Escape from Paradise
To Lady Laura de Noves, Countess de Sade,
Milady, with your indulgence, I would like to offer some advice: First, die! And then, run away!
That’s what I did, and it worked.
I have been told by relatives who are your neighbors in Avignon that your situation may be similar to what mine was. My staged death allowed me to escape from a life that had become intolerable. If you are indeed in similar straits, the stratagem might work for you as well.
You don’t know of me because my relatives were sworn to secrecy in my regard, but you have probably heard my name, or I should say my former name. Before escaping from Florence, I was Beatrice Portinari. Yes, the Beatrice made famous by Dante Alighieri. I’m told that his poetry is well known in Avignon because of the community of Florentine expatriates who live there. My nephew tells me that you are a poet yourself—brava!—and that you are familiar with Dante’s love poetry and even with the Commedia, which surprised me, since I know that it is banned there in the Papal Court because of how it criticizes the Church, going so far as to assign recent Popes to Hell. If you do know the Commedia, you will know me as Dante’s guide from Purgatorio through Paradiso.
That Beatrice was supposed to have died in 1290, a decade before Dante undertook his ultramundane journey, but I did not die; I merely escaped from Florence. If I now violate my own secret by writing to you, it is because my nephew has shared the poems that Francesco Petracco has written about his beloved Laura and has recounted the consequences for you and your family, which seem very similar to what happened to me.
This nephew is the son of my youngest sister—the youngest of five lovely and loving sisters, all gone now; may God bless their souls! Her husband was one of the White Guelphs who were exiled from Florence in 1302, a group that included Dante and his friend Ser Petracco. My sister and brother-in-law moved to Arezzo along with the Petracco family. My nephew was born there in 1304, the same year as the Petraccos’ son, Francesco—the poet now known as Petrarca instead of Petracco for reasons unknown to me.
Both families eventually relocated to Avignon after the Papal Court moved there in 1309. My nephew grew up with Francesco, and they have remained close friends. That is how I came to know of your situation, and because it recalls my own, I now dare to share my story, with the hope that it might be of use to you.
The way I was presented in Dante Alighieri’s poems was false and unfair, ruinously so. The consequences in my real life were devastating. Eventually, my only recourse was to flee from Florence. His poems and songs made me the target of notice and ridicule. I could not go to the market or to church without being ogled at, teased, criticized, or derided. My husband, Simone di Bardi, a rich and powerful banker accustomed to being in control of situations and of people, became jealous. He accused me of infidelity. He eventually restricted my movements and my mode of dress, and yet continued to accuse and abuse me ever more cruelly and violently. Finally, he began beating me physically, with his bare hands and then with a cane when one was ready to hand.
My life was hell, and all because of that self-righteous and careless poet who insisted on idealizing and praising me as some sort of angel or exalted being. My name, Beatrice, was quite common in Florence, but in his poetry, he explained it as a sign that I had been sent by Providence to “bestow beatitude.” I had no wish to embody such a role. I just wanted to be a normal person, to get on with my life: this life in this world, and to do so with my body intact and healthy, not beaten and bruised.
If Dante had shared those poems only with me, I would have burned them and demanded that he stop writing them or choose another woman or another name to use in his poems. But he shared his poems with others, with people who knew me and whom my husband knew, resulting in the suffering I’ve mentioned, ultimately posing a threat to my very life!
To save my life, I found release in death. The idea came to me after my father died at the end of 1289 during one of the recurrent periods of pestilence. His death deprived me of what little protection he had provided. The fact that he died from the plague, however, suggested a desperate solution: if my sisters agreed to stage my illness and death from the same cause, couldn’t I run away without being pursued? Afraid of contagion, no one wanted to go near to anyone who might be afflicted. My sisters told people that I had been infected while tending to our father. Everyone stayed away, including my husband. I could thus pretend to be ill, to die, and even to be entombed, without ever being seen. Not even the beccamorti who collected and buried the corpses knew that the body in my coffin was that of a sheep. And so, in the spring of 1290, Beatrice Portinari in Bardi was buried, and I fled from Florence and started a new life.
My new life, however, was quite different from Dante’s idea of a “new life” in his Vita nova, which he produced after my disappearance, compiling some of the poems he had composed about me over the years and explaining them in order to accentuate my role as a source of spiritual love and grace. I had not ascended to Paradise as he assumed, however, but had gone to Venice—a city that some would say is as far from Paradise as you can get on Earth. In Venice, a populous, mercantile, port city with many travelers and foreigners coming and going, it was possible to blend in and hide, unlike a city like Florence, where everybody knew everybody, and strangers were quickly noticed.
