Dante's works other than the Commedia are often referred to as his 'minor works'. This is an unhelpful categorisation: they each represent a significant contribution to mediaeval thought and/or poetry.
The Vita nova, written in Italian in the early 1290s, takes the form of a series of prose commentaries on a number of Dante's early love lyrics (this genre, constituted by the combination of poetry and prose, is referred to as 'prosimetrum') arranged so as to constitute a narrative account of Dante's love for Beatrice. The poetry of the Vita nuova is one of the highest expressions of the 'dolce stil novo'. At the same time, in both the poems and the commentaries of the Vita nova, Dante begins to move beyond the type of reflection on the nature of love and of love poetry generally associated with the 'dolce stil novo'. Of particular significance is the way in which Dante fuses in the Vita nova reflection on the nature of love and love poetry with reflection on theological issues. We are told in the Vita nova that Dante saw Beatrice for the first time at the age of nine, and that this constituted the beginning of his 'new life'.
Dante never even had a proper conversation with Beatrice. But from the first moment he saw her he fell in love with her and, after seeing her again nine years later, he began to direct his creative efforts to expressing his feelings for her. She is compared by Dante to an angel and is said to infuse virtue and humility in everyone who sees her; she is described as a miracle making the glory of God manifest to human beings. Dante tells us that, after one occasion in which Beatrice had ignored him in public (Pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Holiday, tried to capture this moment in his painting, 'Dante and Beatrice'), he came to recognise that his poetry ought to be exclusively devoted to the praise of his beloved. This is a very important idea, especially in relation to the Commedia. It expresses Dante's emerging belief that loving someone or something ought not to mean wanting to possess that person or thing, but wanting to praise its goodness and beauty.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson