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Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo

Beatrice and Dante in Paradiso, engraving by Gustave Doré
Beatrice and Dante in Paradiso, engraving by Gustave Doré
In La vita nuova (A. S. Kline's English translation), Dante begins his account of the death of his beloved, Beatrice Portinari, by quoting the first verse of Lamentations (the verse in my title could be translated, "How lonely she sits, the city once filled with people!"). These texts were chanted during the Matins services of the Triduum, comparing the Church, bereft of Jesus Christ, to the devastation of Jerusalem described by Jeremiah. It is not the first time that Dante's adoration of Beatrice comes close to blasphemy. Shortly after Dante has a vision of Beatrice's death, he learns the terrible news that she has indeed died, at the age of 24, on June 8, 1290, which is 717 years ago today. (You can visit the site of her tomb.) Here is the second stanza of the canzone, or ode, Dante dedicated to the woman he connected with the number 9:
Beatrice has gone to heaven above,
to the realm where the angels have peace,
and stays with them, and has left you, ladies:
she was not taken from us by a chill
or a fever, as other women are,
but it was only her great gentleness:
for light from her humility
pierced the skies with so much virtue
that it made the eternal Lord marvel,
so that a sweet desire
moved him to claim such greeting:
and called her from here below to come to him,
because he saw this harmful life
was not worthy of something so gentle.
The translation is a mixture of the work of A. S. Kline and Stanley Applebaum. I am in the throes of a summer-long obsession with Dante, since near the end of June I will be leaving for several weeks in Siena to take part in a seminar on Dante's Commedia, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The music and arts coverage will continue, but there will be regular notices from our travels and study together in Siena.

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