Winners and Losers in the Race of Life

  • Dante’s treatment of sodomy is “progressive” if put in the context of earlier vision literature and other Trecento works
  • the desexualized homosexuality of Inferno 15-16 is in line with the desexualized heterosexuality of Inferno 5 (in contrast, see the highly sexualized encounters between men and snakes of Inferno 25)
  • this canto about literary fame is not itself “literary”: it does not boast the erudite and highly wrought style of, for instance, the canto that precedes it, but a more quotidian everyday language that reflects the intimate and colloquial nature of Dante’s conversation with Brunetto Latini
  • possible insights into how the young Dante was perceived by the “fathers” of his world, recoverable from the encounters with Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Inferno 10 and with Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15
  • considerations regarding Dante’s canzone Le dolci rime, the Aristotelian lyric poem written around the time of Brunetto’s death in 1294
  • the intertwining of classical and contemporary culture in Brunetto’s echo of Ovid

Inferno 15 begins with a passage describing the divine architecture of Hell, referring to the system of embankments that are reminiscent of those built by the Paduans. As in Inferno 14, where Dante refers to God’s “orribil arte” (Inf. 14.6), here too God is “lo maestro” (verse 12) of this landscape—the master/maker of this horrible art.

Dante and Virgilio are walking on one of the embankments. In order to understand who are the sinners moving through the fiery plain who come up alongside the bank, we must reconstruct the organization of Hell and recall the information about God’s “possessions” that we learned toward the end of Inferno 11. We remember that God’s first possession is nature and that God’s second possession is human techne or art. The souls of this canto are the sodomites, those who were violent against nature.

I have written on Dante’s progressive treatment of sodomy (progressive, of course, with respect to his cultural context) in the essays “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other” and “Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante,” cited in the Coordinated Reading. In “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other”, providing ample visual documentation, I place Dante’s treatment of sodomy in the context of contemporary eschatological artwork, for instance Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova and Taddeo di Bartolo’s Last Judgment in the Collegiata di San Gimignano (ca. 1396). Giotto’s treatment of the lustful features graphic images of what art historians Anna Derbes and Mark Sandona call “torments directed at genitalia” (The Usurer’s Heart, p. 66). Taddeo di Bartolo depicts a sodomite “skewered from mouth to rear by a pole” (The Usurer’s Heart, p. 66).

In 1998 I wrote that “Dante’s treatment of lust is remarkable not for how sexualized but for how desexualized it is” (“Dante and Cavalcanti: Inferno 5 in its Lyric Context,” p. 32). Similarly, Dante’s treatment of sodomy is remarkable not for how sexualized but for how desexualized it is.

It is important to understand that Dante in the Commedia does not imagine sexualized tortures at all. He does not pander to the most violently pornographic impulses of the viewer.

The absence of sexualized torture from the Commedia is counter-intuitive, given the unreflective reading of the Commedia as a punitive instrument of divine vengeance that has crystallized over the centuries. Indeed the art historians Derbes and Sandona actually suggest that Giotto’s sexualized tortures derive from Dante, that they are “surely visual versions of Dantean contrappasso”: “These particular forms of torture—surely visual versions of Dantean contrappassoare especially apt here” (“Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua,” The Art Bulletin, 80 [1998], p. 284, emphasis added). I mention this error, which was corrected by Derbes and Sandona in their 2008 book The Usurer’s Heart, cited in Coordinated Reading, only because it is so instructive with respect to the ways in which centuries of reception have warped our view of the Commedia.

We must unlearn the reception in order to see that  frequently, with respect to sexuality, Dante displays a progressive stance, unusual in the context of the culture in which he lived.

We must take the measure of what it means that Dante in the Commedia diverges from common usage by not imagining sexualized tortures at all.

If we consider the Commedia as a whole, Dante’s progressive stance with respect to sodomy is very clear. In Purgatorio 26 Dante places two groups on the terrace of lust: a heterosexual group and a homosexual group, thus effectively giving us a group of saved sodomites. Dante could have precluded any discussion of saved homosexuals by simply ignoring homosexuality outside of Inferno. Instead, he puts homosexuals in his Purgatory, an act with huge implications that I analyze in ”Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante”:

The presence of a second group of souls on Purgatorio’s terrace of lust, and the textual confirmations that the second group is composed of homosexuals, tells the attentive reader that lust—excess desire—is the
impulse underlying any form of sexuality, normative or non-normative. The point of the inclusion is that the same impulse underlies heterosexual lust and homosexual lust: this is an unconventional thought, not even in the twenty-first century fully absorbed by human societies.

Moreover, if we tease out the logic of the Aristotelian idea of incontinence, we can see that Dante’s commitment to placing sodomy in purgatory leads him to accept a dangerous symmetry. Lust is by definition for Dante a sin of incontinence, meaning that the impulse that leads to lussuria is not sinful when it is controlled and moderated. Extending this logic to homosexual lust would imply not just that one can repent of homosexual lust and be saved, but also that limited and moderated homosexual behaviour is not sinful, just as limited and moderated heterosexual behaviour is not sinful. (“Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante,” p. 264)

In sum: Dante explicitly saves homosexuals, including them—in a culturally anomalous fashion—on the terrace of lust in his Purgatory. By doing so, he acknowledges lust as the vice that leads to sodomy, creating an asymmetry with respect to his Hell, where he damns sodomites as sinners of violence against nature.

