Virgil and Dante continue across the burning sands. Dante meets and talks with his mentor, Brunetto Latini.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
As we walked along the stone path, the river’s vapors acted as a kind of shade keeping the rain of flames off the water and the banks.Here, Dante simply reports where he is, but recall in the middle of the previous Canto that Virgil told him this was “the most remarkable thing” he had seen yet. I was reminded of how the Flemings built dikes to keep the sea back from Wissant and Bruges; and how, at Padua, they did the same thing along the Brenta to keep Chiarentana’s melting snows from flooding the city.Dante was undoubtedly familiar with the city of Padua and the Brenta River which passes alongside it to the East. And he would have known that its banks were raised and fortified in places to prevent … Continue reading Just so, these dikes we walked along were similar, though not as big as those in the world above. And the fearsome woodland we had passed through was so far behind us that it could no longer be seen.
But now a group of souls came running in our direction down on the sands below us. Remember that we are on the great plain of burning sand upon which falls an incessant rain of flames. Earlier, we were apprized that three different groups of sinners are punished here: one … Continue reading As they approached, each one of them slyly eyed us up and down as some men eye other men at night during a new moon. They strained hard to get a good look at us, just like a tailor squints when threading his needle. While we were being looked over by such a strange group of men, one of them recognized me, grabbed the hem of my cloak, and shouted: “Oh, how marvelous can this be!”One can hardly read Dante’s description of these sodomites without a smile. At the same time, the genius of his imagination here is, in the very best sense, laughable. One wonders where on earth he … Continue reading
Reaching out to me like that, I, too, strained my eyes and looked him over, wondering who he was. Slowly, memory returned him to me through his scorched face and burned body, and then I recalled his name. Bending down so that we were now face to face, I asked: “Ser Brunetto! You? Is this really you – here?”This is Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-1294), a notable Florentine Guelf who was chancellor or secretary of the Republic, and famous, mainly, for two of his works: the Tesoretto, a didactic poem which he … Continue reading
“My son, my son! Please don’t be upset if poor Brunetto Latini lets his group move on while he walks alongside you for a while.”
I responded gladly: “Oh, sir! With all my heart – please do. And if you want me to, I’ll sit here for a while so we can talk. I’m sure my companion won’t mind.”
“No, no!” he said quickly. “If any of us stops, even for a moment, we’ll have to lay down on this burning sand for a hundred years and not be able to brush off these terrible flames. No, let’s just keep going. I’ll walk down here near you and then rejoin my burning group later on.”It is interesting that the penalty for the sodomites who stop moving is to be punished like the blasphemers – to lie motionless under the constant rain of flames.
Well, let me tell you, after that I didn’t dare to get down there with him! But, with my head bent low out of respect, I walked along as he did. And he began to question me: “Tell me, what destiny brings you down here before you’ve even died? And who is your companion there guiding you?”
I gave him a short explanation. “Up there in the living world, years before I was destined to die, I found myself in a dark forest – completely lost. But then, just yesterday, as the sun was coming up, I started to turn around. This spirit here appeared to me at that moment, and he’s leading me back home again.”There’s a certain pathos in this short summary that should not be missed. Brunetto is dead and condemned forever in Hell. Dante, who seems to have learned much from him, is still alive and very … Continue reading
He looked at me carefully and said: “If you follow your stars, and if I saw rightly when I was still alive, you will surely arrive at a glorious port! And if I hadn’t died when I did, I would have happily supported you in all your work, seeing how Heaven has been so good to you. However, beware those evil and selfish people descended from old Fiesole, they still have those brutish mountain ways in their blood. In spite of any good you do, they’ll be your enemies. And that’s fitting for them because they could never compare with you. They’re famous for their envy, pride, and arrogance, and you must not let their blind ways contaminate you. While both parties may wish to devour you, no grass will be growing where those goats are! Instead, your destiny has great honors in store for you. So, let those wild mountain people feed on each other and leave the lovely plant alone – how rare that it should grow in all that dung! That plant bears within it the holy seed of ancient Rome, which still survives there among those miserable newcomers!”Latini, known for the elegance of his language, acknowledges Dante with that same elegance. But soon enough he launches into a prophetic tirade against those who will make the Poet’s life … Continue reading
Amazed to hear such words spoken of me, I said to him: “If I ever wished for anything more, dear teacher of mine, it would be that you would not have died – not yet! Your kind image and your fatherly affection are firmly in my mind and in my heart as I recall how, time and time again, you taught me how one makes oneself eternal. As long as I live, I will always proclaim my gratitude to you and the great debt I owe you, as well. More than that, I will record what you’ve told me about my future and save it, along with another text, which I hope to bring to a lady who will interpret it for me – if I ever get there. At least you can be sure of this: with a clear conscience I’m ready for whatever Fortune has in store for me. Your prophecy is not new to me, so I say: let Fortune turn her wheel as she pleases – and let the peasant dig with his spade!”Dante is referring here to the literary achievements both he and Brunetto can (and will) rightfully claim. Of course, he doesn’t know at this point that he will far outdo his master in literary … Continue reading
