Inferno Canto XV lecture - English subtitles

Inferno Canto XV
Professor Corrado Calenda
Università di Napoli ‘Federico II’
The renowned “canto of Brunetto” shares a key
feature with other equally well-known canti in
Dante’s Inferno. Close examination shows that
this feature has defined and justified the
centuries of continuous reflection or, rather, the
type of reflection, which its readers have so
consistently dedicated to it.
This feature is the way in which the “sin”
committed by the protagonists in their earthly
lives, and which is the basis for their eternal
damnation, is not the direct focus of the canto
itself. This is also true of Farinata (X), Ulysses
(XXVI), and Ugolino (XXXIII). The reason for
their presence in Hell is hinted at at most, either
indirectly or as a digression, but the canto itself
develops along different lines.
It is almost as though the aim is to avoid an
unnecessary delay on non-essentials, or
because it seems expedient, for various
reasons, to just skim over the matter, if not to
omit it entirely. The anomalous nature of this
canto is obvious: even looking just at the best
known cases of the first cantica, it is enough to
contrast it with Canto V with Francesca and
Paolo, which is centred around a detailed
description of the event which led the two
lovers to perdition.
We could also compare it with canto XIII, which
sets out starkly the circumstances that led to
Pier della Vigna’s suicide. I would add,
however, that Brunetto represents an isolated
case, even in comparison to the damned souls
that Dante had been told earlier that he would
meet. Brunetto is also unusual in comparison to
those whose sin is hinted at.
In canto X, for example, before meeting
Farinata and Cavalcante, Dante is concerned
to find out that that “Epicurus and his followers
have their cemetery in this part, who make the
soul die with the body” (vv. 13-15). In Canto
XXVI, in vv. 59-63, independently preceding the
grandiose description of the fatal path to
destruction, we find a list of the sins which led
Ulysses and Diomedes to destruction.
In my opinion, however, this brief preface to an
extraordinary canto is not detailed enough to
decide for certain what Ulysses’s sin was. It is
also well-known that Canto XXXIII, too includes
a reference to Ugolino’s treachery: Dante tells
us that “Count Ugolino was reported to have
betrayed your fortresses” (vv. 85-86). There is
none of this in Canto XV, nor in the following
canto, in which the two travellers meet other
famous characters who share in Brunetto’s sin.
Predictably, centuries of debate on Brunetto’s
sin have ensued. With an effort of memory and
some reconstruction it is possible to deduce the
nature of the sin, based on indications from
canto XI where Virgil explains that among them
are those that “use force against the Deity …
and therefore the smallest sub-circle stamps
with its seal Sodom and Cahors” (vv. 46-49).
Either that, or one could accept the usual
explanation of v. 144, referring to Andrea de’
Mozzi, “where he left his ill-protended muscles”,
although this has recently been called into
question by scholars such as Mario Martelli. Or
one may share the early commentators’s
opinion of Iacopo Rusticucci’s wife (XVI 45),
whom they held responsible for the damned
man’s sinful inclinations towards his own
Understandably, this initial and essential
information conditions the entire reading of our
canto, and above all the relationship that Dante
means to imply with Brunetto: therefore, in
some ways, a referential reading, or, perhaps, a
content-based reading is more justifiable than
in other cases. This reading is primarily
intended to clarify the significance of Dante’s
decision to include an encounter with his former
Florentine “master” as an essential element of
his narrative.
It has not escaped anyone’s attention that such
a course risks obscuring the extraordinary
formal and stylistic features of the canto, its
more specifically literary worth, among the most
skilful in the entire poem.
Even focusing solely on the memorable
opening, we could note, as an absolute
minimum, the rare inclusive proparoxytonic
rhyme (margini: argini); the brilliant
metaphorical use of a technical botanical
vocabulary (aduggia), used to suggest the
marvel of a sort of umbrella of vapour which
shelters the travellers from the flakes of fire.
We should also note, with Ernesto Giacomo
Parodi, the cluster of rhymes entirely in double
consonants up until v. 13 (argini, uggia, enta,
elli, ossi) which prefigure the “rime aspre e
chiocce” which will be widespread in the
Malebolge. One also notes that the rhyme in –
uggia anticipates that in -eggi of vv. 34-39,
where the central rhyme “greggia” is one of two
words that are “yrsuta propter austeritatem”
against which the “noble” poet is advised in the
De Vulgari Eloquentia.
We should also take note of the remarkable,
but certainly not coincidental, lexical choices in
a verse like ““Quali i Fiamminghi tra Guizzante
e Bruggia” (“Like the Flemings, between
Wissant and Bruges) (v. 4). In this verse, fixed,
neutral lexical items (the name of a people and
two toponyms) imply a reference to the ‘fiamme
che guizzano e bruciano’, directly linked to the
scene which we are about to observe.
The deliberate use of similes taken either from
literature or from personal experience is also
important, making the characteristics of the
unlikely surroundings clear to the reader. These
are, moreover, enriched by touches of absolute
realism (vv. 11-12 “though not so high nor so
thick, whoever he may have been, the masterbuilder made them”) which make the following
events more realistic. The margins of
Phlegethon on which Dante and Virgil walk,
too, must be low enough to permit the close
dialogue between Brunetto and the pilgrim.
The margins of Phlegethon on which Dante and
Virgil walk, too, must be low enough to permit
the close dialogue between Brunetto and the
pilgrim. But above all, the entire canto is a
marvel of representative evidence.
However one approaches them, the series of
ethical, cultural, political and personal
questions which are posed are as subtle and
nuanced as they are worrying and problematic.
First comes the very long opening discussed
above which sets up a familiar tone and the
close proximity of the two people in dialogue.
This is followed by two concrete images, that of
those who gaze “at one another under the new
moon” (v. 19) and that of the “old tailor” who
has difficulty threading a needle (v. 21). These
are not abstract descriptive formulae, but are
the actions and attitudes of men in specific
situations. We could continue at length in this
vein in a close reading of Dante’s masterly
methods in setting up his peculiar, otherworldly
But it is now time to reflect on the central scene
and the essential themes of our canto, sticking
as closely as possible to the letter of the text.
After the meeting with Capaneo, Dante and
Virgil move further still from the wood of the
suicides and profit from the protection offered
by Phlegethon to walk unscathed across the
barren land of the sinners against God, who are
tormented by an incessant rain of fire which
burns and disfigures them as it strikes.
Low down, under the margin, they see a crowd
of souls coming to greet them, who seem to
examine them with painstaking attention. One
of them is startled to recognise Dante, and in
his turn, Dante recognises him as Brunetto
Latini showing a similar, if not greater, surprise.
He should, perhaps, be referred to more
correctly as Burnetto, according to the variant
on the Florentine codices mentioned by
Francesco Mazzoni, which has recently been
emphasised by Luciano Rossi’s ingenious
etymological hypothesis.
An intense dialogue begins between the two,
which first requires a series of explanations of
their respective current situations. This is
followed by Brunetto’s flattering recognition of
the pilgrim’s gifts and a prophecy of the terrible
destiny which awaits Dante in the plots of the
corrupt and enraged Florentines.
Dante reciprocates this acknowledgement of
esteem, albeit in the respectful tones of the
disciple, then declares himself ready to
challenge the blows of fate that Brunetto has
prophesied. After Virgil’s very quick interjection
of agreement, Brunetto replies to the pilgrim’s
question, informing him that Priscian,
Francesco d’Occorso and Andrea de’ Mozzi
share his fate.
Then, preoccupied by the arrival of another
crowd of sinners, he hurries to run after and
rejoin his “flock” who had wandered off
meanwhile. This is a summary of the canto on
very general lines, in which I have consciously
set out to outline its fundamental structure, the
pure narrative schema. This is precisely my
The interpretation of more specific points, and
above all, the canto’s important role in the
overall plot of the Inferno, depend, as we know,
on certain preliminary decisions, on certain
exegetical presuppositions, which can
profoundly alter the underlying significance of
the scene depicted here.
We are faced, then, with a potentially
ambivalent text. It is difficult to establish
whether this is a primary ambivalence,
intentionally included and developed by the
author, or whether it is through a layered
exegetic tradition.
This is a tradition which has grown up around
this canto, like a few others in the Commedia,
to create a broad spectrum of interpretative
hypotheses, which in some cases differ widely
where they are not in direct opposition to each
To me, it seems most likely that at least the two
things are not interwoven in time: the
complexity and perhaps subtle ambiguity or
evasive vagueness of Dante’s original intention
has combined with the survival of historically
determined readings. This has led to a sort of
hermeneutic derivative, which has opened up
further possible readings of a canto that was
already strikingly plurisemic, as well as the
originally intended ones.
If this is the case, the first task of each
interpreter is to attempt to reduce or define, as
far as it is possible, the contribution made by
each of the successive overlapping layers,
which are, nevertheless, a sign of the endless
vitality of the text.
The two knots which need to be dealt with first
and, if possible, unravelled, relate to the
Brunetto’s sin and the type of relationship that
Dante-author intends to establish between the
protagonist (Dante agens) and his interlocutor.
As we will see these questions are connected,
but not, I think, to the point, that the potential
solution of the one requires complete clarity on
the other. Let us take as our starting point,
then, Brunetto’s sin: it is certainly a sin “against
nature” and therefore, indirectly, against God.
The interpretative key that has dominated the
reading of the canto, largely unquestioned, is
sexual, with Brunetto as a practicing
“sodomite”, explicitly, a homosexual and
This, as is well known, was brought into doubt
in an important work by Andre Pezard (although
his hypothesis was recently re-proposed, with
certain additions, by Selene Sarteschi) and by
the studies of Richard Kay, which were
subsequently borne out by the investigations of
Sally Mussetter.
For the former, the sin against nature would
have been Brunetto’s decision to adopt the
langue d’oil rather than his own native
vernacular when writing his best known work,
the encyclopaedia of the Trésor. This practice
had already been hotly contested by Dante on
many well known occasions, albeit with no
particular hostility, of course, towards Old
French; merely an opposition to the
abandonment of one’s “natural” speech.
This would have been a blow to his linguistic
and ethical roots, as Eugene Vance and Peter
Armour would assert from various perspectives.
For Kay, however, “Brunetto would have been
placed among the sinners against nature …
because he would have subverted the natural
order by placing philosophy not only at the
service of the emperor, but also the unnatural,
insubordinate and autonomous communal
structures” (E. Esposito)
That said, it is necessary to add that even
staying close to the traditional (and, frankly,
less adventurous) reading of sexual sin, there
is no lack of variation in the stances taken up
by the various interpreters.
One of the preoccupations of the main
commentators from the beginning of the last
century (most important of whom is Ernesto
Giacomo Parodi) is to defend Dante from the
accusation of having betrayed ser Brunetto’s
privacy, permanently associating his master
with an infamous sin which would otherwise
have remained unknown.
The idea of Brunetto “the sodomite” would be
born for reasons relating to the symmetries of
the poem. In this way the Florentine master
would be assigned to a position corresponding
roughly to that of his ancestor Cacciaguida in
the third cantica, thereby setting up an intratextual parallelism of great ideological depth.
Despite this, in 1979 D’arco Silvio Avalle
(followed by Giuseppe Edoardo Sansone)
interpreted an exchange of canzoni between
Brunetto and Bondie Dietaiuti set out in Cd Vat
3793 using a key of allusive homoeroticism.
This goes against the previous interpretation
which uses a key of purely structural
symmetries that do not have either ethical or
ontological implications.
Here we begin to see how the question of
“Brunetto’s sin” is interwoven with the
relationship that Dante wishes to establish,
both with the historical figure and with
Brunetto’s literary personality. In an insightful
reading, Manlio Pastore Stocchi has
overwhelmingly accentuated the importance of
Dante’s ignominiously accused man by
drastically overturning what has until now been
the usual interpretation of the entire episode.
To summarise, we are present at a serious act
of denunciation: Dante’s allusive and ironic reassessment of the presumed virtues of his
Florentine master. Pastore Stocchi suggests
that this is based on the logic which determines
the law of the contrapasso. In this instance it is
derived directly from the biblical text which
speaks of the punishment inflicted by God on
the inhabitants of Sodom: this is a sign of a sin
judged and punished with special, implacable
To conclude I will note that in a recent lectura
Luciano Rossi excludes the importance of the
evidence brought to light by Avalle, and
attributes Dante’s decision to place Brunetto
here because of his ambiguous condemnation
of sodomy in a well-known passage from the
Drawing together the hypotheses summarised
so far, let us return to the text. I do not honestly
believe that there are convincing alternatives to
the sin of sodomy, in the sense that they extend
the boundaries of the potential sins “against
nature”. All this, however, leads us to
understand the importance that Dante wishes
to accord to this type of sin in the wider
significance of the event.
Allusions to the kind of sin that some
interpreters claim to have discerned further
enrich and add texture to this extraordinary
text, but, as we have said, these appear to
have been derived a posteriori from a number
of fixed interpretative preconceptions.
The violent censure of Brunetto “the sodomite”
may determine the reading of the two
marvellous similes from vv. 18-21, as a bridging
passage towards a “comic” stylistic register,
culminating in the final scene of the canto with
the Brunetto’s wavering path as he chases after
his “crew”.
Traces of “homosexual” body-language (!) may
be derived from a malicious “looking over” (v.
22) by the ghosts of the damned, from Brunetto
grasping Dante’s robe (vv. 23-24), from the
pilgrim stretching out his hand to the master’s
Even the way that Brunetto repeatedly
addressed Dante as “Oh my son” (v. 31) and
“Oh son” (v 37) which the pilgrim ingenuously
interprets as an evocation of the “dear, kind,
paternal image” (v. 83) may be read as a
blasphemous compensation for natural
fatherhood that has been denied through sin.
In reality, by continuing on this trajectory, there
is the risk that even the deep and subtle
ambivalence on which Dante intended to build
the text itself may be irreparably lost: an
interpretative key that has been declared
superficial and ingenious will be replaced with
the opposite one, but one that is equally linear
and unequivocal.
The attribution of the infamous sin of sodomy to
ser Brunetto, which I will assume henceforth
adopt, cannot achieve the result of simply
changing di segno the importance to be placed
on the central scene of the canto.
It is useless, in my opinion, to dwell on either
Dante’s possible indiscretion or his burning
intention (if this is the case) to divulge
Brunetto’s “private” sin, perhaps relating (as
has been suggested) to an unconfessable
personal experience in the relationship
between student and master.
I maintain that Dante deliberately allowed for a
case by case decision on the importance of
describing each sin by having Virgil say, in
canto XI, v. 20 that the detailed illustration of
the successive phases of the infernal journey
will be given to the pilgrim “so that later the
mere sight of them may suffice”.
He thereby retained the option of alluding to or
passing over it as necessary, notwithstanding
the usual scathing judgement passed on
Castelvetro. This, of course, does not imply that
certain sins are glossed over - they are always
mortal sins that have led to eternal damnation but instead the schema of sins is subordinate
to a narrative and ideological strategy.
The role of the guilt-element in the plot line and
the aims of the poem, or better, the definition of
the successive stages in the development of
the protagonist, should always be taken into
account in any analysis. This development may
happen through direct encounters or mediated
by the schema of sins.
In my opinion it is crucial to insist that despite
his ultimate redeemed resting-place, because
Dante’s destiny is progressively accomplished
over the course of a journey. He shows
(particularly in the Inferno) how fragilely
exposed he still is to the hidden dangers, to the
snares, to the seductions of the earthly world.
These are embodied in the arrogance of his
interlocutors and in his own, justified reactions
to them.
If we try, therefore, to re-read the canto without
preconceived subversive intentions, but also
with attention to the contradictory indications of
the plot line, we can pin down certain nonnegotiable points. The insistence on the
absolute but expiated gravity of the sin under
discussion is not to open for debate. The
inhabitants of the third sub-circle of the seventh
circle were ““all fouled with the same sin in the
world” (v. 108).
In speaking of Brunetto, “his baked
appearance” (v. 26) and “his scorched face” (v.
27) are emphasised, and the effect of his
punishment irresistibly recalls the divine
punishment inflicted on Sodom and Gomorrah;
Brunetto himself defines the group that he
belongs to as a “flock” (v. 37) a “crew” (v. 41)
and “scurf” (v. 111).
That said, it is not possible to twist the tone in
which the meeting and the comprehensive
exchange of remarks between the two
protagonists can be taken as anything beyond
the permissable. Yes, the pilgrim moves into a
more elevated position that Brunetto but
meanwhile holds his “head bowed … as one
might walk reverently” (vv. 44-45).
And here we remember that, in the following
canto, it will be Virgil himself to decree,
regarding Iacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra and
Tegghaio Aldobrandi, also sodomites, that “to
these we should be courteous” (v. 15).
The questions that Brunetto asks Dante in vv.
46-48 express a genuine solicitude, without
ulterior motives, pace those who insinuate
maliciously that in the second (“and who is this
showing you the way?”) it is possible to read a
sort of ill-concealed jealousy regarding the
“new” guide: a jealousy that his interlocutor
would have been concerned to gloss over,
being careful not to name Virgil in his reply!
Brunetto’s long, impassioned tirade in praise of
Dante and against the Florentines seems to be,
then, in line with Dante the author’s opinion. It
is also, among other things, a magnificent
example of stylistic mimicry, filled as it is with
typical expressions of Brunetto’s style. As we
will see, the implications that may be
reasonably drawn from it, however, cannot be
easily overturned.
There is a frank recognition of the exceptional
gifts of his interlocutor (vv. 55-57); regrets for
the support that he lacked for his reasonable
aspirations because of Brunetto’s early death
(vv. 58-60); and a typical post-eventum
prophecy (perfectly investigated by Robert
Wilson) on the destiny awaiting him thanks to
the savage nature of the Florentine
descendants of the Fiesolans (vv. 61-78).
It is in the pilgrim’s final reply that matters
become clearer, despite complicating
themselves further, and throw light on the
subtle, disquieting implications hinted at in
Brunetto’s preceding discourse. Reacting with
similar intensity to the fiery tone of Brunetto’s
previous invective, the character who says “io”
will declare his own filial devotion to his greatly
admired interlocutor.
As Brunetto was saddened by not being able to
“give strength for the work” of his pupil because
of his death, so Dante is saddened in his turn
by that death, unless, as Luciano Rossi would
say, vv. 80-81 do not allude so much to his
horrible unnatural condition “as much as to the
outrageous deformity to which Brunetto is
reduced by his implacable fiery punishment”:
Dante would not lament Brunetto’s early death,
but rather his present condition which “exiles”
him from any human dignity.
Brunetto’s glorious expectations of Dante that
were cultivated during his life are highlighted
again by Dante’s hyperbolic description of the
teaching that he received from Brunetto, which
he evaluates ardently. In one of the best known
images of the entire poem, Brunetto’s present
appearance, indecently disfigured, is compared
sadly to the “la cara e buona imagine paterna”
(v. 83) of the former Florentine master who
laboured to pass on his idea of “eternity”.
We should be alert to the point, to which we will
return, that this is clearly an idea shared in the
here and now by the protagonist on his otherworldly journey (v. 86 “how grateful I am” not
“was”); even in pledging himself to bear faithful
witness, during his lifetime, to the convictions of
his master, Dante affirms that he will do it “in
my own language”, that is, in his own beloved
This is the only possible hint in the canto that
he disapproved of Brunetto’s linguistic choices.
Brunetto passed on his teaching “ad ora ad
ora” (v. 84) that is, in a non-systematic and
unconventional way, broadly speaking from
time to time, or when occasion presented itself,
according to the usual reading, although
recently Giovannella Desideri, has provided
strong documentary evidence for further
discussion of the meaning of the phrase.
It is certainly a cultural and literary education,
but is also an ethical, civil and pragmatic
instruction, an authoritative introduction to
social and political commitment. If Brunetto
Latini’s written work dates from the years of his
exile in France, between 1260 and 1266, the
kind of teaching referred to here, based on a
personal link between pupil and master, would
have taken place in the last two decades of the
century, when Brunetto was totally absorbed in
his public tasks.
Why is it, as we have said above, that the
pilgrim’s reply clarifies but also complicates the
meaning of the canto and brings to light the
only real ambivalence in the scene described?
There is no doubt that Dante paints his
personaggio as a mouthpiece for values, and
that, perhaps more relevantly, testifies to
certain incontrovertible truths which are the
clear legacy of the poem’s author.
These are the recognition of the pilgrim’s
personal, intellectual and ethical gifts, the
isolated “sweet fig”, the sole inheritor of
“roman” Florence among the undignified gang
of Florentine of “sour crab apples”, a
recognition becomes even more authoritative
and flattering when expressed by the person
that Giovanni Villani asserts was the founder of
Florentine civic culture.
There is also Brunetto’s faith in the enduring
nature of the poem, to which the master will
entrust the survival of his “Tesoro” (though as
Baranski maintains, this reference more to the
Tesoretto than to the Tresor). Brunetto’s dignity
is indisputable and nothing can go against
Dante’s desire to exalt the central figure of his
own youthful cultural and ethical training.
So then, as the great romantic commentators
from Foscolo to De Sanctis teach us, are we
are faced with a hero who annuls or neutralises
the infamous prominence of his position in hell
with the impressiveness of his stature? Here
we engage with a key question, not only about
our canto, but Dante’s Inferno generally. This
canto is one a few that can provide us with an
example of this question.
In the key verse in our text, Brunetto is said to
have taught Dante “how man makes himself
eternal”; what he outlines to his interlocutor is
the “glorious port” of v. 56, the “honour” of v. 70.
He himself, although permanently afflicted by
divine retribution, claims to “live still” (v. 120) in
his Tesoro. Brunetto has entirely retained his
appearance, his certainties and his illusions, as
Erich Auerback has shown.
He is a long way from understanding the core
of what he has lost, that is, the impossibility of
any salvation outwith Grace, and the total
insufficiency of any lay perspective, no matter
how nobly conceived and carried out. This is
why Brunetto’s sin remains, above all, a side
issue, as was Farinata’s heresy, for other
And if I have to hold an opinion on this overemphasised question, I would propose that
Dante’s exploited a well-known rumour of his
former master’s sodomy which he used, without
any particular malice, for the ends and
purposes of his poem. If Brunetto’s sin is, as it
seems, sodomy, Brunetto’s presence in the
Inferno is connected to another, even more
complex problem, as in the cases cited above
of Farinata, Ulysses and Ugolino.
It is connected to the figurative representation
of the pilgrim’s journey; it is Dante-personaggio,
Dante-agens who shows a guilty solidarity here
with Brunetto’s noble but limited teaching; his
attitude is “reverent”; the enduring identification
with his master pushes him even to the point of
a whispered opposition inviolate divine decree:
“If my requests were all fulfilled” I replied to
him, “you would not yet be banished from
human nature.” vv. 79-81).
His alignment with Brunetto’s idea of eternity is
central to him, and he declares his intention of
being an enthusiastic proponent of it for the rest
of his life (vv. 85-87). Dante-personaggio of
Canto XV is totally exposed to the mortal pitfall
of a magnanimity which borders on vainglory.
This is far from the humble acknowledgement
of error which will be the sign of salvation in
canto XI of the Purgatorio.
And even afterwards, the ‘magnanimous’ Virgil
remains engaged with the possibility of an
eternity which is “human, too human”: we see it
here, in his sign of approval in vv. 97-99. We
see it also in the following canto, in relation to
the other magnanimous sodomites, who, for
their part, present themselves (with the words
of Iacopo Rusticucci) in blindly selfaggrandising terms.
He admonishes Dante “Now wait ... to these we
should be courteous. And if it were not for the
fire that the nature of this place pours down, I
would say that haste would more become you
than them” (vv. 14-18), and he advises the
pilgrim to “speak” of them when he returns to
“see the beautiful stars”.
In the final part of the canto Dante presents
some of his other companions in torment to
Brunetto, all “cherci” or “litterati grandi e di gran
fama”: Priscian, Francesco d’Accorso, and
Andrea de’Mozzi, all named without particular
comment except the latter, who is, so to speak,
placed alongside the abhorred “Servant of
servants”, Boniface VIII.
Thus the unfortunate Florentine bishop, who
left “his ill-protended muscles” (v. 114) in
Bacchiglione, that is, at Vicenza, is the only
sodomite whose physical description is
integrally connected to his sin.
As for the last famous image of the canto, (the
former teacher who recalls, in his flight towards
his companions in torment, the winner of the
green flag in the Palio at Verona), I would say
that this concludes and wraps up the overall
sense of the scene which has just taken place.
As ambivalent and unnerving as the rest of the
canto, it speaks to us of a “victory”, but what a
victory! Nothing more than having evaded a
terrible increase of pain. This victory is only
achieved by sacrificing the gravitas, the posed
dignity of the magnanimous man, which
essentially reduces Brunetto to the disfigured
appearance of his eternal state.
The historical Brunetto’s prestige and
authoritative truth, which the preceding verses
had confirmed, fall away, swept off in that final
breathless dash on the burning sand.

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