Even in his Hell, Dante goes out of his way to desexualize his treatment of sodomy. A canto that gives us a measure of what Dante could have done in his treatment of sodomy is Inferno 25, where Dante scripts obscene sexual intercourse between male sinners, some of whom are in the form of serpents. The graphic copulations of Inferno 25, which feature not just sexual intercourse but rape, and specifically male-on-male (serpent-on-male) rape, give us some insight into the kind of sexually descriptive language that Dante could have imported into his treatment of sodomy.

The fact that Dante omits from Inferno 15 and 16 the sexually graphic language of Inferno 25 is important as an internal gauge with which to assess Dante’s handling of sodomy, in the same way that the visual tortures of Giotto and Taddeo di Bartolo offer us an external measure of assessment. All these data points, both internal and external, contribute to our understanding of Dante’s desexualized treatment of sodomy in the Commedia.

* * *

Inferno 15 features the encounter between Dante and his former teacher, the important writer and political figure Brunetto Latini, who was born in Florence circa 1220 and died in Florence in 1294. A Guelph, Brunetto lived in exile in France after the triumph of the Ghibellines at the battle of Montaperti in 1260, remaining in France until the return of the Guelphs to Florence in 1266. Committed to civic life, Brunetto was elevated to the position of prior in 1287.

Brunetto Latini was a serious intellectual, who while in exile wrote the Tresor (Italian Tesoro, English Treasure). Important as an early vernacular encyclopedia, and translated into Italian upon Brunetto’s repatriation, the Tresor includes a translation and digest of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

At the beginning of the canto a group of sodomites comes up alongside the embankment, and each one in the group squints upward to try to make out and identify the travelers, straining to see. They are compared, in a famous simile, to an old tailor squinting at the eye of his needle:

                            ...e ciascuna
ci riguardava come suol da sera
   guardare uno altro sotto nuova luna;
e sì ver’ noi aguzzavan le ciglia
come ’l vecchio sartor fa ne la cruna. (Inf. 15.17-21)

                               ...and each
stared steadily at us, as in the dusk,
   beneath the new moon, men look at each other.
They knit their brows and squinted at us—just
as an old tailor at his needle’s eye.

The simile of the old tailor is paradigmatic in its use of everyday quotidian language, very different for instance from some of the erudite and classically-inspired language of Inferno 14. Inferno 15 boasts a style that is not ornate or highly wrought, and that creates beauty out of simple everyday language. We think, for instance, of “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” (Are you here, ser Brunetto?) in verse 30 and of “e reducemi a ca per questo calle” (and guides me home again along this path) in verse 54.

Even at its highest, the language of Inferno 15 remains syntactically quite simple, as in the magnificent “m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna” (you taught me how man makes himself eternal) in verse 85.

The dialogue between Dante and Brunetto in Inferno 15 recreates the intimacy and familiarity of the kind of conversation that Dante and his teacher might really have had. The diction and style reflect the cadences of real speech between two who knew each other well, one older and accorded the respectful “voi” form of address.

Dante-poet now stages a great moment of recognition, full of poignancy, pathos, and dramatic irony. The emphasis on recognition is clear from the outset: “Così adocchiato da cotal famiglia, / fui conosciuto da un” (And when that family looked harder, / I was recognized by one [Inf. 15.22-3]). The first actor in the unfolding drama of recognition is Brunetto, who grabs Dante by the hem of his gown and exlaims “Qual maraviglia!” (How amazing!) in verse 24. The pilgrim has to scrutinize the “cooked features” and “burned visage” of his friend (“cotto aspetto” and “viso abbrusciato”  in verses 26 and 27) in order to make out his former teacher. For the first time in Inferno the moment of meeting features the amazement of Dante-pilgrim, who reacts with shock at seeing his old teacher “here”, in Hell, among the sodomites: “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” (Are you here, ser Brunetto? [Inf. 15.30]).

How magisterially the poet manipulates us in this encounter, modelling through the pilgrim the “shock” that generations of readers have proceeded to feel at meeting Brunetto Latini in Hell. As I write in The Undivine Comedy:

The poet manages our scandalized reaction to encountering his beloved teacher among the sodomites by staging his own scandalized reaction: “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” creates a complicity between reader and pilgrim that masks the artifice always present in what is, after all, a text, an artifact. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 16)

The moment of recognition and the pilgrim’s amazement, so touchingly relayed through the childlike simplicity of the question “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?”, are of course scripted by the poet, who made the decision to place his old teacher here and to stage this encounter in Hell.

* * *

If you have ever idly wondered, “Would we know a Dante or a Shakespeare if we encountered him, if he were in our midst?”, Dante here gives us an answer: he tells us that his outsize talents were recognized in his own day, and indeed that they were recognized when he was quite young. In this canto Dante gives us some inkling of how he was perceived as a young man by older male authority figures in his life.

To be clear, I should say that Dante gives us some inkling of how he chooses to tell us that he was perceived in his youth. But, frankly, my own inkling is that Dante is here telling us the truth as he sees it.

Dante’s life, which seemed to promise so well, had gone terribly wrong by the time he was writing Inferno 15. In the encounter with Brunetto, Dante is evoking a moment before his life took the tragic turn that left him stateless and dishonored. He is evoking a time when he was viewed as a winner in the race of life, a winner not from the consolatory perspective of fame after death, but a winner in the present, in the eyes of his contemporaries.

