The New Life

Alternately titled: Dante Alighieri. The New Life (La Vita Nuova).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848; 1861
Genre: autobiography


“Introduction to Part II” (in Early Italian Poets) 189-193.

◦ De Robertis ed., Vita Nuova .

◦ De Robertis and Contini, eds., Dante. Opere Minori, 3-247.

◦ McGann, The Game That Must Be Lost, Chapters 2 and 3.

◦ Megroz, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 178-185.

◦ Waller, The Rossetti Family, 191-197.

◦ Woodhouse, "DGR's Translation and Illustration of the Vita Nuova, (2000).


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Dante and his Circle text .

Scholarly Commentary


Dante's autobiography is the single most important work standing behind DGR's spiritual and aesthetic endeavors. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that DGR sought an identification with the great Florentine. The object was less to “imitate” Dante's style or to recover the ethos of his work, than to open a passage into the nineteenth-century for a set of cultural and aesthetic attitudes that DGR discovered in Dante and his world. The Vita Nuova was DGR's point of focus—rather than the Commedia—probably because at the outset of his career DGR looked to the autobiography as both a model and perhaps even a forecast. The fact that DGR always insisted on reading Dante's narrative as true biography—whatever other allegorical or symbolic meanings it might have—underscores this devotional and even cultic relation operating between Dante and DGR. Involved here is something quite beyond Dante serving DGR as a cultural or artistic model. The translations, and especially the translation of this work, are the first moves in a series of artistic acts that must be seen as quasi-magical practises. DGR's work summons the dead via a series of spell-castings that take the form of works of art and poetry; and they take this form because, for DGR, the spiritual power of Dante and his world is fundamentally an aesthetic power. All its other virtues—moral, religious, cultural, philosophical—are functions of that primal power.

If one thinks critically about DGR's work in relation to the Vita Nuova, the parallels between Dante's work and DGR's leap to attention. The symmetry is especially clear in the case of DGR's masterwork, “The House of Life”. The sonnet sequence (in its first published form) tells a story of events that can be interpreted as falling roughly between 1860 and 1871, its key date being the death of the poet's wife in February 1862. The real-time composition of the sequence as a whole begins in 1869 and is never really completed. Rossetti published two versions, one in 1870, the second in 1881, though he constructed many more.

The Vita Nuova's story has been similarly circumscribed, its key date falling in June 1290, the month of Beatrice Portinari's death. The story it tells begins in 1274 when Dante first sees Beatrice (he is nine years old, she is eight). For nine years—according to the autobiography's retrospective prose account—he haunts her presence, trying to see her whenever he can. Then in 1283 she gives him her famous salutation. This event throws him wholly under the dominion of love. A year or so after Beatrice's death Dante begins to compose his famous narrative. He completes the work sometime between 1292-1295.

DGR clearly understood the key formal innovation of Dante's poetical autobiography. He knew that most of the poems inserted in the Vita Nuova narrative were not written for the reasons and with the meanings supplied by the autobiographical interpretation. Indeed, many of the poems—for example the crucial first sonnet—were written entirely apart from the Beatricean—not to say the Portinarian— circumstances that dominate the work. That interpretive frame is supplied retrospectively—is initiated, in fact, through the Vita Nuova itself.

“Rewriting” thus becomes a central concern of the “new life” theme, and DGR places that concern at the heart of his translation, both theory and practise. The “Preface” to the 1861 volume sets out his theory of verse translation (which holds that the object of the translation must be aesthetic fidelity rather than linguistic literality), and the poems themselves then execute the theory. They are, in DGR's view of the matter, a special genre of intellectual and programmatic verse: interpretational poems that DGR calls “the most direct form of commentary” (see the “Preface” page viii). In this respect they correspond closely to the group of poems written by Dante's friends in answer to his opening sonnet, “To every heart which the sweet pain doth move”.

DGR's source text for Dante's autobiography was the third volume of Fraticelli's Opere Minori di Dante Alighieri .

Textual History: Composition

DGR translated this very early, in the late 1840s, and had probably completed it by September-October 1848 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 48. 12, 49.12 ). His brother made the translations of the prose divisiones in 1861, at DGR's request.

Printing History

The translation was first published in 1861 in The Early Italian Poets; it was reprinted (and slightly revised throughout) in 1874 in Dante and his Circle.


The development of DGR's “double work of art” is nowhere more elaborately, not to say obsessively, pursued than it is in relation to this work by Dante. DGR in fact had at one time hoped to produce an edition of Dante's work with his illustrations of its key texts.

His first pictorial engagement seems to have been the study he made in September 1848 for the first version of The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, a drawing he completed in 1849. After that followed three works completed in the 1850s: Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast. Denies him her Salutation (1851); the watercolour version of The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice (1853); Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (the watercolour version of 1856 as well as the vast oil elaboration completed in 1871); the early version in two panels for The Salutation of Beatrice (1859); and the closely related Dantis Amor 1859). The Beata Beatrix is of course central, and while its first completed version dates from 1864, DGR had in fact been working at it for many years. The work exists in many studies and versions. Then there are the late treatments of subjects from Dante's book: La Donna Della Finestra; the 1879 Beatrice; and the late version of The Salutation of Beatrice.

See also the commentary for The Early Italian Poets.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
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