After establishing a different identity, I managed to contract another marriage—bigamous, I am afraid. As it happened, it was to someone from a merchant family that has since become famous: the Polos. My new husband was a cousin of Marco Polo, now known everywhere for his travels to the far east with his father and uncle. When I was married, they had not yet returned, had been gone for decades, and were presumed to have perished. When they did return to Venice, I was already gone from there and never did meet any of them personally. That second marriage took me even farther from Florence and from eyes that might have recognized me, to Venetian trading posts on the Black Sea and the Caspian. I returned to Venice only after that second husband died, when I was too old to be recognized.
And by then Dante too had died, as had my cousin-in-law Marco. I was told that Dante died shortly after a visit here, to Venice, on an ambassadorial mission for the Lord of Ravenna, and that while here he and Marco met, for what turned out to be one of Dante’s final conversations. Either in Venice or the marshlands between here and Ravenna, he contracted a malady and died a few days later. How incongruous it seems! In his just-finished Paradiso, the poet depicted himself as having reached the end of the soul’s journey to eternal bliss, whereas Dante the man ended his earthly journey in Venice, the most worldly of cities, full of the sinful distractions and temptations that block the path to Paradise.
I was told that Marco and Dante had met before, in Padua, shortly after Dante had been exiled from Florence and not long after Marco’s book appeared—first written in your language, from what I’ve heard, by an author from Pisa who was imprisoned with Marco in Genoa. Marco’s book was already widely known, whereas Dante’s fame was not yet widespread, probably restricted mostly to Florence and to the circle of litterati who read and circulated each other’s writings. He had not yet written any part of the Commedia. In fact, it may well have been this very meeting with Marco that gave him the idea to write it.
According to Polo family accounts, after Dante was exiled from Florence, he happened to be in Padua when Pietro D’Abano was appointed professor at the University there in 1306. This Pietro had read the first sections of Dante’s Convivio and invited Dante to participate in a seminar to debate questions concerning Aristotelian philosophy and cosmology with his students. Dante, in turn, was familiar with Pietro’s medical and philosophical texts and accepted the invitation. Marco happened to be there at the same time and took part in their discussions.
You may not be familiar with Pietro D’Abano. I understand that his writings are deemed heretical, not to be read or discussed especially there at the Papal Court. His ideas, however, are well known and appreciated here in Venice, partly because he is from this area–both Abano and Padua are nearby–and partly because Venetians like to flout papal authority when they can get away with it. I happen to know about him and his writings because he is celebrated in the Polo family as one of the first important and influential scholars to appreciate Marco’s book, who subsequently became a friend of the family. He read Le Devisement du monde in Constantinople, where he had gone and stayed for many years to learn Greek and Arabic and study texts not available in Latin. Fascinated by the book’s depictions, this great scholar traveled to Venice expressly to meet with Marco, both to ascertain the truth of the accounts provided in the book and to acquire more information not contained in the book. Marco’s revelations about unknown parts of the world served to support his own theories and speculations regarding the Earth and the cosmos.
When Pietro was called to teach at the University of Padua, he and Marco renewed their acquaintance and conversations. Marco was Pietro’s guest when the discussions with Dante took place and joined in their seminars at the university with students, conversations over meals in Pietro’s house or during long walks through the city, and during visits to the nearby Scrovegni Chapel, where the Florentine painter Giotto had recently finished a cycle of frescoes.
I mention those paintings because Dante was particularly eager to see them, as was I when I went to Padova much later, because we had known Giotto in our youth. Giotto was our age, and we got to know him after he arrived in Florence as an apprentice in Cimabue’s workshop.
I had liked the way Giotto painted from the start and was thrilled to know that he had become so successful and famous that he was called to another city for such an important commission. I even felt a secret pride that a fellow Florentine, someone I knew in my youth, had done that. It was a secret pride because I couldn’t show it. I urged my relatives to talk about those meetings so that I could hear more about Dante and Giotto, pretending to be interested primarily in Marco’s role in the discussions. But as it turned out, the more I heard about Marco’s participation in those debates, the more interested I became in what he had to say and the more I came to realize how important his book truly is. I became convinced that he influenced Dante’s thinking in significant ways, and I don’t think that anybody knows about it.
