- 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 contrappasso—are especially apt here” (“Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua,” The Art Bulletin, 80 , 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.