Brunetto and Dante shared a teacher/student relationship that modulated into a father/son relationship, judging from their interaction as Dante describes it: Brunetto replies to Dante’s sally with the words “O figliuol mio” (verse 31) and calls him “my son” throughout their exchange. The encounter between Brunetto and Dante picks up the theme of fathers and sons, especially with respect to the hopes and aspirations that fathers may have for their sons and to the help and comfort that sons may receive from their fathers.

The beautiful verse in which Brunetto tells Dante that had he lived longer he would have supported and “comforted” him in his work—“dato t’avrei a l’opera conforto” (60)—is a testament to the help and comfort that Dante did in fact receive from this man.

We remember too a previous father/son moment, that of the pilgrim’s encounter in Inferno 10 with the father of his dear friend Guido Cavalcanti, in which Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti remains fixated for all eternity on the brilliant intellect and the promise of his son Guido. Cavalcante sees the friendship between Dante and his son in part as a rivalry, as a parent might possibly view a competitor to his own child in the race of life. Here too we feel here the texture of lived experience: while Cavalcante measured Dante’s brilliance in relation to that of his own son, Brunetto’s support of him was unqualified and generous.

In the encounters with Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti and with Brunetto Latini, the poet of the Inferno, writing toward the end of the first decade of the fourteenth century, looks back at an earlier time of his life, when his major literary fame was still ahead of him, when he was not already “Dante”, when he was making his way and, for all his extraordinary gifts, needed help and comfort for the road ahead.

In Dante-poet’s account, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, obsessed as he is with the brilliance of his own son, does not dispute that Dante Alighieri was someone who might do something extraordinary. In fact, Cavalcante does not challenge Dante’s intellectual qualifications to undertake this journey (it is Cavalcante’s “Epicurean” assumption that the required qualifications are purely intellectual). He challenges not Dante’s worthiness to be present but his own son’s absence: “mio figlio ov’è? e perché non è teco?” (Where is my son? Why is he not with you? [Inf. 10.60]). In a context in which the father’s working premise is that the journeyer is chosen because of his high intellect——“per altezzo d’ingegno” (Inf. 10.59)—he fully accepts Dante’s intellectual excellence.

Similarly, in Inferno 15 Brunetto endorses Dante’s intellectual gifts. This endorsement is all the more interesting because Brunetto died in 1294, when Dante was only 29:

  Ed elli a me: «Se tu segui tua stella,
non puoi fallire a glorioso porto,
se ben m'accorsi ne la vita bella...» (Inf. 15.55-57)
  And he to me: “If you pursue your star,
you cannot fail to reach a splendid harbor,
if in fair life, I judged you properly...”

By the time of Brunetto’s death in 1294 Dante had written much love poetry and had theologized his love poetry in the Vita Nuova (ca. 1292-1293). He had just begun to write philosophical and socially-attuned lyrics like the canzone Le dolci rime, written circa 1293-1294. Le dolci rime is an unprecedented lyric poem: it is a treatment of an Aristotelian topic, the nature of true nobility, in vernacular verse. In Le dolci rime Dante literally quotes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a remarkable move in a lyric poem (see my essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo,” cited in Coordinated Reading). This is a development in Dante’s intellectual trajectory that benefited greatly from Brunetto’s teachings and especially from Brunetto’s vernacularization of Aristotle’s Ethics in the Tesoro.

Inferno 15 gestures toward this very particular phase of Dante’s poetic development, which begins precisely about the time of Brunetto’s death in 1294. The encounter with Brunetto functions, inter alia, as a way of giving credit to Brunetto Latini for the kinds of philosophical and social teachings that are coming to the fore in Dante’s poetry circa 1294, in the post-courtly phase of his poetic career that was inaugurated by the canzone Le dolci rime.

* * *

What is the art of a teacher with respect to such a pupil of genius as the young Dante? According to Dante, Brunetto “taught me how man makes himself eternal”: “m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna” (Inf. 15.85). In other words, Brunetto fostered in Dante the gifts of a writer and poet, those gifts with which Dante wrote works destined for eternal renown.

Writers and the fame that they can win are very much the focus of Inferno 15. As Brunetto explains, all the sodomites in his group were “clerics and literary folk and men of fame”:

  In somma sappi che tutti fur cherci
e litterati grandi e di gran fama,
d’un peccato medesmo al mondo lerci. (Inf. 15.106-108)
  In brief, know that my company has clerics
and men of letters and of fame—and all
were stained by one same sin upon the earth.

These are people who, rather like Cavalcanti senior on the subject of his son, put their faith completely in the intellectual path. Brunetto still exemplifies this intellectual ideology, recommending to Dante his book, the Tesoro. He characterizes his book—his intellectual achievement—as that in which he continues to live on, saying that in it “io vivo ancora” (I live still [Inf. 15.120]): 

  «Gente vien con la quale esser non deggio.
Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro
nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio». (Inf. 15.118-20)
  “Now people come with whom I must not be.
Let my Tesoro, in which I still live,
be precious to you; and I ask no more.”

Brunetto here declares that he lives eternally in his book. As he speaks the words “nel qual io vivo ancora”, we experience the uncanny and distressing cognitive dissonance between Brunetto’s ideology, the eternity of fame acquired through his intellect in which he believes, and his reality, as Dante sees it and imagines it in the Inferno, which is of course that he is dead and damned for all eternity. Within the fiction of the Commedia his eternity of fame through intellect is a fantasy, and his deadness is incontrovertible: he is doubly dead, for he is in Hell, thus dead in body and in soul.