When I got to see Giotto’s frescoes, I also saw how, in addition to the personal interest they held for Dante as Giotto’s friend, they must also have served as a resonant backdrop for the debates sought and orchestrated by Pietro. There was still much that was familiar about Giotto’s painting, reminiscent of his work in Cimabue’s shop, but these were also different in ways that I could not accurately describe. The scenes depicted seemed more substantial, more physically imposing. Bodies seemed to have solidity and weight; people, landscapes, and buildings seemed to be grounded in the physical world, not floating weightlessly in an ethereal realm. If I persist in trying to describe something that I’m not equipped to do adequately, it’s because I suspect that the debate between Marco and Dante was essentially about that very corporeality that I now also perceived in Giotto’s frescoes, about the distinction and the relation between the body and the soul.
In a sense, that debate was an echo of the discussions and arguments of our youth. After the artist Cimabue brought Giotto to Florence as his apprentice, Giotto was adopted into a circle of young people our age, including Dante. Many of us had come under the spell of a young philosopher and poet who was a few years older, Guido Cavalcanti. Girls didn’t participate in the discussions directly, but I was able to learn quite a bit by hearsay. I was fascinated by what I heard—somewhat scandalized, too; but that only added to the fascination. Guido liked to shock people by citing the non-Christian ideas of the so-called Moorish Commentator, Averroes. Guido even proposed that there was no such thing as a personal soul and no afterlife as we conceived it. He went so far as to advocate a scandalous notion that I found particularly appealing: that women should have a role in public affairs and governance. Many in our age cohort looked up to Guido and admired him for his wide learning, quick intelligence, and verbal wit–and the girls, I must confess, also because he was very handsome, maybe mostly for that reason. And by way, he has stayed in my mind also because he married Beatrice degli Uberti, of a very prominent Florentine family, and at first, I was jealous of that other Beatrice, but later wished that Dante had picked on her to serve as his “Beatrice” rather than me.
Dante became especially attached to Guido, adopting him as his guide and mentor. They were very close when I knew them, and I know that it must have been devastating to both when they had a falling out because of political, philosophical, and theological differences. I was shocked to learn from my sister that Dante, when he served as Prior, exiled his old friend from Florence. And how wretched and guilty he must have felt when Guido died just a few months later! I wonder if he felt that his own exile from his beloved Florence just two years later was retribution for his betrayal of his friend. Their alienation happened long after I was gone from Florence. I bring it up because it was partly Guido’s influence that initiated the process that led to my loss of religious faith, at least as preached by the Church. My views and beliefs continued to change when I came to see the world through the eyes of merchants and travelers like Marco Polo. My “conversion” continued from living among so-called “infidels” and perceiving that their beliefs were just as strong as ours and their lives no better or worse for having different religious ideas.
Now that I think of it, it occurs to me that this lapse of mine into skepticism could serve as proof that Dante’s fears were well-founded, demonstrating that, by following Marco Polo’s footsteps and adopting a point of view focused on commerce, people would indeed be led to question and possibly abandon the Church dogma that is indoctrinated into us from the moment we are born.
But I see that I have strayed from that meeting in Padua. From what I’ve been able to glean, those discussions with Pietro and Marco led Dante to revise his thoughts about philosophy, cosmology, and theology, and to alter his writing projects as a result. It was there and then that he decided to abandon the long-term composition of the Convivio and to embark on writing a long poem about the soul’s voyage to salvation. I believe that what he came to call the Commedia was meant to serve as an antidote to Marco’s Devisement du monde, which he considered to be a poisonous book that can only lead people to perdition, because of its depiction of the marvels and riches encountered during an earthly journey, forsaking altogether a divine destination. A fascination and attraction to these worldly marvels would lead people to shift their focus from the heavenly to the earthly and to prize worldly well-being over spiritual goals, the pleasures of the body over the salvation of the soul. He resolved to describe a different and “better” journey, one that depicted the soul’s path to Paradise, not through commerce and the acquisition of material wealth but through faith and grace.
In Dante’s view, a description of the road to eternal salvation was more useful and needed than a depiction of a merchant’s travels to find and describe the material riches, natural wonders, and social advancements of unknown regions of this world. What he probably found most appalling and threatening in the account reported by Marco was that there are previously unknown regions of the world that are not Christian, where the people have not even heard of Christ, not even thirteen centuries after his Gospel was spread. How could this be? What must have been even more perplexing, and dismaying was that the non-Christian people of these vast regions were described as more prosperous, more accomplished, more civilized, and happier than the Christians of our lands. This book, he decided, could only lead to disbelief or despair. He must provide an alternative that showed another way and restored belief and hope.
It may not have been solely a strong antipathy to Marco’s descriptions of the marvels of this world that led Dante to embark on the composition of his Commedia. After all, the convener of the debates was Pietro D’Abano, who was probably also the primary contributor to their discussions. Dante was likely persuaded by some of Pietro’s views concerning the cosmos, supported by their mutual admiration of the ancient philosopher Aristotle. In any case, after those meetings, Dante put aside the Convivio after composing and explicating only three of the fourteen canzoni he had proposed to write. As my nephew once quipped: Dante left the “banquet” before the meal was finished and went to “Hell” instead.