Virgil, having heard all this, looked to his right and then turned around to face me. He said quietly: “He’s a good listener who pays careful attention to what he hears.” I didn’t answer, but kept walking and talking with Ser Brunetto.Virgil has obviously been paying close attention to this conversation and speaks only these few words of cautious affirmation in the entire Canto. Dante has not forgotten earlier words/prophecies … Continue reading
I wanted to know who, among his group, might be the most famous. He said: “Well, there’s no harm in my telling you about a few of them. As for the rest, I’ll be silent because there are too many, and time is running short.Dante’s curiosity is our key throughout the Poem to learn more than what we can from observation and conversation. In the previous Canto (14) Virgil told him that among the three classes of sinners … Continue reading What I can tell you is that all of them here were clerks – respected and famous men of letters. But all of them were stained by the same sin. Priscian is here with this miserable crowd, and Francesco d’Accorso, too. Over there – if you have the stomach for such a revolting person – you can see the one whom the Pope had to transfer from the Arno to the Bacchiglione. He’s buried there with his still-engorged organ!Recalling Brunetto’s words about worldly glory and everlasting reputation, note that he chooses to name only the most notable sinners here – all distinguished men of letters like himself. Dante … Continue reading
“There’s a lot more I could say, but we can’t go on like this because in the distance there I see another group coming this way. We can’t mix with them. But do this for me: remember my Tresor, in which I continue to live. Please. This is all I ask of you.”The entire Inferno might be likened to an extended series of scenes, some with more pathos than others. This is a sad farewell on several levels. Evidently, Brunetto has more to tell Dante, but the … Continue reading And with that he turned back into his group and seemed like one of those runners at Verona who race for the prized green banner. He ran like the winner of the group.This footrace, the Palio del Drappo Verde, dates back to 1207, is one of the oldest footraces, and is held every year around the time of Ash Wednesday. The runners were naked, and the winner received … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Here, Dante simply reports where he is, but recall in the middle of the previous Canto that Virgil told him this was “the most remarkable thing” he had seen yet.|
|↑2||Dante was undoubtedly familiar with the city of Padua and the Brenta River which passes alongside it to the East. And he would have known that its banks were raised and fortified in places to prevent flooding when the snow melted in the not-so-far-away Alps. Chiarentana is most likely a mountain in the region of Trent to the north of Padua. Commentators identify it by different names common to Dante’s times. That he knew about the Flemish canals is, perhaps, more curious, though he most likely knew how successful the Dutch and the Flemings were in constructing both canals and dikes to keep the North Sea from inundating the lowlands at various times during the year. His choice of cities like Wissant and Bruges also raises for some commentators the suggestion that Dante may have traveled in these places on his way to England, though such a journey has never been proved to the satisfaction of most. And though he had certainly been to Venice, its “canals” are not dikes or raised waterways as would be found among coastal cities in Belgium and the Netherlands.|
|↑3||Remember that we are on the great plain of burning sand upon which falls an incessant rain of flames. Earlier, we were apprized that three different groups of sinners are punished here: one group lies on the scorching sand face-up (these are the blasphemers), one group sit crouched over on their haunches (these are the usurers), and one group – the most numerous – run about in large packs (these are the sodomites). All of them, as Virgil instructed Dante in Canto 11, sinned by doing violence to Nature.|
|↑4||One can hardly read Dante’s description of these sodomites without a smile. At the same time, the genius of his imagination here is, in the very best sense, laughable. One wonders where on earth he came up with such a description – a description that defies the old dictum that one picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a few words create just the picture Dante intends, and that’s all. That a sinner who will soon be identified should exclaim how marvelous it is to see Dante is another validation by the Poet that not only is this real, but that the living Dante should actually be here is more than the renowned and famous sinner will ever understand.|
|↑5||This is Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-1294), a notable Florentine Guelf who was chancellor or secretary of the Republic, and famous, mainly, for two of his works: the Tesoretto, a didactic poem which he wrote in Italian, and Li Livres dou Tresor, an encyclopedic work which he wrote in French while living for a time in Paris. It is uncertain whether he was actually one of Dante’s teachers, though the Poet certainly held him in high and affectionate regard as the text here suggests. It is more likely the case that Dante was highly influenced, as were many of his contemporaries, by Latini’s writings. His high regard is also seen in the Italian, where Dante addresses Latini with the formal pronoun voi, and calls him Ser or Signore.|
