Brunetto was born to a noble Tuscan family in Florence (Firenze) in 1220. His father was Buonaccorso Latini, and his grandfather was Latino Latini. By 1254, he was the scribe for the elders in the Florence municipality. Brunetto also was active in the city’s political life, and belonged to the Guelph party.
So respected and beloved was Brunetto by his fellow Florentines, he was part of a delegation sent to the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Léon, and Galicia in 1259 or 1260, to plead for aid to the Guelphs against their Ghibelline enemies. The mission wasn’t a success, and on his way home from Spain, a student from Bologna told him about the Guelphs’ recent defeat at the Battle of Montaperti.
With this rival party in power, Brunetto was forced into exile. He lived in France from 1261–68 and worked as a notary in various cities. During his French sojourn, he wrote Tesoretto, an Italian encyclopedia, and Li Livres dou Trésor, a French encyclopedia. The latter is regarded as the very first encyclopedia in a modern European language. Brunetto also translated four of Cicero’s works into Italian.
Illuminated page from Li Livres dou Trésor
When the political situation improved in 1269, he returned to Florence and served in a variety of high offices for the next twenty years. In 1273, he received compensation for the wrong done to him, in the form of being appointed Secretary of the Council of the Republic of Florence. Brunetto was one of the most frequently appointed speakers in general councils.
Following the death of Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, between 1281–83, Brunetto became Dante’s guardian. Dante and many others identified Brunetto as his teacher. There was a clear bond of love and intellectual kinship between the two.
Brunetto passed away in 1294 or 1295, leaving a daughter, Bianca Latini. His tomb is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.
Despite the powerful love and respect between mentor and mentee, Dante depicts Brunetto in Hell, in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. However, he’s treated more respectfully and lovingly than almost anyone else in The Divine Comedy. Brunetto is also only the second person in the poem to touch Dante (the first obviously being Virgil), and the only one who addresses Dante with the familiar form of “you.”
Dante lovingly speaks of Brunetto as his teacher and mentor, and offers to sit with him while the rest of Brunetto’s group runs off. Brunetto has to refuse because he’s condemned to keep aimlessly moving. He then tells Dante’s future.
Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor
Brunetto’s section of Hell is for people who’ve been violent against God, Nature, and art, and unfortunately (given the attitudes of the era) includes gay men. But there’s zero evidence beyond rumours that Brunetto was gay or bisexual, and Brunetto himself expressed homophobic views in Tesoretto. So what is he doing there?
Some scholars believe Brunetto was truly placed in that part of Hell because he was violent against art and his native language. He did, after all, write an entire encyclopedia in French instead of Italian. Others feel it’s proof of how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be).
Brunetto’s tomb, Copyright Sailko
In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.
Dante not only doesn’t condemn gay men as deviants, degenerates, perverts, etc., he also puts an equal number of gay and straight men in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory, for the lustful. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly had a much more modern, nuanced view of homosexuality than most people associate with the Middle Ages.