Dante then started composing his great poem that depicts a journey that is both physical and spiritual, undertaken with his body and his soul, whose purpose and destination were to pass from a state of sin to a state of beatitude. The realms he traverses are physical: Hell, located underground; Purgatory, a mountain on the other side of the globe; Heaven, the planets and the stars, all visible in the sky above us. Yet, these, in Dante’s view, are also spiritual realms of the afterlife, populated by the souls of the departed. The journey we need to undertake should not be like Marco’s, along the surface of the Earth, with our eyes and minds attentive to the things of this world. No, we must look through the temptations of this world and focus on the rewards of the salvation of our souls. And who is to guide him on the journey, serving as God’s agent and conveyor of grace? Beatrice!
Some say that he used that name only because of what the word means, not to refer to a specific person. Yet, his Beatrice is not just an abstraction but a specific woman with a personal history and identity. He used me, my life, my body and my mind, to fashion that dispenser of spiritual beatitude that draws and guides him to salvation. And I appreciate the implication: that it’s through our neighbors, the people around us, that grace is dispensed, and bliss is achieved, not just through ideas.
But think of the discrepancy! If he had only known that his angelic Beatrice, his soul’s guide to other-worldly “salvation,” was now part of that very Polo family whose primary occupation was exploring and exploiting the resources and the “blessings” of this earthly world; his blessed and blessing Beatrice, a merchant’s wife, and an able and dedicated merchant herself! I could indeed have served as a guide, but to demonstrate how to keep accounts, not to reveal the path to Heaven by shutting one’s eyes to this world.
But I am showing my age and have strayed away from my purpose in writing to you. I have been in the Polo family so long that I cannot curb my impulse to wander, or as Dante might have put it, to “get lost in a dark wood.”
But while I’m confessing my sins, let me also apologize for the language, style, and disorder of this letter. Normally, I would dictate it to a scribe, who would correct my mistakes and arrange the flow of my rambling thoughts in the proper order. But because of the secrecy that I want to maintain, I have taken quill in hand and am writing to you myself. For that same reason, I insisted that my nephew solicit your pledge of secrecy before consigning the letter to you, even though he assured me that we could count implicitly on your discretion. I apologize for that discourteous audacity but trust that you will understand my desire to protect my children and their families from any possibility of scandal. So, I beg your indulgence and your pardon for all these faults.
To return to the matter that prompted me to write—or to our moutons, as you say on your side of the Alps—my fear is that you may now be caught on the horns of my same dilemma of long ago: idolized and idealized by a poet, derided by at least some members of your society, and maltreated and abused by your husband and his family. Francesco Petrarca, by idealizing you against your wishes as an “angelic” figure with “heavenly” attributes, is apparently making your life as miserable as mine once was. If true, perhaps you can also resort to a remedy like mine.
My escape happened over fifty years ago, and once I broke free from Florence, life elsewhere has been good to me, and I have prospered contentedly well into old age. Being able to live outside poems (especially outside of Paradiso, as my “devoted” poet envisioned it) was a release and a relief. Escape gave me the freedom to shape and live my own life; not fully, of course, since all societies impose limits and restrictions and obligations, but to a greater degree than was possible in Florence.
Why cannot these poets leave us alone? What makes them think we can be safe, let alone comfortable and happy, perched on those ridiculously high pedestals they erect for us, supposedly in our praise and for our glory but really to keep us out of the way from the functions and institutions of social life, so that we have no say in how our own lives are conducted? “Look,” they say, “we have put you above us, all the way up in Paradise. Now be still, smile beatifically, and be quiet!” I must tell you that I felt much more fulfilled and much happier when I was intimately involved in my second husband’s business affairs and when I continued to run those affairs after he died.
Even more disturbing to me are the rumors that my nephew has recounted about your husband, Count Hugues de Sade. He says that you face physical and mental tortures, humiliating torments, and cruel behavior, which, if true, make my beatings and abjection at the hands of my first husband pale by comparison. He is not sure if it is Francesco’s attention and exaltation of your beauty and your divine attributes that are the cause of this behavior or if the poems merely provide an excuse for your husband to unleash aberrant proclivities already latent in him or his family. He said that rumors have long circulated about strange goings-on in the de Sade castle.
