Robert Hollander
(Princeton University)
27 June 1996

(Inferno 16.7-90)

The problems of Dante's treatment of the punishment of homosexuals in Hell and of his more surprising salvation of still other (unnamed) homosexuals in Purgatory have had two recent responses that restore a central fact: cantos 15 and 16 of Inferno and canto 26 of Purgatorio are in fact concerned with this issue {Joseph Pequigney, "Sodomy in Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio, Representations 36 (Fall 1991), 22- 42; John E. Boswell, "Dante and the Sodomites," Dante Studies 112 (1994), 63-76}. In the last half century some readers have been seduced by the unacceptable notion that either some or all of these souls were not portrayed by Dante as homosexual in the first place {Andre' Pe'zard, Dante sous la pluie de feu, Paris: Vrin, 1950; Richard Kay, Dante's Swift and Strong, Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978; Peter Armour, "The Love of Two Florentines: Brunetto Latini and Bondie Dietaiuti," Lectura Dantis [virginiana] 9 (1991), 11-33; Armour, "Brunetto, the Stoic Pessimist," Dante Studies 112 (1994), 1-18; Kay, "The Sin(s) of Brunetto Latini," Dante Studies 112 (1994), 19- 31}. Boswell's pages insisting on the identity of the sexual sin punished in Inf. 15-16 and the lust repented on the seventh terrace {"Dante and the Sodomites," 65-67} are convincing. And we might consider that, in the latest versions of their arguments {Dante Studies (1994)}, neither Armour nor Kay deals with the finally insurmountable fact that "Soddoma" is used clearly to identify homosexual activity in Purg. 26 (vv. 40 and 79) and thus makes clear its meaning in Inf. 11.50 and therefore the nature of the sin encountered in Inf. 15 and 16. This is not to deny that there is much that one can learn from these treatments of Brunetto Latini, only that one of their central tenets is not credible.

What has gone mainly unnoticed in the various discussions of the problem is something that has puzzled me for some time. Why does Dante treat the homosexual Florentines in Inf. 16 with greater respect than any other infernal figures except those in Limbo? I do not have an answer to that question, but would like to bring it forward. Let me begin with Purg. 26. We have probably not been surprised enough at Dante's insistence that roughly half of those who sinned in lust, repented, and were saved (and are now on their way to that salvation) were homosexual. It would have been easy for him to have left the homosexuals out of Purgatory, and it is hard to imagine an early (or a later) commentator who would have objected to the omission, especially since, in Hell, homosexuality is treated, not as a sin of the flesh, but as one of violence against nature {for speculation about an "evolution" in Dante's thought in this respect, see Pequigney, pp. 31-40}. However, for a unique instance of a commentator who is aware of Dante's unusual gesture see Trifon Gabriele on Inf. 15.46: "Non e' dubbio che 'l Poeta vuol applaudere a questo vitio quanto egli puo'. Ecco, gli fa parlare di belle cose e gli fa tutti grand'uomini nelle lettere e nell'arme e nella religione, e finalmente non e' peccato ne l'Inferno o Purgatorio che egli men danni con le parole sue che questo; anzi lo polisce quanto puo' con suoi versi" {Annotationi nel Dante, ed. Lino Pertile [to whom I owe this notice], Bologna, 1993}.

This surprising, even shockingly "liberal" view of homosexual love as being the counterpart of the heterosexual kind should cause more notice than it generally does; perhaps even greater surprise should attend the extraordinarily generous gestures made toward the three Florentine homosexual politicians, Iacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, whom we encounter in Inf. 16. They are presented as being among the most admirable figures in Hell. Let us examine the scene briefly.

12: The narrator expresses grief as he remembers the wounds made by the flakes of fire on the "bodies" of the sinners: "Ancor men duol pur ch'i' me ne rimembri." Only at 4.43 and 26.19, for the limbicoli and for Ulysses, does he express similarly sympathetic feelings for damned souls.

15: Virgil, who so often warns Dante when the latter begins to admire or become sympathetic (or overly concerned with) the damned, here is urgent in his approbation of these three sinners: "a costor si vuole esser cortese." This is the only time in Hell in which cortesia is mentioned as a fitting response to the damned except for Beatrice's and Dante's use of "cortese" for Virgil (Inf. 2.58, 2.134). The following tercet only emphasizes the guide's appreciation of their worthiness.

28-42: Iacopo Rusticucci speaks for all three of them, not only for himself (we shall return to this motif in a moment), a phenomenon we do not observe elsewhere after we leave Limbo.

43-51: Dante's response to Iacopo's speech is extraordinary. We have not seen (again with the exception of Limbo) and will not see anything like it, not even in his ardor to meet Ulysses: he would have jumped down among them, but for the fire that would have burned him, and he now believes that his guide would have allowed him to (as Virgil's opening words would indeed vouchsafe); Dante refers to his strong feelings for them as "la mia buona voglia / che di loro abbracciar mi facea ghiotto." Nowhere else in Hell, after Limbo, do we hear such affection expressed for damned souls. And, given the fact that these are sodomites, Dante's desire to embrace them has a strange reverberation.

52-57: Dante's answer to their expressed fear that their living fellow-citizen will despise them for being tortured here (28-29) is intense and affectionate: "Non dispetto, ma doglia / la vostra condizion dentro mi fisse, / tanta che tardi tutta si dispoglia...," when he learned from Virgil that men such as they were coming.

79-85: After the three report on Guglielmo Borsiere's news that modern Florence is even worse than the city of their time {Vincenzo Presta, "Guglielmo Borsiere," ED III.311, points out that Iacopo, Guido, and Tegghiaio all were dead by 1272} and Dante apostrophizes the wicked city, gaining their common consent for his views, the three speak their final words as one. This is the only place in Hell that a group of sinners speaks courteously to Dante in a single voice ("rispuoser tutti" is the indication; again, the only similar moment occurs in Limbo -- 4.98 -- when the four poets give Dante their [unspoken?] greeting as one).

88: Leaving Dante and Virgil, the sinners vanish so quickly that "Un amen" could not be uttered in so little time. That Dante should turn to the language of prayer for his comparison, notwithstanding the proverbial and popular origins of the phrase {see Berthier and Bosco/Reggio ad loc.}, probably also reflects on the esteem that he felt and continues to feel for the three Florentines. It is a rare thing in the Inferno to find a moment in which the pilgrim, the poet, and the guide are all in absolute agreement, and certainly with respect to the human worth of sinners. (Benvenuto's comment on v. 90, "per ch'al maestro parve di partirsi," sounds the expected moral tone without any textual support: "satis enim dictum erat de tam obscena et tam spurca materia" [cited from the DDP].) As Pequigney says, "Dante the pilgrim's reaction is rather one of sympathy than the usual and anticipated antipathy, and one that dramatizes Dante the author's outlook, which is, for the time and place, remarkably benevolent" {"Sodomy," 30}.

What do we learn from all this? Until now I have left out of consideration the obvious point that Dante is championing the (lost) cause of the "good Guelphs" who, had they been successful, might have saved Florence from the terrible loss inflicted by the battle of Montaperti (1260), the destruction of a Guelph party that Dante could have loved had it survived. The political pretext of the canto is evident and must not be overlooked. Yet the fact that here, as in Purg. 26, he chooses to put homosexuals in a good light when there was no apparent compelling reason for him to do so surely should cause us to ask further questions about Dante's views concerning homosexuality.