Yet, as occurs in all of Dante’s great canti, even as we are reminded of Brunetto’s damnation, the message is not so clear after all. For Brunetto does in fact still live in his book, and Dante lives ever so much more in his.

Inferno 15 thus joins Inferno 4, where Dante was privileged to join the group of great poets of antiquity, becoming “sesto tra cotanto senno” (sixth among such wisdom [Inf. 4.102]), in conveying information that runs against the superficial logic of the text and instead plumbs its deep logic: Dante knows that living in a book matters.

We come back in this way to the theme of Dante’s humanistic values, embedded in his deep reverence for classical culture, and coexisting in a productive and fascinating tension with his Christian belief. This canto imbued with the contemporary Florentine culture of Dante’s youth thus takes on the shades of classical culture—not surprisingly, for the study of classical culture was a signal part of Brunetto’s intellectual contribution.

By conjuring, if subtly, the belief that one can live eternally in a text, a belief that conflicts with a Christian perspective, Inferno 15 poses questions about Dante’s own complicity in this belief. In Inferno 4 Dante shows he is susceptible to the same desire for honored fame that motivated the other great poets who accept him into their “bella scola” (Inf. 4.94). In Inferno 15 he shows he is susceptible to Brunetto’s belief that a great writer lives on in his poem.

The common denominator between Inferno 4 and Inferno 15 is Ovid, who ends his masterpiece Metamorphoses with the ringing affirmation “I will live on”—“vivam”:

Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam. (Metamorphoses, Book XV, 871-79)
And now my work is done: no wrath of Jove,
nor fire nor sword nor time, which would erode
all things, has power to blot out this poem.
Now, when it wills, the fatal day (which has
only the body in its grasp) can end
my years, however long or short their span.
But, with the better part of me, I’ll gain
a place that’s higher than the stars: my name, 
indelible, eternal, will remain.
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people’s lips; and through all time—
if poets’ prophecies are ever right—
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life. 
(trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

In a remarkable conflation of classical and contemporary culture, Brunetto’s “nel qual io vivo ancora” echoes the last word of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “vivam”—“I shall have life”.

In this way Dante shows us that the cultural movement of his youth, spearheaded by Brunetto Latini, was alive to the values of classical culture, values that he still holds dear. Moreover, the Ovidian idea of literary fame as a form of immortality, a prophylaxis against death, an idea placed in the mouth of Brunetto Latini, is one to which Dante himself undoubtedly resonates. For all the Inferno’s discounting of fame as an earthly commodity, Dante will show us later, in Purgatorio and Paradiso, that he is not immune from the craving for the kind of immortality that comes from writing a great book, from the desire for an Ovidian indelebile nomen. And if anyone can point to his book and say “nel qual io vivo ancora”—“in which I live still”—Dante is that person.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, pp. 16, 22, 51, 136-40; “Dante and Cavalcanti: Inferno 5 in Its Lyric Context,” 1998, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, 2006; “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia”, 14.1 (2011): 177-204; “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, Ed. Jan Ziolkowski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 163-79; “Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante, Featuring (But Not Exclusively) Cecco d’Ascoli,” in Dante and Heterodoxy: The Temptations of 13th Century Radical Thought, ed. Maria Luisa Ardizzone (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp. 259-75; Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1996); Anna Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua (University Park: Pennsylvania State U. Press, 2008).

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 15: Winners and Losers in the Race of Life.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-15/

About the Commento

1 Ora cen porta l’un de’ duri margini;
2 e ’l fummo del ruscel di sopra aduggia,
3 sì che dal foco salva l’acqua e li argini.

4 Quali Fiamminghi tra Guizzante e Bruggia,
5 temendo ’l fiotto che ’nver lor s’avventa,
6 fanno lo schermo perché ’l mar si fuggia;

7 e quali Padoan lungo la Brenta,
8 per difender lor ville e lor castelli,
9 anzi che Carentana il caldo senta:

10 a tale imagine eran fatti quelli,
11 tutto che né sì alti né sì grossi,
12 qual che si fosse, lo maestro félli.

13 Già eravam da la selva rimossi
14 tanto, ch’i’ non avrei visto dov’ era,
15 perch’ io in dietro rivolto mi fossi,

16 quando incontrammo d’anime una schiera
17 che venian lungo l’argine, e ciascuna
18 ci riguardava come suol da sera

19 guardare uno altro sotto nuova luna;
20 e sì ver’ noi aguzzavan le ciglia
21 come ’l vecchio sartor fa ne la cruna.

22 Così adocchiato da cotal famiglia,
23 fui conosciuto da un, che mi prese
24 per lo lembo e gridò: «Qual maraviglia!».

25 E io, quando ’l suo braccio a me distese,
26 ficcaï li occhi per lo cotto aspetto,
27 sì che ’l viso abbrusciato non difese

28 la conoscenza süa al mio ’ntelletto;
29 e chinando la mano a la sua faccia,
30 rispuosi: «Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?».

31 E quelli: «O figliuol mio, non ti dispiaccia
32 se Brunetto Latino un poco teco
33 ritorna ’n dietro e lascia andar la traccia».

34 I’ dissi lui: «Quanto posso, ven preco;
35 e se volete che con voi m’asseggia,
36 faròl, se piace a costui che vo seco».

37 «O figliuol», disse, «qual di questa greggia
38 s’arresta punto, giace poi cent’ anni
39 sanz’ arrostarsi quando ’l foco il feggia.

40 Però va oltre: i’ ti verrò a’ panni;
41 e poi rigiugnerò la mia masnada,
42 che va piangendo i suoi etterni danni».

43 Io non osava scender de la strada
44 per andar par di lui; ma ’l capo chino
45 tenea com’ uom che reverente vada.

46 El cominciò: «Qual fortuna o destino
47 anzi l’ultimo dì qua giù ti mena?
48 e chi è questi che mostra ’l cammino?».

49 «Là sù di sopra, in la vita serena»,
50 rispuos’ io lui, «mi smarri’ in una valle,
51 avanti che l’età mia fosse piena.

52 Pur ier mattina le volsi le spalle:
53 questi m’apparve, tornand’ ïo in quella,
54 e reducemi a ca per questo calle».

55 Ed elli a me: «Se tu segui tua stella,
56 non puoi fallire a glorïoso porto,
57 se ben m’accorsi ne la vita bella;

58 e s’io non fossi sì per tempo morto,
59 veggendo il cielo a te così benigno,
60 dato t’avrei a l’opera conforto.

61 Ma quello ingrato popolo maligno
62 che discese di Fiesole ab antico,
63 e tiene ancor del monte e del macigno,

64 ti si farà, per tuo ben far, nimico;
65 ed è ragion, ché tra li lazzi sorbi
66 si disconvien fruttare al dolce fico.

67 Vecchia fama nel mondo li chiama orbi;
68 gent’ è avara, invidiosa e superba:
69 dai lor costumi fa che tu ti forbi.

70 La tua fortuna tanto onor ti serba,
71 che l’una parte e l’altra avranno fame
72 di te; ma lungi fia dal becco l’erba.

73 Faccian le bestie fiesolane strame
74 di lor medesme, e non tocchin la pianta,
75 s’alcuna surge ancora in lor letame,

76 in cui riviva la sementa santa
77 di que’ Roman che vi rimaser quando
78 fu fatto il nido di malizia tanta».

79 «Se fosse tutto pieno il mio dimando»,
80 rispuos’ io lui, «voi non sareste ancora
81 de l’umana natura posto in bando;

82 ché ’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora,
83 la cara e buona imagine paterna
84 di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora

85 m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna:
86 e quant’ io l’abbia in grado, mentr’ io vivo
87 convien che ne la mia lingua si scerna.

88 Ciò che narrate di mio corso scrivo,
89 e serbolo a chiosar con altro testo
90 a donna che saprà, s’a lei arrivo.

91 Tanto vogl’ io che vi sia manifesto,
92 pur che mia coscïenza non mi garra,
93 ch’a la Fortuna, come vuol, son presto.

94 Non è nuova a li orecchi miei tal arra:
95 però giri Fortuna la sua rota
96 come le piace, e ’l villan la sua marra».

97 Lo mio maestro allora in su la gota
98 destra si volse in dietro, e riguardommi;
99 poi disse: «Bene ascolta chi la nota».

100 Né per tanto di men parlando vommi
101 con ser Brunetto, e dimando chi sono
102 li suoi compagni più noti e più sommi.

103 Ed elli a me: «Saper d’alcuno è buono;
104 de li altri fia laudabile tacerci,
105 ché ’l tempo saria corto a tanto suono.

106 In somma sappi che tutti fur cherci
107 e litterati grandi e di gran fama,
108 d’un peccato medesmo al mondo lerci.

109 Priscian sen va con quella turba grama,
110 e Francesco d’Accorso anche; e vedervi,
111 s’avessi avuto di tal tigna brama,

112 colui potei che dal servo de’ servi
113 fu trasmutato d’Arno in Bacchiglione,
114 dove lasciò li mal protesi nervi.

115 Di più direi; ma ’l venire e  ’l sermone
116 più lungo esser non può, però ch’i’ veggio
117 là surger nuovo fummo del sabbione.

118 Gente vien con la quale esser non deggio.
119 Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro
120 nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio».

121 Poi si rivolse, e parve di coloro
122 che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
123 per la campagna; e parve di costoro

124 quelli che vince, non colui che perde.

Now one of the hard borders bears us forward;
the river mist forms shadows overhead
and shields the shores and water from the fire.

Just as between Wissant and Bruges, the Flemings,
in terror of the tide that floods toward them,
have built a wall of dykes to daunt the sea;

and as the Paduans, along the Brenta,
build bulwarks to defend their towns and castles
before the dog days fall on Carentana;

just so were these embankments, even though
they were not built so high and not so broad,
whoever was the artisan who made them.

By now we were so distant from the wood
that I should not have made out where it was—
not even if I’d turned around to look—

when we came on a company of spirits
who made their way along the bank; and each
stared steadily at us, as in the dusk,

beneath the new moon, men look at each other.
They knit their brows and squinted at us—just
as an old tailor at his needle’s eye.

And when that family looked harder, I
was recognized by one, who took me by
the hem and cried out: “This is marvelous!”

That spirit having stretched his arm toward me,
I fixed my eyes upon his baked, brown features,
so that the scorching of his face could not

prevent my mind from recognizing him;
and lowering my face to meet his face,
I answered him: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

And he: “My son, do not mind if Brunetto
Latino lingers for a while with you
and lets the file he’s with pass on ahead.”

I said: “With all my strength I pray you, stay;
and if you’d have me rest awhile with you,
I shall, if that please him with whom I go.”

“O son,” he said, “whoever of this flock
stops but a moment, stays a hundred years
and cannot shield himself when fire strikes.

