"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XII thru XVII

I wanted to do a close reading of Canto XV, the one with Brunetto.  There are certain Cantos that Dante himself seems to highlight as important, and when a single character dominates a particular Canto as in XV, then surely this is an important one.  Brunetto Latini was a poet, scholar, and politician in Florence, and was part of the poet movement called the Dolce Stil Novo, which means in the new sweet style.  Dante was a member as was the Guido Cavalcanti, whose father we met in Canto X.  Brunetto appears to be a good generation older than the other poets in the movement, and so is a father figure for Dante.  One wonders what Dante's relationship with his father was since he is never mentioned in his work, but there are numerous father figures right here in the Comedia.  Virgil is one, and there is an interesting disconnect between Latini and Virgil in this canto, which I'll get to.

Latini, though, was more than a father figure; he was Dante's official guardian when Dante's father died when Dante was eighteen years old.  Dante's mother died when he was nine, and it just now occurs to me that those were the same two years Dante claimed to have met Beatrice, when he was nine and when he was eighteen.  Dante was also married at eighteen (to Gemma Donati), but apparently that marriage had been arranged when Dante was twelve.  It seems that Latini was around for some of Dante's key moments in his life.  Brunetto was also a Guelph, a polished orator, and a notary, which gives him the title of "ser."  He was certainly respected and honored.  He died in 1294 when Dante was roughly 29.  His tomb is still at the Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Florence.

That Dante honors Brunetto in Canto XV is without doubt.  But Dante places Brunetto, (a) in hell, and (b) in the circle for homosexuals or sodomites.  Hollander points out that there is some dispute as to what the sin is here in Cantos XV and XVI, but he is sure that it is sexual in nature (the punishment requires constant moving, which happens with the other sexual sins) and involves some perversion that would offend God.  What is interesting is that there is no mention or suggestion in the history of Latini being homosexual, so unless it failed to make the history somehow, this is strictly based on Dante's personal knowledge.  Latini was married and had children.  

So let's take a closer look at the text.  Before actually meeting Brunetto, the pilgrims see a group of souls walking toward them.  The fact that the souls are in a group also suggests some sort of sexual sin.  Most of the souls in Inferno are isolated, but Francesca and Paolo (Canto V) were together.  The fact that they are together and unable to ever consummate their sexual desires is apparently part of the punishment.  The souls observe the pilgrims, and Dante gives one of his great similes, actually a double simile:

Here we met a troop of souls
coming up along the bank, and each one
gazed at us as men at dusk will sometimes do,

eyeing one another under the new moon.
They peered at us with knitted brows
like an old tailor at his needle's eye. (XV. l. 16-21)

Such a beautiful nuanced description, trying to distinguish someone as one does at night in the dark.  Hollander thinks that use of eyeing at night under the moon is an allusion to homosexual "cruising." I find that a little farfetched, but Hollander knows the medieval, Florentine culture better than I would.  I find the second simile more interesting, squinting as a tailor threading a needle.  That to me suggests the parable about it being harder to get to heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matt 19:23-26).  And how appropriate that is for Brunetto!

The next thing that catches my attention is the relative position of the Dante and Brunetto throughout the Canto.  Dante and Virgil are walking on an elevated bank to avoid stepping onto the burning sand; Brunetto on the sand, lower in height.  It is not noted what the difference is in elevation but we see Brunetto grasp the hem of Dante's garment and Dante reaches down to touch Brunetto's face.  This suggests either or both that Brunneto is fallen or that Dante has become the greater artist.  That moment of recognition is one of the great moments of Inferno, and should be quoted:

Thus scrutinized by such a company,
I was known to one of them who caught me
by the hem and then cried out, 'What a wonder!'

And while he held his arm outstretched to me,
I fixed my eyes on his scorched face
until beneath the charred disfigurement

I could discern the features that I knew
and, lowering my hand toward his face,
asked: 'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?' (XV. L. 22-30)

The fact that they touch is most noteworthy, especially since it's an affectionate touch.  I don't recall Dante touching any other sinner in hell, and the fact that Brunetto's expressive "What a wonder!" is also noteworthy.  Many sinners identify Dante as oddly alive in hell, but only Brunetto finds wonder in it.  The Italian is "maravilglia" or literally marvel.  To acknowledge wonder is first a sign of intellect but also a sign of a mind that accepts mystery, even the mystery of God.  No other sinner in hell I think comes this close to faith, which shows you the love Dante has for him, and perhaps the tragedy of his fate.  It should be noted that Dante the poet rhymes "Brunetto" two lines above with "ntellectto" or "intellect."  And that's not a coincidence.  But Dante the character gasps (that's the way I would read it) in shock "'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?"  Note the respectful title, even though the man was familiar and like a father to him.  

Note too how twice Brunetto calls Dante "son" and Dante the character refers to him as "paternal" (l. 83).  Given the disparity in elevation, as they walk Dante bows his head "like one who walks in reverence" (l. 45).  And they talk.  Brunetto tells Dante to "follow [his] star" and that Dante will be "glorious" with his work.  Now here I think we get the first sign of a sinful nature.  Even though Brunetto is now in hell, he doesn't talk about Dante saving his soul but about fame and glory, which I think shows a self-centered pride.  Certainly had he lived longer, he says, he would have helped Dante reach his fame.  And then he goes into a rant about how the crowd from the neighboring town of Fiesole will become Dante's enemy, and he roots the Fiesole enmity in history to Roman times.  I found that rather odd, I don't know what to make of it.  Brunetto also uses an agricultural metaphor: the Fiesolans are a bitter fruit ("sorbs") where Dante is a "sweet fig" (l. 65-66).  And he continues on with the metaphor:

'Let the Fiesolan beasts make forage
of themselves but spare the plant,
if on their dung-heap any still springs up,

'the plant in which lives on the holy seed
of those few Romans who remained
when it became the home of so much malice.' (XV. l. 73-78)

In today's parlance that is sort of racist language, but I'm not sure how to read it in the context of Dante's day.  The significance I think is that it's exclusionary rather than community building, and so shows a lack of charitable love.  But according to his Wikipedia entry, one of the things Latini had accomplished in his political life was a "temporary reconciliation between the Guelph and Ghibelline parties," which strains against how Dante portrays him.  Does Dante know him better than his public image?  Perhaps.

Dante laments when he recalls Brunetto's paternal image and that he "taught me how man makes himself immortal" (l. 85).  Now that should be taken as a line of irony, given that Brunetto is forever in hell.  Dante goes on to tell Brunetto of a lady that is linked to his destiny, never mentioning Beatrice's name, and that he is ready for his destiny.  And here Virgil, who does not say a single line in this canto, enigmatically says, "He listens well who takes in what he hears" (l. 99).  I'm not sure what Virgil is specifically referring to, but Hollander believes it's a caution for Dante.  But a caution for what?  Dante should be listening to the negative implications of Brunetto's words?  

But the two go on talking, and Dante asks who Brunetto's are companions, and Brunetto mentions they are all great and famous scholars but all "befouled/in the world above by a single sin" (l. 107-8).  He tells Dante "had [he]/a hankering for such filth" he might have joined the company.  So poor Ser Brunetto was done in for a single sin, "hankering" suggesting compulsion.  But that's in English but I can't speak to the suggestiveness of the Italian.  

The conversation concludes with Brunetto asking Dante to remember his work Tesoro (which means Treasure) and Dante noting it down in the Canto has immortalized it.  Finally we see Brunetto run off "like one/who races for the green cloth on the plain/beyond Verona" (l. 121-3).  That's apparently a reference to a race that was held in Verona where the runners ran naked over the course but the winner got to wear a green cloth while the losers were left to be embarrassed in their nudity.  But ironically Brunetto trails his companions, so he is more the loser.  What a wonderful and complicated character and scene.  


I promised Leslie I would explain why Virgil is the main guide for Dante.  And given that I just discussed Brunetto Latini, who under some circumstances might have made a sensible choice for a guide, I think this is a good place to explain it.  Leslie asked:

Why did Dante not choose a saint to greet him and instruct him? Why not an archangel? I think I'd like to see Saint Michael after so much garbage in my lifetime, but perhaps he must move up the ranks to merit even a saint's presence.

It's a very good question Leslie I think Virgil makes the most perfect choice when you consider all the themes that Dante is striving to express.  First, let me stipulate, Virgil is not the only guide throughout the Cantica.  He is the first guide, and we are told in the second Canto of Inferno that Beatrice selects Virgil to assist Dante because Virgil has "polished words (II. l. 67) and that she is "trusting to the noble speech that honors [him] and those who paid it heed" (l. 113-4).  So she trusts in Virgil's reputation as a great poet and speaker.  It's not clear exactly why she doesn't come down herself, but perhaps implied there is a suggestion that Dante, who reveres Virgil as the greatest poet, will listen to him.  

Now of course, that's just the narrative rational, but why does Dante the author select Virgil.  He could have created a similar rationale for another guide.  For those that may not know, Virgil is the guide throughout the Inferno and through the first twenty-nine of the thirty-three cantos in Purgatorio.  So it's almost two thirds of the entire Divine Comedy.  At the thirtieth Canto of Purgatorio, Beatrice takes over as guide because Virgil as pagan, cannot enter heaven.  Beatrice guides Dante through most of heaven except at the very core where the Blessed Mother and the Trinity reside.  From there Bernard of Clairvaux takes over as guide for the final few Cantos of Paradisio.  I can't recall the rationale for why Beatrice has to give over to St. Bernard (I'm admittingly weak on the Paradisio) but we'll explore it when we get to it.  But for structural purposes you can see Dante the author creating another triplet analogue.

