Gay men in The Divine Comedy

When I first read the Commedia at 24, I wasn’t exactly happy to see gay men depicted in Hell. But now that my prefrontal cortex is fully developed, and because I’ve done a lot of supplemental study, I’m able to see this aspect of the poem in a markedly different light. Dante’s views on homosexuality are quite nuanced and sympathetic for someone born in 1265.

Yes, he does depict his dear teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where so-called sodomites are punished, but this part of Hell more generally is for those who’ve been violent against Nature, God, and art. Some modern scholars believe the real reason Brunetto shows up there is because he was violent against his native tongue by writing a book (Li Livres dou Trésor) in French. While Dante himself wrote a number of books in Latin, that was Europe’s lingua franca. It would be some centuries until French eclipsed Latin in that regard.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Other scholars feel Brunetto was placed there to show how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be). After all, Brunetto is treated more lovingly and respectfully than almost anyone else in Inferno (apart from Virgil), and there was an obvious bond of love and intellectual kinship between Dante and Brunetto in real life. Brunetto is also the only person in Inferno with whom Dante uses voi, the formal form of you.

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.

For obvious reasons, it’s often difficult to definitively prove historical figures were gay or lesbian, and Brunetto is no exception. We have nothing but this poem (whatever its true intentions), rumours of the time, and his inclusion in a part of Hell which punishes more than just so-called sodomites.

We also need to be careful about applying modern definitions and concepts to historical figures. Of course gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have always existed, but our modern conception of sexual orientation is relatively recent. E.g., many adult men slept with teen boys in Ancient Greece because that was held as an important coming-of-age ritual, education, and mentorship, not because they considered themselves same-sex attracted.

Even the very word “homosexual” didn’t exist till 1869. The word “sodomite” was used because of a false connection with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, the Jewish teaching has always been very clear that their sin was lack of hospitality and had nothing to do with sexual behaviour.

But wait, there’s more!

In the very next canto, Dante meets three more so-called sodomites, who are also fellow Florentines, Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandini. After they introduce themselves, Dante says:

“If I could have been sheltered from the fire,
I would have thrown myself below with them,
and I think my guide would have allowed me to;

but, as I knew I would be burnt and seared,
my fear won over my first good intention
that made me want to put my arms around them.

And then I spoke: ‘Repulsion, no, but grief
for your condition spread throughout my heart
(and years will pass before it fades away)….'”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem any different than his sympathy for other people he’s encountered, like Francesca da Rimini and Ciacco dell’Anguillaia. But when he takes pity on someone, it’s because their conduct reminds him of his own behaviour. E.g., he’s so moved by Francesca’s story of indulging forbidden love because he himself loved a woman who wasn’t his wife, a married woman no less.

An essay in the Durling-Martinez translation (considered by many to be the current gold standard) suggests this is Dante’s way of admitting he’s had sexual desires for other men, but fought not to satisfy this curiosity.

In stark contrast to most other depictions of Hell in that era, and indeed into the modern era, there are no sexualised tortures (of either women or men) in Inferno. The closest we get is the scene of thief Agnèl being turned into a snake in Canto XXV.

Then something very curious happens in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio, on the Seventh Terrace. Here, where the lustful purify themselves, are equal numbers of gay and straight men. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly didn’t think homosexuality or bisexuality were truly a sin. In fact, many of the souls in Purgatory committed similar acts to those punished in Hell. The difference is that souls in Purgatory admit their wrong instead of dying without remorse or blaming other people.

There’s also a distinction between the motivation and manifestation of these same acts. E.g., souls in the Second Circle of Hell conducted illicit love affairs, but people on the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory just loved too intensely and didn’t channel their natural sexual desires (for the same or opposite sex) through the best channels. It’s not about the act itself, but how one chooses to pursue it, and why.

Given the attitudes of his era, Dante could’ve easily left gay men out of Purgatory, meted out sexual tortures to the ones in Hell (which would’ve been entirely in line with contrapasso, a punishment reminding the souls of their sins), and castigated them as perverts, deviants, degenerates, etc. Yet he treats them with great respect and even feels sympathy for them.

Religious minorities in The Divine Comedy

Despite my love of The Divine Comedy after reading it for the first time at age 24, I nevertheless managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading of many things. I blame my translation, the speed at which I read, and my lack of supplementary study materials. There’s also the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite finished, and so I was incapable of thinking like a complete adult about certain things.

One of those things was non-Christians automatically going to Limbo.

Historically, Limbo was seen as a holding-pen for the righteous people of the Bible until Jesus scooped them up during the Harrowing of Hell and took them to Paradise. Thereafter, it was designated for unbaptized babies.

Yet in Dante’s vision, we only find adults. Not a single baby or child appears, though he later affirms his belief in this second purpose of Limbo.

In Limbo reside all the lights of Antiquity, like Homer, Euclid, Julius Caesar, Lucan, Ovid, Horace, Diogenes, Galen, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. There are also three Muslims, Sultan Saladin (who was renowned for his righteousness and magnanimity of character), Avicenna, and Averroës. Dante learnt about the latter two from his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, who got translations of their books while he was exiled in Spain.

Though as of 1300, the year the Commedia is set, Dante had only published one book, he’s nevertheless invited to join the noble school of Homer, Ovid, Horace, Lucan, and Virgil, and warmly welcomed as one of their own. The inclusion of Homer is particularly poignant, since Dante couldn’t read Greek. His love and respect of Homer was based on his reputation and partial Latin translations.

Dante also builds a beautiful castle for the souls in Limbo, and doesn’t subject them to any torments. They’re also the only people in Hell who wear clothes.

Through the entire poem, Dante struggles with the then-mainstream teaching that only baptized Christians can attain Paradise, no matter how righteous they were, even if they lived in a place where no one has ever heard of that religion, or if they lived before Jesus. He’s particularly upset about this because that means his belovèd Virgil will never leave Limbo.

He also says, in Paradiso, that it’s better to be an observant, committed Jew than an insincere, unrighteous Christian, and asks why Jesus’s death needs to be avenged (i.e., in the form of Church-sponsored antisemitism) when Christian doctrine teaches the Crucifixion was necessary.

This is one of those places where having supplementary study material is so important, since I didn’t interpret those passages that way at all in 2004. All I saw were a few comments that seemed like antisemitic jibes, and the deicide accusation really made me angry, since that’s the core of 2,000+ years of antisemitism and ultimately culminated in the Shoah.

BUT!

Dante also believed other things we now know to be completely false, like the Donation of Constantine, that Cleopatra was a promiscuous harlot and not a serious ruler, that Pope Anastasius II was a heretic, and that Prophet Mohammad was originally a Christian and therefore a schismatic. That didn’t make him ignorant or bigoted, just a product of the Middle Ages. He had no reason to doubt the inaccurate history he was taught, since there were no counterexamples.

Dante diverges from popular antisemitic tropes and propaganda of his era by making all his usurers Christians. His own father was a moneylender, and so were many of his friends and acquaintances. In fact, there are no Jews in Hell at all except Judas and Caiaphas. Everyone else Dante encounters are Christians, so-called pagans, and a few Muslims.

Given how almost all popular depictions of Hell into the modern era featured grotesquely stereotyped Jews, it’s remarkable how Dante refrained from that.

Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, a contemporary of Dante who was also possibly his friend, was so inspired by the Commedia, he wrote a Hebrew poem patterned on it.

Dante was greatly influenced by Classical Antiquity, and constantly blends it with Christian theology and his own imagination in Inferno. There are many “pagans” who show up outside of Limbo, and they’re all punished for their respective sins instead of condemned merely for not being Christians. E.g., Tiresias is with the soothsayers; Achilles is with the lustful; Ulysses/Odysseus (seen above in the William Blake painting) is punished for leading his men on an impossible voyage; and Capaneus (seen below) is punished with the blasphemers because he said Zeus couldn’t stop him from invading Thebes.

Dante also makes Cato the guardian of Purgatory, despite not being Christian (and a suicide to boot), and saves three other “pagans,” Statius, Trajan, and Ripheus the Trojan. Statius, his second-favorite writer, joins him and Virgil as they’re leaving the Fifth Terrace of Purgatory and accompanies them until the Earthly Paradise.

Ripheus and Trajan appear as lights in the eyebrow of a beautiful eagle composed of souls in Paradise. They were made Christians through God’s Divine grace.

Given the prevailing attitudes in Medieval Europe, Dante could’ve done a lot worse than making a beautiful castle for righteous non-Christians, saving a few of his favorites, and protesting the teaching that only Christians can attain Paradise.

Women in The Divine Comedy

There were so many important details, nuances, and even major plot points I missed during my first reading of The Divine Comedy in 2003–04, on account of my translation, the speed at which I read, and not having any supplementary study material. One of those things I missed was the surprisingly modern treatment of female characters.

I didn’t know until earlier this year that Dante was the historian of record for many of the women who appear in his magnum opus. If not for him taking an interest in their stories, not even hardcore scholars of Medieval Italian history would’ve heard of them.