Therefore move on; below—but close—I’ll follow;
and then I shall rejoin my company,
who go lamenting their eternal sorrows.”

I did not dare to leave my path for his
own level; but I walked with head bent low
as does a man who goes in reverence.

And he began: “What destiny or chance
has led you here below before your last
day came, and who is he who shows the way?”

“There, in the sunlit life above,” I answered,
“before my years were full, I went astray
within a valley. Only yesterday

at dawn I turned my back upon it—but
when I was newly lost, he here appeared,
to guide me home again along this path.”

And he to me: “If you pursue your star,
you cannot fail to reach a splendid harbor,
if in fair life, I judged you properly;

and if I had not died too soon for this,
on seeing Heaven was so kind to you,
I should have helped sustain you in your work.

But that malicious, that ungrateful people
come down, in ancient times, from Fiesole—
still keeping something of the rock and mountain—

for your good deeds, will be your enemy:
and there is cause—among the sour sorbs,
the sweet fig is not meant to bear its fruit.

The world has long since called them blind, a people
presumptuous, avaricious, envious;
be sure to cleanse yourself of their foul ways.

Your fortune holds in store such honor for you,
one party and the other will be hungry
for you—but keep the grass far from the goat.

For let the beasts of Fiesole find forage
among themselves, and leave the plant alone—
if still, among their dung, it rises up—

in which there lives again the sacred seed
of those few Romans who remained in Florence
when such a nest of wickedness was built.”

“If my desire were answered totally,”
I said to Ser Brunetto, “you’d still be
among, not banished from, humanity.

Within my memory is fixed—and now
moves me—your dear, your kind paternal image
when, in the world above, from time to time

you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
and while I live, my gratitude for that
must always be apparent in my words.

What you have told me of my course, I write;
I keep it with another text, for comment
by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her.

One thing alone I’d have you plainly see:
so long as I am not rebuked by conscience,
I stand prepared for Fortune, come what may.

My ears find no new pledge in that prediction;
therefore, let Fortune turn her wheel as she
may please, and let the peasant turn his mattock.”

At this, my master turned his head around
and toward the right, and looked at me and said:
“He who takes note of this has listened well.”

But nonetheless, my talk with Ser Brunetto
continues, and I ask of him who are
his comrades of repute and excellence.

And he to me: “To know of some is good;
but for the rest, silence is to be praised;
the time we have is short for so much talk.

In brief, know that my company has clerics
and men of letters and of fame—and all
were stained by one same sin upon the earth.

That sorry crowd holds Priscian and Francesco
d’Accorso; and among them you can see,
if you have any longing for such scurf,

the one the Servant of His Servants sent
from the Arno to the Bacchiglione’s banks,
and there he left his tendons strained by sin.

I would say more; but both my walk and words
must not be longer, for—beyond—I see
new smoke emerging from the sandy bed.

Now people come with whom I must not be.
Let my Tesoro, in which I still live,
be precious to you; and I ask no more.”

And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser.

NOW bears us onward one of the hard margins,
And so the brooklet’s mist o’ershadows it,
From fire it saves the water and the dikes.

Even as the Flemings, ‘twixt Cadsand and Bruges,
Fearing the flood that tow’rds them hurls itself,
Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;

And as the Paduans along the Brenta,
To guard their villas and their villages,
Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;

In such similitude had those been made,
Albeit not so lofty nor so thick,
Whoever he might be, the master made them.

Now were we from the forest so remote,
I could not have discovered where it was,
Even if backward I had turned myself,

When we a company of souls encountered,
Who came beside the dike, and every one
Gazed at us, as at evening we are wont

To eye each other under a new moon,
And so towards us sharpened they their brows
As an old tailor at the needle’s eye.

Thus scrutinised by such a family,
By some one I was recognised, who seized
My garment’s hem, and cried out, “What a marvel !”

And I, when he stretched forth his arm—to me,
On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,
That the scorched countenance prevented not

His recognition by my intellect;
And bowing down my face unto his own,
I made reply, “Are you here, Ser Brunetto ?”

And he: “May’t not displease thee, O my son,
If a brief space with thee Brunetto Latini
Backward return and let the trail go on.”

I said to him: “With all my power I ask it;
And if you wish me to sit down with you,
I will, if he please, for I go with him.”

“O son,” he said, “whoever of this herd
A moment stops, lies then a hundred years,
Nor fans himself when smiteth him the fire.

Therefore go on; I at thy skirts will come,
And afterward will I rejoin my band,
Which goes lamenting its eternal doom.”

I did not dare to go down from the road
Level to walk with him; but my head bowed
I held as one who goeth reverently.

And he began: “What fortune or what fate
Before the last day leadeth thee down here ?
And who is this that showeth thee the way ?”

“Up there above us in the life serene,”
I answered him, “I lost me in a valley,
Or ever yet my age had been completed.

But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;
This one appeared to me, returning thither,
And homeward leadeth me along this road.”

And he to me: “If thou thy star do follow,
Thou canst not fail thee of a glorious port,
If well I judged in the life beautiful.

And if I had not died so prematurely,
Seeing Heaven thus benignant unto thee,
I would have given thee comfort in the work.

But that ungrateful and malignant people,
Which of old time from Fesole descended,
And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,

Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;
And it is right; for among crabbed sorbs
It ill befits the sweet fig to bear fruit.

Old rumour in the world proclaims them blind;
A people avaricious, envious, proud:,
Take heed that of their customs thou do cleanse thee.