So why Virgil?  Remember the three main themes of the Comedia: the conforming to God's will, the creation of a proper civic polity, and the creation of a poetic style that is reflects God's beauty.  

I think the theme on poetic style is the most obvious link to Virgil.  He was the greatest known poet in the Latin speaking world.  Dante had no firsthand knowledge of Homer.  We'll see that later in Inferno where we will come across the Homeric character of Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus) placed in hell.  Dante seems to get parts of the Ulysses story incorrect.  Of the Latin poets, Virgil makes the most sense for a number of reasons.  In his Aeneid, the central character Aeneas also travels down to hell and encounters a justice based system of punishments and deceased souls.  So Dante is clearly drawing from Virgil anyway.  Dante honors a number of poets throughout the work, especially in Purgatorio where he honors a number of Italian poets, but Virgil is clearly the most the model Dante believes offers an aesthetic link to his work.
Virgil is also the perfect poet to accentuate the theme of creating a proper civic polity.  The central theme of Virgil's Aeneid is the struggle and values needed to create the Roman people, which led to the formation of the Roman Empire, to Dante the greatest governing body ever, and a justification and model for the Holy Roman Empire and how it should be run.  Aeneas, as Virgil constructs the narrative, is known as the forefather of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome.  In contrast to Rome Dante provides so many characters and scenes of people from the Florentine polity and government.  At this point in Inferno (midway) other than the mention to King Frederick II, we haven't gotten many allusions to the Holy Roman Empire, but more will follow.  There will also be more allusions to ancient Roman Empire.

Finally you would think Virgil wouldn't fit the religious theme of conforming to God's will, but here too Virgil turns out to be the perfect selection.  Aeneas, the central character of the Aeneid, is also a devout believer and practitioner of his faith in the Roman gods.  He is known as pius Aeneas, where piety is of the foremost importance to his character.  Self-sacrifice is what he must repeatedly do in the Aeneid to accomplish the will of the gods to found Rome.  He saves his father from death when the Greeks sack Troy, carrying him on his shoulders as the city burns and later gives up his fleshly love for Dido to go on to reach the Latin people.  Of all the characters to come out of classical literature, he is the most devout.  In addition, Virgil in the medieval world was known as a precursor to Christianity.  His other works show a love for a life of simplicity and faith.  In one of his poems (Eclogues IV) he describes the birth of a boy child who will bring glory.  People in the middle ages associated the child with Christ.

There are probably a few other reasons on why Virgil.  He spans back to the ancient world, and dante wants to show a continuum with the classical.  Virgil is a Latin poet, and so the forerunner of Italian, and Dante's choice to pick the vernacular Italian contrasts with Virgil's Latin.  There are probably more reasons but I think those are enough. 


  1. Another good look at part of Dante's Comedy.

    About touching - - - it depends on how "touch" is meant, I think. In Canto 32, Dante pulls Bocca degli Abati's hair. That would be possible to do without touching the skin: and verbs like "pull" or "grasp" are more descriptive.

    About contemporary/20th century interpretation of Dante, sex, politics, and social norms - - - I think it's possible that Dante and his guardian had an illicit sexual relationship.

    I think it's also possible that folks, myself included, find it easy to apply contemporary ways of thought to historical events.

    That can be appropriate, since humans haven't changed all that much since the days of Hammurabi and company. Hammurabi's law code includes offenses, for example, that we still deal with: murder, robbery, perjury and the like.

    But I think it can also be inaccurate, since contemporary Western cultures don't work quite the same way as, say, pharaonic Egypt's.

    About Ulysses - I'm just about done with this long-winded comment - thanks for the reminder. We'll meet him in the circle where fraud is handled.

    Oddly enough, maybe not so oddly, I run into assertions - including academic ones - which state that Dante put Ulysses in Hell as punishment for being curious.

    That's remotely possible, I suppose, since part of one of Ulysses' lines has him saying he crossed "the bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man." An American academic, all too familiar with the highly-vocal aversion to science expressed by a fervent and vocal segment of my country's church-goers, might assume that *all* Christians saw being curious as sinful.

    Me? I think fraud is a more likely offense - it's the Trojan Horse incident. That's what my memory tells me, anyway. Like I said, thanks!

    1. Thanks Brian. You're right, he does get physical with Bocc. I just finished reading that, and now I recall there was a soul he pushed under water as he crossed one of the rivers. I can't recall now.

      I'll have a close analysis of the Ulysses canto. He's actually in Hell for the Trojan Horse, but his demise does involve searching for knowledge for a selfish end. We'll get to that! Thanks for commenting.