In any case, whether such horrific rumors are justified or not, if you too find it unbearable to be suspended between two afflictions as I was, attacked from two sides: idealized to abstraction by a poet with his head in the clouds and brutalized to abjection and misery by an abusive spouse, then you might want to consider adopting some version of my solution. If it worked for me, why not for you?
The time seems to be propitious for such a ruse to work. Here in Venice stories are circulating that a deadly pestilence is making its way across the Mediterranean and may soon make landfall in Italy. They say that it is the worst pestilence yet and will be particularly deadly in populous cities—such as Venice and Florence, alas! I have heard some refer to it as the “Black Death.”
“Propitious” is surely an inappropriate word to use if the stories turn out to be true. The plague that threatens to arrive is dangerous and ominous and certainly not “propitious.” Still, it could provide the circumstances that would allow you to carry out a plan similar to mine. If these rumors of a catastrophic plague coming our way do turn out to be accurate, death may liberate you one way or another, either by ending your life or the lives of your oppressors. In any case, to assure your liberation and not leave it up to chance, I advise you to consider doing as I did and use the pestilence as an opportunity to stage your own death and start a new life somewhere else as a different person, as just a woman.
Luce (once upon a time, Bice)
I came upon this letter incidentally while researching the ancestry of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). My investigation aimed to determine if and to what extent the “libertine” proclivities with which he came to be associated, including those behaviors and conditions named after him, such as “sadism” and “sado-masochism,” were: 1, “invented” ex novo by the Marquis; 2, prompted by the mores of the society in which he operated; 3, inherited, passed down within the family from generation to generation; and 4, if “inherited,” through what means: genetically, through hereditary character traits, or culturally, through tales, traditions, instruction, and emulation?
It was this research that led me to the archives of Count Hugues de Sade (c. 1300-1364), an ancestor of the 18th-century Marquis. And it was there that a cache of previously unknown correspondence left by his first wife, Laura de Noves, was discovered, including this letter. If authentic, the letter not only supports the claims that Laura de Noves was the “Laura” of Petrarca’s love poetry and that Beatrice Portinari was the “Beatrice” of Dante’s poetry, but more remarkably, it reveals that Beatrice did not die in Florence in 1290, as recorded, but lived elsewhere for many more years.
Since the letter was found in a repository that did not appear to have been disturbed since the time of writing, I am persuaded that it is genuine. Nevertheless, realizing that it would necessarily meet with considerable skepticism, I have consulted with experts outside my field to help determine its authenticity.
The historical linguists whom I have consulted surmise that the letter appears to have been composed by a Venetian merchant using a Franco-Italic idiom then common as a sort of lingua franca among correspondents from different parts of Europe. Merchants, such as the Venetian Polos, were more likely to know how to read and write than nobles, who often had to rely on scribes to read and write their missives. A letter written by a scribe, in their judgment, would not have contained as many grammatical errors and lexical oddities as are found in this letter, which also contains numerous Venetian idioms strewn among the Franco-Italic language commonly found in similar epistles, all of which lends credence to the possibility that it might have been penned by Beatrice/Luce.
With the help of Venetian archivists, I found archival records of an arranged marriage contracted in 1295 between Luce Brexian, born in 1265, without specification of birth-place or parentage, whose last name would have suggested family origins from Brescia (conceivably chosen by our presumptive Beatrice as a way to camouflage her Florentine provenance), and Andrea Polo (1252-1327), a cousin of Marco Polo, who resided in Sudak, one of the Polo family’s far-flung trading posts, situated on the Crimean peninsula on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Records also show that Andrea’s first wife, Caterina, had died in childbirth in 1293 in Sudak, after which he commissioned his relatives in Venice to find another suitable spouse, to contract a marriage on his behalf, and to arrange for her voyage to Sudak. Records show that Andrea Polo and Luce were married and lived in Sudak and that he died in 1327. Five years after she was widowed, property records show that Luce had returned to Venice with a daughter, Donata, who is listed in that same year’s marriage registry as marrying Bartolomeo da Canal: a marriage that had likely been arranged before their return to Venice.
These records do not prove incontrovertibly that Luce Brexian in Polo was formerly Beatrice Portinari, nor that she was the writer of the letter, but they do lend considerable circumstantial documentary support for that possibility, sufficient to embolden me to publish it.
Mathieu Toussaint, Avignon, France
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Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy and emigrated to the United States with his family as a child. He maintained his ties to Italy as a professor of Italian Studies. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where he resides, reminisces, and writes. Recent stories, poems, and memoirs have appeared in The Chaffin Journal, River River, The New Southern Fugitives, Showbear Family Circus, Bark, Ovunque Siamo, Kairos, Snapdragon, and Dime Show Review.