Thy fortune so much honour doth reserve thee,
One party and the other shall be hungry
For thee; but far from goat shall be the grass.

Their litter let the beasts of Fesole
Make of themselves, nor let them touch the plant,
If any still upon their dunghill rise,

In which may yet revive the consecrated
Seed of those Romans, who remained there when
The nest of such great malice it became.”

“If my entreaty wholly were fulfilled,”
Replied I to him, “not yet would you be
In banishment from human nature placed;

For in my mind is fixed, and touches now
My heart the dear and good paternal image
Of you, when in the world from hour to hour

You taught me how a man becomes eternal;
And how much I am grateful, while I live
Behoves that in my language be discerned.

What you narrate of my career I write,
And keep it to be glossed with other text
By a Lady who can do it, if I reach her.

This much will I have manifest to you;
Provided that my conscience do not chide me,
For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.

Such handsel is not new unto mine ears;
Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around
As it may please her, and the churl his mattock.”

My Master thereupon on his right cheek
Did backward turn himself, and looked at me;
Then said: “He listeneth well who noteth it.”

Nor speaking less on that account, I go
With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are
His most known and most eminent companions.

And he to me: “To know of some is well;
Of others it were laudable to be silent,
For short would be the time for so much speech.

Know them in sum, that all of them were clerks,
And men of letters great and of great fame,
In the world tainted with the selfsame sin.

Priscian goes yonder with that wretched crowd,
And Francis of Accorso; and thou hadst seen there
If thou hadst had a hankering for such scurf,

That one, who by the Servant of the Servants
From Arno was transferred to Bacchiglione,
Where he has left his sin—excited nerves.

More would I say, but coming and discoursing
Can be no longer; for that I behold
New smoke uprising yonder from the sand.

A people comes with whom I may not be;
Commended unto thee be my Tesoro,
In which I still live, and no more I ask.”

Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those
Who at Verona run for the Green Mantle
Across the plain; and seemed to be among them

The one who wins, and not the one who loses.

Now one of the hard borders bears us forward;
the river mist forms shadows overhead
and shields the shores and water from the fire.

Just as between Wissant and Bruges, the Flemings,
in terror of the tide that floods toward them,
have built a wall of dykes to daunt the sea;

and as the Paduans, along the Brenta,
build bulwarks to defend their towns and castles
before the dog days fall on Carentana;

just so were these embankments, even though
they were not built so high and not so broad,
whoever was the artisan who made them.

By now we were so distant from the wood
that I should not have made out where it was—
not even if I’d turned around to look—

when we came on a company of spirits
who made their way along the bank; and each
stared steadily at us, as in the dusk,

beneath the new moon, men look at each other.
They knit their brows and squinted at us—just
as an old tailor at his needle’s eye.

And when that family looked harder, I
was recognized by one, who took me by
the hem and cried out: “This is marvelous!”

That spirit having stretched his arm toward me,
I fixed my eyes upon his baked, brown features,
so that the scorching of his face could not

prevent my mind from recognizing him;
and lowering my face to meet his face,
I answered him: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

And he: “My son, do not mind if Brunetto
Latino lingers for a while with you
and lets the file he’s with pass on ahead.”

I said: “With all my strength I pray you, stay;
and if you’d have me rest awhile with you,
I shall, if that please him with whom I go.”

“O son,” he said, “whoever of this flock
stops but a moment, stays a hundred years
and cannot shield himself when fire strikes.

Therefore move on; below—but close—I’ll follow;
and then I shall rejoin my company,
who go lamenting their eternal sorrows.”

I did not dare to leave my path for his
own level; but I walked with head bent low
as does a man who goes in reverence.

And he began: “What destiny or chance
has led you here below before your last
day came, and who is he who shows the way?”

“There, in the sunlit life above,” I answered,
“before my years were full, I went astray
within a valley. Only yesterday

at dawn I turned my back upon it—but
when I was newly lost, he here appeared,
to guide me home again along this path.”

And he to me: “If you pursue your star,
you cannot fail to reach a splendid harbor,
if in fair life, I judged you properly;

and if I had not died too soon for this,
on seeing Heaven was so kind to you,
I should have helped sustain you in your work.

But that malicious, that ungrateful people
come down, in ancient times, from Fiesole—
still keeping something of the rock and mountain—

for your good deeds, will be your enemy:
and there is cause—among the sour sorbs,
the sweet fig is not meant to bear its fruit.

The world has long since called them blind, a people
presumptuous, avaricious, envious;
be sure to cleanse yourself of their foul ways.

Your fortune holds in store such honor for you,
one party and the other will be hungry
for you—but keep the grass far from the goat.

For let the beasts of Fiesole find forage
among themselves, and leave the plant alone—
if still, among their dung, it rises up—

in which there lives again the sacred seed
of those few Romans who remained in Florence
when such a nest of wickedness was built.”

“If my desire were answered totally,”
I said to Ser Brunetto, “you’d still be
among, not banished from, humanity.

Within my memory is fixed—and now
moves me—your dear, your kind paternal image
when, in the world above, from time to time

you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
and while I live, my gratitude for that
must always be apparent in my words.

What you have told me of my course, I write;
I keep it with another text, for comment
by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her.

One thing alone I’d have you plainly see:
so long as I am not rebuked by conscience,
I stand prepared for Fortune, come what may.

My ears find no new pledge in that prediction;
therefore, let Fortune turn her wheel as she
may please, and let the peasant turn his mattock.”

