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Dante's Inferno: Canto XV
The Violent against Nature. Brunetto Latini.
NOW bears us onward one of the hard margins,
And so the brooklet's mist o'ershadows it,
From fire it saves the water and the dikes.
Even as the Flemings, 'twixt Cadsand and Bruges,
Fearing the flood that tow'rds them hurls itself, 5
Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;
And as the Paduans along the Brenta,
To guard their villas and their villages,
Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;
In such similitude had those been made, 10
Albeit not so lofty nor so thick,
Whoever he might be, the master made them.
Now were we from the forest so remote,
I could not have discovered where it was,
Even if backward I had turned myself, 15
When we a company of souls encountered,
Who came beside the dike, and every one
Gazed at us, as at evening we are wont
To eye each other under a new moon,
And so towards us sharpened they their brows 20
As an old tailor at the needle's eye.
Thus scrutinized by such a family,
By some one I was recognized, who seized
My garment's hem, and cried out, "What a marvel!"
And I, when he stretched forth his arm to me, 25
On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,
That the scorched countenance prevented not
His recognition by my intellect;
And bowing down my face unto his own,
I made reply, "Are you here, Ser Brunetto?" 30
And he: "May 't not displease thee, O my son,
If a brief space with thee Brunetto Latini
Backward return and let the trail go on."
I said to him: "With all my power I ask it;
And if you wish me to sit down with you, 35
I will, if he please, for I go with him."
"O son," he said, "whoever of this herd
A moment stops, lies then a hundred years,
Nor fans himself when smiteth him the fire.
Therefore go on; I at thy skirts will come, 40
And afterward will I rejoin my band,
Which goes lamenting its eternal doom."
I did not dare to go down from the road
Level to walk with him; but my head bowed
I held as one who goeth reverently. 45
And he began: "What fortune or what fate
Before the last day leadeth thee down here?
And who is this that showeth thee the way?"
"Up there above us in the life serene,"
I answered him, "I lost me in a valley, 50
Or ever yet my age had been completed.
But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;
This one appeared to me, returning thither,
And homeward leadeth me along this road."
And he to me: "If thou thy star do follow, 55
Thou canst not fail thee of a glorious port,
If well I judged in the life beautiful.
And if I had not died so prematurely,
Seeing Heaven thus benignant unto thee,
I would have given thee comfort in the work. 60
But that ungrateful and malignant people,
Which of old time from Fesole descended,
And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,
Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;
And it is right; for among crabbed sorbs 65
It ill befits the sweet fig to bear fruit.
Old rumor in the world proclaims them blind;
A people avaricious, envious, proud;
Take heed that of their customs thou do cleanse thee.
Thy fortune so much honor doth reserve thee, 70
One party and the other shall be hungry
For thee; but far from goat shall be the grass.
Their litter let the beasts of Fesole
Make of themselves, nor let them touch the plant,
If any still upon their dunghill rise, 75
In which may yet revive the consecrated
Seed of those Romans, who remained there when
The nest of such great malice it became."
"If my entreaty wholly were fulfilled,"
Replied I to him, "not yet would you be 80
In banishment from human nature placed;
For in my mind is fixed, and touches now
My heart the dear and good paternal image
Of you, when in the world from hour to hour
You taught me how a man becomes eternal; 85
And how much I am grateful, while I live
Behoves that in my language be discerned.
What you narrate of my career I write,
And keep it to be glossed with other text
By a Lady who can do it, if I reach her. 90
This much will I have manifest to you;
Provided that my conscience do not chide me,
For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.
Such hansel is not new unto mine ears;
Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around 95
As it may please her, and the churl his mattock."
My Master thereupon on his right cheek
Did backward turn himself, and looked at me;
Then said: "He listeneth well who noteth it."
Nor speaking less on that account, I go 100
With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are
His most known and most eminent companions.
And he to me: "To know of some is well;
Of others it were laudable to be silent,
For short would be the time for so much speech. 105
Know then, in sum, that all of them were clerks,
And men of letters great and of great fame,
In the world tainted with the selfsame sin.
Priscian goes yonder with that wretched crowd,
And Francis of Accorso; and thou hadst seen there, 110
If thou hadst had a hankering for such scurf,
That one, who by the Servant of the Servants
From Arno was transferred to Bacchiglione,
Where he has left his sin-excited nerves.
More would I say, but coming and discoursing 115
Can be no longer; for that I behold
New smoke uprising yonder from the sand.
A people comes with whom I may not be;
Commended unto thee be my Tesoro,
In which I still live, and no more I ask." 120
Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those
Who at Verona run for the Green Mantle
Across the plain; and seemed to be among them
The one who wins, and not the one who loses.
