Monday, January 24, 2005

Inferno: Canto 15 -- Circle 7, Round 3

Having left the Wood of the Suicides far behind them, the poets are met in their crossing of the burning plain by Ser Brunetto Latino, described by Ciardi as a "dearly-loved man and writer, one who had considerably influenced Dante's own development" (119). Brunetto's influence is cited by the character that Dante draws as he makes reference to his Treasure, which is, according to Edmund G. Gardner in the Catholic Encyclopedia listing, "a kind of encyclopedia in which [Brunetto Latino] 'treats of all things that pertain to mortals.'" In that sense, it contained a lot of material that Dante would have found useful, and the book that Brunetto does not mention is the Tesoretto, written before the Trésor, which, Gardner relates, is "an allegorical didactic poem in Italian, which undoubtedly influenced Dante. Brunetto finds himself astray in a wood, speaks with Nature in her secret places, reaches the realm of the Virtues, wanders into the flowery meadow of Love, from which he is delivered by Ovid. He confesses his sins to a friar and resolves to amend his life, after which he ascends Olympus and begins to hold converse with Ptolemy." Dante owed more to Brunetto, then, than the encyclopedic notations.

According to Julia Bolton Holloway, furthermore, Brunetto was the actual teacher of Dante. She writes, "the thirteenth century is the century of Aristotle, whom Brunetto Latino taught to Dante Alighieri, and whose works were likewise borrowed from the Arabs who had preserved the Greek texts when the Christians had not, and who was now made ultra-orthodox by Aquinas after a bitter, initial rejection of his writings as heretical." This idea of Dante's direct relationship with Brunetto is refuted by Ciardi who writes that Brunetto "was not Dante's schoolmaster as many have supposed -- he was much too busy and important a man for that." He and Dante would have both been Guelphs, though, and it would have made sense for the younger Dante to have traveled with the older Brunetto on at least one occasion in the carrying out of their work.

Not only did Dante come to know of Aristotle through Brunetto, he would also have shared a fate of exile with him, for Brunetto speaks in the Tesoretto of his meeting a traveler along the road who told him of the Ghibelline overthrow of the Guelphs, which news would have made Brunetto realize he had to remain in exile. Dante, also, tells in his Comedy the news of his party's having been overthrown while on a journey, so he's mirroring Brunetto on that score, too.

In short, then, Dante owes a lot to Brunetto Latino, and it is fitting that he devote a whole canto to the man in what turns out to be a celebration of their relationship and of Dante's use of his ideas. That Dante distances himself from any speculation of having had a physical relationship with Brunetto comes out in his shock at seeing Brunetto on these burning sands, and Ciardi explains Dante's surprise as resulting from Dante's not having come to know of Brunetto's preferences until after he had written at least the first six cantos and gotten past the point where he asked Ciacco for news of others he knew. Dante's closeness with Brunetto is further distanced by the hair's breadth of the separation of the rill on which he walks and the desert sands on which Brunetto walks -- close enough to talk, but not close enough to get involved with one another.

What we're left with, though, is problematic -- Dante the poet celebrates a great influence on his life in a canto reserved for punishing homosexuals, which means that Dante's attitude toward homosexuality seems ambivalent -- on the one hand, it's punishable by an eternity in hell, and on the other, just because a person is a homosexual doesn't mean he shouldn't be accorded the highest degree of praise anyone receives in hell. The sin of sodomy is only kind of fondled -- there's no censure outside of the infernal reality of the sodomite's state of being, making this the greatest example of love the sinner and hate the sin that we have in the Inferno.