|↑6||It is interesting that the penalty for the sodomites who stop moving is to be punished like the blasphemers – to lie motionless under the constant rain of flames.|
|↑7||There’s a certain pathos in this short summary that should not be missed. Brunetto is dead and condemned forever in Hell. Dante, who seems to have learned much from him, is still alive and very much headed in the other direction. Had Virgil (his unnamed companion) not been summoned to bring him home, our Poet may have ended his life journey in this same place.|
|↑8||Latini, known for the elegance of his language, acknowledges Dante with that same elegance. But soon enough he launches into a prophetic tirade against those who will make the Poet’s life miserable. Fiesole is an ancient Etruscan hilltop city just to the northeast of Florence. Tradition has it that during a power struggle in Rome between Julius Caesar and Cataline, the later fled north and settled in Fiesole. Later on, Caesar destroyed the city and built a new one – Florence – along the banks of the Arno in the valley below. Florence was gradually populated by both Romans and Fiesolans. Florentines of Roman stock generally considered themselves as the nobility, Dante included. He believed that much of the civil strife in Florence was due to its mixed heritage, and it is clear that Brunetto is in agreement with him in this discussion, though Brunetto becomes increasingly coarse in his epithets against the Fiesolans. Dante, on the other hand, is that plant which “bears within it the holy seed of ancient Rome, which still survives….”|
|↑9||Dante is referring here to the literary achievements both he and Brunetto can (and will) rightfully claim. Of course, he doesn’t know at this point that he will far outdo his master in literary fame. When he tells his mentor, “you taught me how one makes oneself eternal,” he probably has his mentor’s actual words in mind: “Glory gives the wise man a second life; that is to say, after his death the reputation which remains of his good works makes it seem as if he were still alive” (Tresor (II,cxx,1). But here is where master and student differ: Latini chose to live forever in the eternity of words, great ones no less, but sealed between the covers of his books as the dead are sealed in their graves by the covers of their tombs. Perhaps it is for this that he is in Hell, not for sodomy. Dante, on the other hand, is traveling toward the eternity of God where, at the end of his Poem, he will read the pages of creation contained in a book called Love! One recalls the Gospel dictum of Jesus:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well” (Mt.6:19-21).
It is irony that the poem Latini is famous for is called The Treasure.
Having said this, Dante tells his master that he will save his prophetic words and present them, along with “another text” (the Commedia), to Beatrice (“a lady”) who will interpret it for him. This desire on Dante’s part is not quite accurate – at least at this point in the Poem. But things change, and we’re a long way off from Heaven. While it’s impossible for us to know how much of the Paradiso’s structure he might have had in mind at this point, it is clear that Dante’s meeting with his great-great-grandfather in Heaven (accompanied by Beatrice) will bring considerable clarity to what he is claiming here, not Beatrice. In light of that heavenly reunion, one might suggest that the Poet’s almost father/son affection for Brunetto is a foreshadowing of his deep love for the relative he will meet in Paradise.
Finally, it should be noted that Dante’s last statement here is one of his most self-confident statements yet: standing firm in the face of Fortune, and with a clear conscience, he virtually taunts her to bring upon him what she may. In a Canto filled with subtle proverbs, did he already have in mind the one he would quote in the Paradiso: “The arrow that is expected travels slowly” (XVII, 27)?
|↑10||Virgil has obviously been paying close attention to this conversation and speaks only these few words of cautious affirmation in the entire Canto. Dante has not forgotten earlier words/prophecies that have been spoken to him.|
|↑11||Dante’s curiosity is our key throughout the Poem to learn more than what we can from observation and conversation. In the previous Canto (14) Virgil told him that among the three classes of sinners on this fiery plain the largest group ran about in groups without stopping. In that Canto Dante did not mention that this largest group were sodomites, leaving us, rather, to figure that out for ourselves in this Canto. Brunetto affirms this again by referring to the large number of sinners and by telling Dante that there are too many here to satisfy his curiosity about their identities. It is fascinating that Dante does not use the word “sodomite” in Cantos 14-16, and only in Canto 11 does Virgil mention them among the blasphemers and usurers – all three groups guilty of violating Nature and thereby doing violence to God.|
|↑12||Recalling Brunetto’s words about worldly glory and everlasting reputation, note that he chooses to name only the most notable sinners here – all distinguished men of letters like himself. Dante calls them literatti. The Italian word cherci rendered here as “clerks” is somewhat ambiguous because the word “clerk” has taken on a different meaning since the Middle Ages. Interestingly, there are approximately even numbers of English translators over the last three centuries who render cherci as “clerics” and as “clerks.” “Clerics” is most likely the translation Dante would have had in mind since “clerks” and “clerics” were generally synonymous as scholars, and all teachers and students in Medieval times were under the ecclesiastical authority of the Church. Furthermore, all of them would have been tonsured: the ritual practice in monasteries of shaving or cutting off part of the hair on the crown of the head as a devotional symbol of one’s commitment to that or some other form of religious life.
