Dante's Vita Nuova and the Vision of the Eaten Heart

In chapter III of Dante's Vita Nuova the poet returns to his home "overcome with ecstasy" at having been greeted, for the first time as an adult, by his beloved Beatrice. His joy is short-lived, however, since he is soon upset by a "marvelous vision" that appears to him in his sleep. A figure who identifies himself as Dante's "master" holds a woman, naked except for a crimson cloth, in his arms. The figure holds a "fiery object" in his hands, telling Dante, "Behold your heart." The figure then holds Dante's heart up to the woman, who proves to be Beatrice, and makes her eat it from his hands. After a short while the figure begins weeping bitterly, and weeping, he folds his arms over the woman and together they ascend towards the heavens. At this point Dante awakes, and is inspired to write a sonnet addressed to "all Love's faithful subjects" in which he requests help in interpreting his vision.

Rossi traces the various responses Dante received from those who had read the poem. Cino da Pistoia saw the heart as representing Dante's love, and the act of eating the heart as representative of his beloved's growing awareness of his feelings. However, he ignored the sense of horror that the vision evoked in Dante, as well as the bitter sadness with which it ended. In the first part of his response, Guido Cavalcanti emphasized the state of Grace provoked in Dante by the ecstasy of his love. The bitter weeping, he believed, resulted from the fact that falling in love was, on the lady's part, a sorrowful event, or perhaps a prelude to her death. Later, Cavalcanti suggested perhaps that eating the heart could be an antidote against death (vv. 9-11):

Di voi lo core ne portò, veggendo
che vostra donna la morte chedea;
nodrilla de lo cor, di ciò temendo.

According to Rossi, the vision of Beatrice eating Dante's heart, confined as it is to the level of dream, serves to sanctify their love (even if Beatrice initially resists it) and to unite their hearts, consequently transforming Dante, the "amante gentile", into a poet. Dante goes beyond metaphor into the realm of the symbolic. The renunciation of earthy gratification, represented by Beatrice's ascent after having eaten his heart, is a necessary antecedent to his acquisition of the poetic word and the exemplary pilgrimage that was to result from it. The vision was, in Rossi's opinion, a stopping point on a more complete voyage towards the truth: "al di là dello speculum egli aspira infatti al rapporto facie ad faciem; al di là dell' 'essemplo' egli vuole arrivare a vedere la 'bellissima figura' del Cristo". Thus, for Dante the eaten heart motif is taken up to portray a symbolic sacrifice that anticipates his poetic initiation. The experience of a Reality beyond the senses, previously deemed impossible unless evoked through mystic inspiration, can now be realized, through the force of the intellect, in poetic language.

(C. Si.) Rossi, L. "Il cuore, mistico pasto d'amore: dal 'Lai Guirun' al Decameron." Studi Provenzali e Francesi 1982. L'Aquila: Japadre, 1983. pp. 28-128.

Eaten Heart Motif in Medieval Literature:

Further Considerations of the Motif: