Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 9 – what, are YOU here?

Brunetto Latini accosts Dante. Gustave Doré.

On burning sands, under a soft rain of flames, Dante meets his former mentor, Brunetto Latini. His “sin” is homosexuality, according to the dictates of formal religion. But what does Dante think?

We are in the circle of the violent against God, nature and art. The naked souls here, whose baked features are caked with ash, have to keep moving round the circle to prevent their feet from being burned. Virgil and Dante are able to cross the sand by walking along the bank of a stream, where the heat is attenuated. This is the stream, Virgil explains, of all the tears shed by the human race since the fall of Adam. According to Sinclair, the stream is not “an instrument of punishment but only an evidence of age-long human agony [that] softens in its presence the rigour of divine justice. It is the Virgilian sense of tears in mortal things breaking in on the grim consistency of retribution as it was conceived by mediaeval Christendom.”

This is a harbinger of what is to come: a meeting full of tension between divine judgement and human compassion. As they walk along, Virgil and Dante meet a troop of souls coming the other way, who scrutinize them as they pass:

Latini was a much respected member of Florence’s older generation. A notary and a rhetorician, he was skilled in the diplomatic art of writing letters and had a public career as Secretary and Letter-writer to the governing council of Florence. After the death of Dante’s father he became his guardian, and it was in this capacity that he had a profound influence on the young poet. It may well have been Latini who persuaded Dante to turn to philosophy and to read Boethius and Cicero after the death of Beatrice. Dante certainly knew Latini’s most popular written work, the Tesoro, an anthology of ethics, politics, philosophy and natural science.

Dante expresses shock at finding this respected elder and much loved father figure brought so low. It might not, however, have been such a shock for Dante’s readers, as Latini doubtless had a reputation for his sexual transgressions. If he did not, then Dante’s affection for him would surely have prevented him from placing him here. Florence was known for homosexuality at this time. But the Church held it to be a sin against nature, something deeply repellent – as some still think of it today.

This moment of recognition is famously taken up by T. S. Eliot, in the “familiar compound ghost” section of Little Gidding, in Four Quartets. Eliot’s encounter takes place in a bombed-out city at dawn, a desolate no-man’s land:

Elsewhere, Eliot writes: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them; there is no third.” I think Eliot’s pretty good, though! Especially when haunted by the bleaker side of Dante’s spirit, as he seems to be here.

But I digress. The affection between Latini and his protégé is apparent from the start of their conversation: he addresses Dante as “my son” and asks if they may spend a while talking; Dante’s reply, “With all my heart…”, speaks of his immediate emotional connection with the man who had taught him so much. 

As they talk, Latini predicts a bright future for Dante as a poet but warns him of his future fall from political grace. He tells him that, had he lived longer, he would have continued to encourage and support the young poet. Dante’s response is heartfelt:

Dante is going out of his way to show his respect, affection and gratitude, especially for the love of literature that Latini instilled in him and that, reflected in his own inspired poetry and prose, will ensure his continuing fame in the afterlife. In this he goes beyond the prejudices of his time – and of ours – to demonstrate his moral support for a minority so often maligned and abused through the ages. According to Sinclair, it’s as if he is saying, “For all the shame that has fallen on Brunetto’s name, his service to Florence and to me remains; still he stands for the best that Florence has been and might be.”

The parting of the poet and his mentor is particularly touching. Latini commends to Dante his Tesoro, nel qual io vivo ancora, “in which I yet live” – the theme of immortality through literature again. Then it’s each to their separate destinies, as Latini turns back to rejoin his cohort while Dante walks on with Virgil. Looking back, Dante compares him to a runner in Verona’s famous annual race, but a winner in the race, not a loser.

Filled with pity and affection amidst the pain of the damned, Dante’s encounter with Brunetto Latini marks the first stirrings of humanist revolt against the severity of divine judgement and the repressive teachings of the Church on matters sexual. Discuss!

Genius line:
La cara e buona imagine paterna di voi. Such a loving evocation of a father figure. But filled with respect too, as Dante gives him the formal plural voi rather than the familiar singular tu.