1. In this Canto is described the punishment of the Violent against Nature;—
"And for this reason does the smallest round
Seal with its signet Sodom and Cahors."
4. Guizzante is not Ghent, but Cadsand, an island opposite L'Ecluse, where the great canal of Bruges enters the sea. A canal thus flowing into the sea, the dikes on either margin uniting with the sea-dikes, gives a perfect image of this part of the Inferno.
Lodovico Guicciardini in his Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi (1581), p. 416, speaking of Cadsand, says: "This is the very place of which our great poet Dante makes mention in the fifteenth chapter of the Inferno, calling it incorrectly, perhaps by error of the press, Guizzante; where still at the present day great repairs are continually made upon the dikes, because here, and in the environs towards Bruges, the flood, or I should rather say the tide, on account of the situation and lowness of the land, has very great power, particularly during a northwest wind."
5. These lines recall Goldsmith's description in the Traveller:—
"Methinks her patient sons before me stand,
Where the broad ocean leans against the land,
And, sedulous to stop the coming tide,
Lift the tall rampire's artificial pride.
Onward, methinks, and diligently slow
The firm connected bulwark seems to grow;
Spreads its long arms amidst the watery roar,
Scoops out an empire and usurps the shore."
9. That part of the Alps in which the Brenta rises.
29. The reading la mia seems preferable to la mano, and is justified by line 45.
30. Brunetto Latini, Dante's friend and teacher. Villani thus speaks of him, Cronica, VIII. 10: "In this year 1294 died in Florence a worthy citizen, whose name was Ser Brunetto Latini, who was a great philosopher and perfect master of rhetoric, both in speaking and in writing. He commented the Rhetoric of Tully, and made the good and useful book called the Tesoro, and the Tesoretto, and the Keys of the Tesoro, and many other books of philosophy, and of vices and of virtues, and he was Secretary of our Commune, He was a worldly man, but we have made mention of him because he was the first master in refining the Florentines, and in teaching them how to speak correctly, and how to guide and govern our Republic on political principles."
Boccaccio, Comento, speaks of him thus: "This Ser Brunetto Latini was a Florentine, and a very able man in some of the liberal arts, and in philosophy; but his principal calling was that of Notary; and he held himself and his calling in such great esteem, that, having made a mistake in a contract drawn up by him, and having been in consequence accused of fraud, he preferred to be condemned for it rather than to confess that he had made a mistake; and afterwards he quitted Florence in disdain, and leaving in memory of himself a book composed by him, called the Tesoretto, he went to Paris and lived there a long time, and composed a book there which is in French, and in which he treats of many matters regarding the liberal arts, and moral and natural philosophy, and metaphysics, which he called the Tesoro; and finally, I believe, he died in Paris."
He also wrote a short poem, called the Favoletto, and perhaps the Pataffio, a satirical poem in the Florentine dialect, "a jargon," says Nardini, "which cannot be understood even with a commentary." But his fame rests upon the Tesoretto and the Tesoro, and more than all upon the fact that he was Dante's teacher, and was put by him into a very disreputable place in the Inferno. He died in Florence, not in Paris, as Boccaccio supposes, and was buried in Santa Maria Novella, where his tomb still exists. It is strange that Boccaccio should not have known this, as it was in this church that the "seven young gentlewomen" of his Decameron met "on a Tuesday morning," and resolved to go together into the country, where they "might hear the birds sing, and see the verdure of the hills and plains, and the fields full of grain undulating like the sea."
The poem of the Tesoretto, written in a jingling metre, which reminds one of the Vision of Piers Ploughman, is itself a Vision, with the customary allegorical personages of the Virtues and Vices. Ser Brunetto, returning from an embassy to King Alphonso of Spain, meets on the plain of Roncesvalles a student of Bologna, riding on a bay mule, who informs him that the Guelfs have been banished from Florence. Whereupon Ser Brunetto, plunged in meditation and sorrow, loses the high-road and wanders in a wondrous forest. Here he discovers the august and gigantic figure of Nature, who relates to him the creation of the world, and gives him a banner to protect him on his pilgrimage through the forest, in which he meets with no adventures, but with the Virtues and Vices, Philosophy, Fortune, Ovid, and the God of Love, and sundry other characters, which are sung at large through eight or ten chapters. He then emerges from the forest, and confesses himself to the monks of Montpellier; after which he goes back into the forest again, and suddenly finds himself on the summit of Olympus; and the poem abruptly leaves him discoursing about the elements with Ptolemy,
"Mastro di storlomia
E di filosofia."
It has been supposed by some commentators that Dante was indebted to the Tesoretto for the first idea of the Commedia. "If any one is pleased to imagine this," says the Abbate Zannoni in the Preface to his edition of the Tesoretto, (Florence, 1824,) "he must confess that a slight and almost invisible spark served to kindle a vast conflagration."
