Chapter 15: Brunetto Latini
As Dante and Virgil continued walking, Dante observed the burning desert. He saw that the stone bank of the river was like a wall built in a country below sea level to keep sea water out of a field so that it could be used to grow crops. In that case, the walls make the field fertile rather than infertile. Here in the burning desert, of course, the wall is unable to make the burning desert fertile.
Virgil and Dante had left the wood of the suicides far behind, and now one of the groups of running sinners were coming towards them.
These are some of the sodomites, Virgil thought. They are men who sought sex with other men. They took something that ought to be fertile and made it infertile.
The men looked at Dante the way that some men will look at other men at night, and one of the sodomites recognized Dante and touched the hem of his clothing and shouted, “This is a marvel!”
Dante looked closely at the burned features of the sodomite, recognized him as a man he had known and still respected, and said, “Is this really you here, Sir?”
This is Brunetto Latini, Virgil thought. This sodomite was famous for his writings, including the Trésor, which recounted much encyclopedic knowledge of his day. After the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, he was exiled from Florence. In addition to being a scholar, he was a Guelf.
You have something to learn here, Dante. You do not have homosexual feelings, yet you have something to learn from Brunetto Latini. He was a scholar, but he was very concerned with becoming famous through his writing. You, Dante, need to be more concerned with telling the truth in your writing than with becoming famous through your writing.
You, Dante, are in the Inferno to learn things that will keep you out of the Inferno. What you need to learn here is to not take something that should be fertile and make it infertile. This, of course, is what the sodomites do. No amount of homosexual intercourse will result in the birth of a baby from that union.
Souls in the Inferno know the future, and so I know that you will later be engaged in what should be a fertile act: the writing of The Divine Comedy. To make that work fertile, you must tell the truth in it. What could make the act of writing The Divine Comedy infertile? If you write in order to become famous instead of writing in order to say the truth, The Divine Comedy will not be the fertile work of art that it could and should be.
Brunetto said to Dante, “If it is OK with you, I would like to talk to you for a while, while I let the rest of my group run on ahead.”
Dante replied, “I would like that. Please stay a while and talk to me, as long as my companion here does not mind.”
“I will, then,” Brunetto said, “but I must keep on running beside you. Any of my group who stops for even a moment is condemned to lie on the burning sand for a hundred years, and he is unable to brush the burning flakes of fire from his body during that time.”
Dante continued walking, but he kept his head low to show respect to his friend. Of course, he did not dare to step onto the burning sand.
“You are still alive, so why are you here?” Brunetto asked. “You obviously have an impressive destiny. Who is your guide?”
“In the living world, I lost my way,” Dante said. “I have been trying to find my way to the right path, and yesterday this soul appeared to serve as my guide. This path through Hell is actually the right path to lead me to the path I ought to be on.”
Way to go, Dante, Virgil thought. You no longer think that your great genius is responsible for your being here, although Brunetto seems to think that. Instead, you realize that you so messed up your life that this journey is necessary to save your soul.
“Dante, you are gifted,” Brunetto said. “You are going to be famous. Your name will be in lights. I saw that clearly when I was alive, and if I had not died when I did, I would have continued to encourage you.
“But not everyone feels about you the way that I do. Some people are your enemies. You will do good deeds, but those people will not recognize them. They will make your life hard. Do not allow them to keep you from your destiny and from the fame that ought to be yours.”
“I wish that you were still alive,” Dante replied. “When you were alive, you taught me how people can make themselves eternal.”
Be careful, Dante, Virgil thought. You say that Brunetto taught you how people can make themselves eternal. That is a reference to becoming famous on Earth through writing.
Yet Brunetto is in Hell for all eternity. Brunetto did not teach you about the right kind of “eternal.” Brunetto was all about gaining eternal fame on Earth, not eternal life in Heaven.
If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you may end up like Brunetto, with fame that is not long lasting on Earth and with punishment that is eternal in the Inferno.
If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you might not put Popes in Hell, but instead flatter them so that you could be their guests and drop their names to other people.
If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you might not put any of your friends in your Inferno, but instead you might put only your enemies in your Inferno.
Dante continued talking to Brunetto, “I will write down your prophecy about the enemies who will want to hurt me. A Heavenly lady will be able to make clearer to me all that you have said. I have heard other prophecies that she can also interpret.”
Virgil, pleased that Dante had listened carefully to what had been said to him, repeated a proverb to Dante, “He listens well who notes well what he hears.”
Dante then asked Brunetto about some of the other sinners with him.
Brunetto replied that many clerics and many men of letters were in his group. By name he mentioned Francesco d’Accorso, a lawyer from Florence who also had taught law at the University of Bologna, and Andrea de’ Mozzi, who from 1287 to 1295 had been the Bishop of Florence.
Then Brunetto said, “I would like to stay and talk with you longer, but I cannot. The dust rising from the desert over there shows that a new group of sinners is arriving, and I must not mingle with them.
“I do ask of you one thing: Remember my Trésor. On it my fame rests.”
Then Brunetto, a naked sinner, raced away the way a naked runner at Verona would compete in a race. He ran quickly, as if he would take the first prize.
I hope that you, Dante, have learned what you ought to have learned, Virgil thought. Brunetto truly has a keen interest in fame. However, compromising your artistic vision for fame is a sin. If you don’t tell the truth in your art, your art will not live on and it will not positively affect other people.
Ironically, if you do tell the truth in your art, it can live on and positively affect other people, and your fame will be greater than if you had compromised your artistic vision. You, Dante, may be remembered as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. At best, Brunetto will be a footnote in future scholarly volumes. If you achieve your destiny, Dante, and if you resist writing simply in order to be famous, anyone who reads the Trésor hundreds of years from now will read it only in the hope that he or she will learn more about you, Dante.
Books should be fertile; books written only to make the writer famous are infertile.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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