Presentation on theme: "Inferno Canto XV Professor Corrado Calenda Università di Napoli ‘Federico II’"— Presentation transcript:
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 gender.
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 master- builder 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 scene.
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 point.
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 other.
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 paedophile.
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 intra- textual 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 re- assessment 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 rigour.
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 Tesoretto.
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 face.
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 non- negotiable 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 other- worldly 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 vernacular.
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 reasons.
And if I have to hold an opinion on this over- emphasised 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 self- aggrandising 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.