The Tesoro, which is written in French, is a much more ponderous and pretentious volume. Hitherto it has been known only in manuscript, or in the Italian translation of Giamboni, but at length appears as one of the volumes of the Collection de Documents Inédits sur l'Histoire de France, under the title of Li Livres dou Tresor, edited by P. Chabaille, Paris, 1863; a stately quarto of some seven hundred pages, which it would assuage the fiery torment of Ser Brunetto to look upon, and justify him in saying
"Commended unto thee be my Tesoro,
In which I still live, and no more I ask."
The work is quaint and curious, but mainly interesting as being written by Dante's schoolmaster, and showing what he knew and what he taught his pupil. I cannot better describe it than in the author's own words. Book I. ch. 1:—
"The smallest part of this Treasure is like unto ready money, to be expended daily in things needful; that is, it treats of the beginning of time, of the antiquity of old histories, of the creation of the world, and in fine of the nature of all things. . . . .
"The second part, which treats of the vices and virtues, is of precious stones, which give unto man delight and virtue; that is to say, what things a man should do, and what he should not, and shows the reason why. . . . .
"The third part of the Treasure is of fine gold; that is to say, it teaches a man to speak according to the rules of rhetoric, and how a ruler ought to govern those beneath him. . . . .
"And I say not that this book is extracted from my own poor sense and my own naked knowledge, but, on the contrary, it is like a honeycomb gathered from diverse flowers; for this book is wholly compiled from the wonderful sayings of the authors who before our time have treated of philosophy, each one according to his knowledge. . . . .
"And if any one should ask why this book is written in Romance, according to the language of the French, since we are Italian, I should say it is for two reasons; one, because we are in France, and the other, because this speech is more delectable, and more common to all people."
62. "Afterwards," says Brunetto Latini, Tresor, Book I. Pt. I. ch. 37, "the Romans besieged Fiesole, till at last they conquered it and brought it into subjection. Then they built upon the plain, which is at the foot of the high rocks on which that city stood, another city, that is now called Florence. And know that the spot of ground where Florence stands was formerly called the House of Mars, that is to say the House of War; for Mars, who is one of the seven planets, is called the God of War, and as such was worshipped of old. Therefore it is no wonder that the Florentines are always in war and in discord, for that planet reigns over them. Of this Master Brunez Latins ought to know the truth, for he was born there, and was in exile on account of war with the Florentines, when he composed this book."
Sec also Villani, I. 38, who assigns a different reason for the Florentine dissensions. "And observe, that if the Florentines are always in war and dissension among themselves it is not to be wondered at, they being descended from two nations so contrary and hostile and different in customs, as were the noble and virtuous Romans and the rude and warlike Fiesolans."
Again, IV. 7, he attributes the Florentine dissensions to both the above-mentioned causes.
67. Villani, IV. 31, tells the story of certain columns of porphyry given by the Pisans to the Florentines for guarding their city while the Pisan army had gone to the conquest of Majorca. The columns were cracked by fire, but being covered with crimson cloth, the Florentines did not perceive it. Boccaccio repeats the story with variations, but does not think it a sufficient reason for calling the Florentines blind, and confesses that he does not know what reason there can be for so calling them.
89. The "other text" is the prediction of his banishment. Canto X. 81, and the Lady is Beatrice.
96. Boileau, Épitre, V.:—
"Qu'à son gré désormais la fortune me joue,
On me verra dormir au branle de sa roue."
And Tennyson's Song of "Fortune and her Wheel":—
"Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel and lower the proud;
Turn thy wild wheel thro' sunshine, storm, and cloud;
Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate.
"Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel with smile or frown;
With that wild wheel we go not up or down:
Our hoard is little, but our hearts are great.
"Smile and we smile, the lords of many lands;
Frown and we smile, the lords of our own hands;
For man is man and master of his fate.
"Turn, turn thy wheel above the staring crowd;
Thy wheel and thou are shadows in the cloud;
Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate."
109. Priscian, the grammarian of Constantinople in the sixth century.
110. Francesco d'Accorso, a distinguished jurist and Professor at Bologna in the thirteenth century, celebrated for his Commentary upon the Code Justinian.
113. Andrea de' Mozzi, Bishop of Florence, transferred by the Pope, the "Servant of Servants," to Vicenza; the two cities being here designated by the rivers on which they are respectively situated.
119. See Note 30.
122. The Corsa del Pallio, or foot races, at Verona; in which a green mantle, or Pallio, was the prize. Buttura says that these foot-races are still continued (1823), and that he has seen them more than once; but certainly not in the nude state in which Boccaccio describes them, and which renders Dante's comparison more complete and striking.