First on Brunetto’s list of distinguished scholars is Priscian, the famed sixth-century Latin grammarian, whose authoritative text on Latin grammar was a central part of the curriculum at the University of Paris in both Dante and Brunetto’s time. Like Brunetto, there seems to be no clear evidence that Priscian was gay; but over the centuries grammarians were often labeled as such by gossip because their students were boys and young men.
Franceso d’Accorso was a contemporary of Dante and Brunetto. He was a celebrated Florentine lawyer who taught at the University of Bologna. An expert on Roman law, he was later brought to teach at Oxford by King Edward I, and was the King’s secretary until he returned to Bologna.
The last person pointed out by Brunetto is unnamed but warrants the most graphic sexual description in the entire Commedia. Tradition names this sinner as Andrea de’ Mozzi, the Bishop of Florence. Though he was from a noble family, early commentators describe him as stupid, inept, naive, scandalous, and a public embarrassment in the performance of his sacred offices until such time as his brother discretely appealed to the Pope (most likely Boniface VIII) to have him removed to the insignificant See of Vicenza in the north (along the Bacchiglione River). Compared with some Medieval frescoes and paintings, which show in graphic detail the gruesome punishment of sexual sinners, Dante’s restraint is notable. Apart from this rather graphic exception he doesn’t go into detailed descriptions about the sins punished here.
Like everyone else in this Canto, neither Dante nor any verified historical sources provide a shred of evidence that de’ Mozzi was gay. No doubt, the various references to scandalous (sexual?) behavior, particularly on the part of a Bishop, give us something like “evidence” to think about. And the “still-engorged organ” is a glaring statement we cannot ignore. But what did actually Dante know?
Nevertheless, over the centuries, commentators have spilled much ink over this mysterious Canto (and the following one) where Dante clearly intends his readers to wrestle with his text in such a way that we are left believing that the characters were guilty of sins of violence against God and Nature or, more starkly, sodomy. One is left to choose a metaphorical interpretation, which I prefer, or a more literal interpretation.
In my view, the larger interpretive question in this Canto is not so much sexual seduction or perversion as it is literary. Brunetto, Priscian, and d’Accorso were – as was Dante himself literati – experts in language, and with a skill in rhetoric, whose purpose is to “seduce” the listener or audience to a particular point of view. This may also account for the obvious lack of sexually graphic details in this Canto, since they are not really the object of Dante’s interest. All four of these men were surely trained in the art of using words. Was their sin against God and Nature that they used their art for the wrong purpose? One wonders whether Dante may be wrestling with the larger question of the use to which he put his own immense literary skills. Recall Francesca in Canto 5 telling him that by the power of one line alone she and her lover lost their souls! Perhaps this is why there is never an answer given by Brunetto to Dante’s original question: “Ser Brunetto! You? Is this really you – here?”
|↑13||The entire Inferno might be likened to an extended series of scenes, some with more pathos than others. This is a sad farewell on several levels. Evidently, Brunetto has more to tell Dante, but the way his particular punishment is structured, he’s out of time. His last words are both desperate and tragic. They’re desperate because he can only rescue one thing as his fate catches up with him – his book – his “Treasure.” The words are also spiritually tragic because Brunetto places his whole existence – including Dante’s remembrance of him – in that same book “in which I continue to live.” But he’s dead! Eternally dead, eternally damned, because he chose to live in a book instead of in God. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mk.8:36) During the Middle Ages Brunetto’s encyclopedic Tresor was extremely popular. Written in French while he was exiled in France, it was later translated into Italian. But there is also tragic irony here if we recall Virgil’s words to Dante shortly after they passed through the Gate of Hell in Canto 3 – that Hell is filled with those who lost the good of the intellect. For all his brilliance, Brunetto’s books couldn’t save him. Compared to Dante, Brunetto is but a memory – and in the end this is all he can hope for.|
|↑14||This footrace, the Palio del Drappo Verde, dates back to 1207, is one of the oldest footraces, and is held every year around the time of Ash Wednesday. The runners were naked, and the winner received a large piece of green silk. The looser was required to run back through the city to the starting point naked and holding a large rooster. The sodomites in cantos 14-16 race about in groups naked. And Dante has spent most of his time in this canto speaking with the famous Brunetto Latini, his mentor, who is also naked. The last Dante sees of his illustrious teacher is his naked backside, an awkwardness the Poet repairs by suggesting that Brunetto ran fast enough to clothe himself in the green cloth should he have raced in Verona.|