At this, my master turned his head around
and toward the right, and looked at me and said:
“He who takes note of this has listened well.”

But nonetheless, my talk with Ser Brunetto
continues, and I ask of him who are
his comrades of repute and excellence.

And he to me: “To know of some is good;
but for the rest, silence is to be praised;
the time we have is short for so much talk.

In brief, know that my company has clerics
and men of letters and of fame—and all
were stained by one same sin upon the earth.

That sorry crowd holds Priscian and Francesco
d’Accorso; and among them you can see,
if you have any longing for such scurf,

the one the Servant of His Servants sent
from the Arno to the Bacchiglione’s banks,
and there he left his tendons strained by sin.

I would say more; but both my walk and words
must not be longer, for—beyond—I see
new smoke emerging from the sandy bed.

Now people come with whom I must not be.
Let my Tesoro, in which I still live,
be precious to you; and I ask no more.”

And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser.

NOW bears us onward one of the hard margins,
And so the brooklet’s mist o’ershadows it,
From fire it saves the water and the dikes.

Even as the Flemings, ‘twixt Cadsand and Bruges,
Fearing the flood that tow’rds them hurls itself,
Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;

And as the Paduans along the Brenta,
To guard their villas and their villages,
Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;

In such similitude had those been made,
Albeit not so lofty nor so thick,
Whoever he might be, the master made them.

Now were we from the forest so remote,
I could not have discovered where it was,
Even if backward I had turned myself,

When we a company of souls encountered,
Who came beside the dike, and every one
Gazed at us, as at evening we are wont

To eye each other under a new moon,
And so towards us sharpened they their brows
As an old tailor at the needle’s eye.

Thus scrutinised by such a family,
By some one I was recognised, who seized
My garment’s hem, and cried out, “What a marvel !”

And I, when he stretched forth his arm—to me,
On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,
That the scorched countenance prevented not

His recognition by my intellect;
And bowing down my face unto his own,
I made reply, “Are you here, Ser Brunetto ?”

And he: “May’t not displease thee, O my son,
If a brief space with thee Brunetto Latini
Backward return and let the trail go on.”

I said to him: “With all my power I ask it;
And if you wish me to sit down with you,
I will, if he please, for I go with him.”

“O son,” he said, “whoever of this herd
A moment stops, lies then a hundred years,
Nor fans himself when smiteth him the fire.

Therefore go on; I at thy skirts will come,
And afterward will I rejoin my band,
Which goes lamenting its eternal doom.”

I did not dare to go down from the road
Level to walk with him; but my head bowed
I held as one who goeth reverently.

And he began: “What fortune or what fate
Before the last day leadeth thee down here ?
And who is this that showeth thee the way ?”

“Up there above us in the life serene,”
I answered him, “I lost me in a valley,
Or ever yet my age had been completed.

But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;
This one appeared to me, returning thither,
And homeward leadeth me along this road.”

And he to me: “If thou thy star do follow,
Thou canst not fail thee of a glorious port,
If well I judged in the life beautiful.

And if I had not died so prematurely,
Seeing Heaven thus benignant unto thee,
I would have given thee comfort in the work.

But that ungrateful and malignant people,
Which of old time from Fesole descended,
And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,

Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;
And it is right; for among crabbed sorbs
It ill befits the sweet fig to bear fruit.

Old rumour in the world proclaims them blind;
A people avaricious, envious, proud:,
Take heed that of their customs thou do cleanse thee.

Thy fortune so much honour doth reserve thee,
One party and the other shall be hungry
For thee; but far from goat shall be the grass.

Their litter let the beasts of Fesole
Make of themselves, nor let them touch the plant,
If any still upon their dunghill rise,

In which may yet revive the consecrated
Seed of those Romans, who remained there when
The nest of such great malice it became.”

“If my entreaty wholly were fulfilled,”
Replied I to him, “not yet would you be
In banishment from human nature placed;

For in my mind is fixed, and touches now
My heart the dear and good paternal image
Of you, when in the world from hour to hour

You taught me how a man becomes eternal;
And how much I am grateful, while I live
Behoves that in my language be discerned.

What you narrate of my career I write,
And keep it to be glossed with other text
By a Lady who can do it, if I reach her.

This much will I have manifest to you;
Provided that my conscience do not chide me,
For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.

Such handsel is not new unto mine ears;
Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around
As it may please her, and the churl his mattock.”

My Master thereupon on his right cheek
Did backward turn himself, and looked at me;
Then said: “He listeneth well who noteth it.”

Nor speaking less on that account, I go
With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are
His most known and most eminent companions.

And he to me: “To know of some is well;
Of others it were laudable to be silent,
For short would be the time for so much speech.

Know them in sum, that all of them were clerks,
And men of letters great and of great fame,
In the world tainted with the selfsame sin.

Priscian goes yonder with that wretched crowd,
And Francis of Accorso; and thou hadst seen there
If thou hadst had a hankering for such scurf,

That one, who by the Servant of the Servants
From Arno was transferred to Bacchiglione,
Where he has left his sin—excited nerves.

More would I say, but coming and discoursing
Can be no longer; for that I behold
New smoke uprising yonder from the sand.

A people comes with whom I may not be;
Commended unto thee be my Tesoro,
In which I still live, and no more I ask.”

Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those
Who at Verona run for the Green Mantle
Across the plain; and seemed to be among them

The one who wins, and not the one who loses.