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Dante in Siena: Inferno 15-20

Dante's Inferno:
Canto 15 | Canto 16 | Canto 17
Canto 18 | Canto 19 | Canto 20

Other Images of Brunetto Latini:
Bodleian Library, Holkham misc. 48
Guido da Pisa's commentary on Inferno
John Flaxman
Sandro Botticelli

Featured Dante Link:
Princeton Dante Project
It is often clear in the Commedia that Dante is writing on several levels simultaneously. A good example is in the seventh circle of Inferno, where Dante relates the punishment of the sodomites. Modern scholarship is not at all in agreement about exactly what is being punished here. The traditional interpretation is that these sinners are guilty of homosexuality, and the punishment of being burned seems to echo one of the common medieval punishments for homosexuals. Even so, Virgil is described as being among the pagans who did not sin, although Dante knew of Virgil's second eclogue, in which the shepherd Corydon burns with unrequited love for the beautiful boy Alexis.

In Canto 15, Dante speaks with his teacher, Brunetto Latini, as a representative of the literary and clerical sodomites. The context could be Dante's acknowledgment of at least his own temptation in the sometimes homosexual dynamic of teacher and student in his day. The shades appear as a band moving along the bank of the circle, as they may have done in the evening along the city wall of Florence. They look Dante and Virgil over with sharp eyes as they pass by, and that is when Brunetto recognizes Dante. Although the literary sodomites are punished harshly, Dante speaks with reverent respect to his old master, using the formal address of voi and calling him Ser Brunetto. Improbably for this conversation deep in Inferno, they fall easily into the pattern of teacher and pupil, with Brunetto calling Dante his dear little son ("O figliuol mio") and imparting advice about his literary career. Like an attentive student, Dante promises to take careful note of what Brunetto says, to be glossed later by Beatrice.

Dante speaks to Brunello Latini, engraving by Gustave Doré
Brunetto's main concern is his own literary fame, and that self-serving style of authorship seems to be what Dante is really condemning. As he runs off to join the pack of shades at the end of Canto 15, Brunetto commends his most famous book, the Lis Tresors, to Dante, saying that in it he still lives (nel qual io vivo ancora). Perhaps if Brunetto had not stored up all of his treasure in earthly things, Dante the poet says between the lines, if his writing had served a good greater than his own fame, he would not be here in the seventh circle. Dante is pursuing something greater and attaches himself faithfully to Virgil in Inferno, who wryly advises Dante to note carefully what Brunetto is saying about the search for literary fame. The theme of self-absorbed writing and reading returns with the figure of Geryon (Canto 17) and most explicitly with the tale of Ulysses (Canto 26).

After describing the habits of the intellectual sodomites, Dante continues with the aristocratic sodomites in Canto 16, where he speaks with three men who were great military leaders of Florence. At this point, Dante removes the cord around his waist and throws it down into the pit that opens up at the midpoint of Inferno. The only way that the journey can continue, Virgil knows, is for them to be carried down to Malebolge by the demonic Geryon (see as imagined by William Blake, Gustave Doré, and Sandro Botticelli). This is where Dante, designing the punishments for the fraudulent in ten little pockets (bolgias), is the most comically gross: the flatterers are submerged in shit, the successors of Simon Peter are inverted like the fallen Simon Magus, the diviners weep tears down their own butt cracks, and so on. Here especially, the more recent translations, which do not shy away prudishly from Dante's bathroom humor, are crucial to understanding the spirit of Inferno.

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