather than black, and these appear to be done on a separate pass, and in a different font.  The paper is of quite good quality and is still supple and unfixed after almost a century.  The binding is somewhat loose, but still together, and the linen covers are in fine condition.

It would be hard to imagine a better illustrator than Evelyn Paul for this particular translation.  Evelyn Paul (1883–1963) was greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites, and her illustrations here are very much an homage to that style.  I think it is in her ornamentations and illuminations where her work is really without competition, and this was a specialty of hers.  In addition to the Dante, she did beautiful illuminations for Harrap’s edition of Aucassin and Nicolete  (which was illustrated by another artist), The Romance of Tristram of Lyones and La beale Isoude, and Clair de Lune and Other Troubadour Romances.  Her style seems to have fallen out of fashion in the aftermath of the Great War, and she appears to have not been active as an illustrator after 1922.  The following information is from the website of her cousin (once removed):

  • 4th November 1883, Evelyn Maude Blanche Paul was born at 30 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, in North London. Her father was ‘Portrait Painter’ Robert Boyd Paul, (1819-1903), and her mother Annie nèe McGlashan, Robert Paul’s 2nd wife (b. c.1858 at Gibraltar).
  • 1901 Living with her parents at 48 Hillmarton Road, Lower Holloway. Evelyn is recorded as aged 17 and “attending school of art“.
  • 1906: Entered the Schools of Art National Competition.
  • April 1911 Evelyn, aged 26 and an ‘art student’, was living with her widowed mother, Annie, back at 30 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town. Meanwhile her fiancee Alexander George Small, ‘Artist, Painter and Sculptor’, was living at 49b Brecknock Road, just a couple of roads away from Torriano Avenue.
  • 1st June 1911 – married Alexander George Small at St Pancras Register Office. Alexander was the son of William Small (1843-1929), a well known painter and honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy.
  • 1923 Alexander George Small died at St Pancras
  • January 1963 – Evelyn Blanche Small (“widow of – Small, sculptor”), of 12 Gaisford Street, St Pancras, died at St Pancras Hospital from broncho-pneumonia.

A rather meagre account for such a talented artist, but I suspect she was a victim of  sexual discrimination, and after her marriage had difficulty getting assignments.  Her work is being rediscovered, it seems, and one company is starting to issue reproductions of her illustrations (as greeting cards).  This link shows further samples of her work–the gorgeous Harrap edition of Tristram.

When I purchased the book in the late 1960s, it still had the tattered dust jacket in which the book was issued, but this was taped together and couldn’t bear handling.  To protect the covers, my late wife made a slipcase shown in the photos, and the peacock illustration from the dust jacket was salvaged for use thereon. For this, among other reasons, this book has a great sentimental value for me in addition to its own, I think considerable, intrinsic merit as a fine example of the Golden Age of the Illustrated Book.

Pictures

La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co. Book and Slipcase
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Endpapers
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Half-Title
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Title Page
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Pages with Text and Illustration #1
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Pages with Text and Illustration #2
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Pages with Text and Illustration #3
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Pages with Text and Illustration #4
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Page with Text
La Vita Nuova, George G. Harrap & Co., Sample Pages with Illustrations #5

4 thoughts on “La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri, Published by George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., ~ 1916

  1. I have a copy of this edition but it is bound in highly polished brown leather with brass protective corners in imitation of possibly an original edition. The front cover contains a central raised image of Dante. and the Front, Back and Spine contain embossed designs very much in a pre-raphaealite / art nouveau style. There are no obvious dates / limitations/ artist names etc. Condition is fine for what is a 1916 printing just a tiny bit of foxing at the edges of the pages. Other than the binding, It is identical to the above description. The endpapers appear hand-made to me It is a beautiful edition. I could supply images of the binding if you wish.
    Roy

    1. I own a similar copy, as does a classmate of mine. Mine is quite worn, the painst is almost gone from the raised image of Dante. My friend’s is in better condition.

  2. Kudos to Django6924 for a superb writeup of a work I frankly had never heard of. Although I am familiar with the publisher George Harrap & Co., who is best known for their books illustrated by two of the 20th centuries greatest illustrators, Arthur Rackham And Willy Pogany, I am similarly unfamiliar with this publication.

    My bad on both accounts. I will have to familiarize myself with this work in preparation to a re-read of Dante’s Inferno.

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