First and foremost, the familiar trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man is completely flipped. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante. Not only that, she sets out to recruit his first guide, Virgil, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and Saint Lucia (one of Dante’s favorite saints). Three women work together to hatch a plan to rescue this lost soul, whose folly has brought him so close to his final hour they’re almost too late.

We know Beatrice Portinari was a real woman because she’s mentioned (as Bice, her familiar name) in her father Folco’s 1289 will and in a 1280 notarial deed where her husband, Simone de Bardi, sold land to his brother with Beatrice’s approval. Historical record also shows her family lived very close to Dante’s family when they were children. But everything else we know about her comes straight from Dante. If not for those mentions in legal documents, some people might still believe she was a fictional character.

Many people in the Middle Ages were scandalized and outraged by the role Beatrice plays in the poem. Not only is she Dante’s teacher during the final leg of his otherworldly journey, she also teaches theology and knows more than he does. Many people (men as well as women themselves) believed women had smaller brains and weren’t capable of learning anything substantial, let alone being teachers. Theology in particular was considered a solely male enterprise, despite the example of many highly educated nuns like Hildegard of Bingen.

Love saved Beatrice from becoming one of the too many women whose names and stories are forgotten by history.

The first woman to directly appear and speak (since Virgil only quotes Beatrice) is Francesca da Rimini, who was murdered by her husband Giovanni when he discovered her affair with his younger brother Paolo. Dante speaks to Francesca, not Paolo, when he encounters them in the Second Circle (for the lustful), and thus gives her moral agency. She tells her own story instead of passively letting Paolo narrate it. Francesca also reveals herself as a literate woman, since she and Paolo were reading when they fell in love.

Though Francesca and Paolo’s love affair and tragic murder was well-known in Dante’s day, Francesca was only mentioned by name in her father-in-law’s will, by which time she was deceased. Because of her appearance in the Commedia, she’s become the subject of countless works of art and music. Another obscure woman rescued from historical oblivion.

The next woman to speak, in Canto V of Purgatorio, is Pia dei Tolomei, who was also murdered by her husband. In a world where wife-beating was not only legal but seen as socially acceptable and matter-of-fact, Dante’s sympathy is with the abused women, not their husbands.

The only reason we know anything about Pia, even her name, is because Dante was her historian of record.

Dante’s final guide in Purgatorio is Matelda, who appears in the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden). She invites him to ask any questions he might have about this place, and explains the weather and rivers. Then she orders him to pay attention to the approaching heavenly pageant.

When Beatrice appears, she’s anything but sweetness and light. She immediately begins upbraiding Dante for his sins of forgetting her and not using his God-given talents after her passing. She’s so stern and tough, Dante compares her to the admiral of a ship.

For the umpteenth time, Dante passes out, and when he comes to, Matelda is reviving him in the river Lethe. Some people believe Dante may have had a condition like epilepsy or narcolepsy because of how many times he passes out, and how realistic his descriptions are of coming back to himself.

The first woman we meet in Paradiso is Piccarda Donati, who was forcibly removed from her convent by her dastardly brother Corso and married against her will. Yet another woman who was the victim of violence, and whom Dante sympathizes with.

Other women who appear are Sapìa Salvani (Canto XIII of Purgatorio), who rejoiced when Florence defeated her hometown of Siena, and Cunizza da Romano (Canto IX of Paradiso), who doesn’t regret her many love affairs and marriages.

Many other women are mentioned, among them Ghisolabella Caccianemico. When Dante encounters her brother Venedico in Hell, he condemns him for selling Ghisolabella into prostitution and pimping his own sister.

The depiction of women in the Commedia is one of many things which makes Dante feel so modern and relevant 700 years later, not like someone whose worldview is entirely tied to the Middle Ages.

A to Z Reflections 2021

This was my tenth year doing the A to Z Challenge, and my eighth with two blogs. For the third year running, I didn’t begin writing my posts till March. In years past, I researched, wrote, and edited my posts many months in advance.

I did the posts on my main blog first, since I knew they’d take more time and effort than the short and to the point posts for my names blog.

I began putting my list of topics for this theme together in March 2016, knowing I had five more years to prepare for it. Fittingly, in March 2016 I was finishing up writing and editing A to Z posts about names from The Divine Comedy for my secondary blog. I suppose I could’ve saved that theme for Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so both my blogs’ themes in 2021 would directly relate to him, but it is what it is. My names blog featured Medieval Tuscan and Italian names this year, which is relation enough.

Topics I considered but opted against included Purgatory, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, Riccardo Zandonai, the Dante Society of America (which I’m a member of), and Eclogues. My choice of topics was somewhat more limited, since my theme was so specific, and Italian doesn’t have certain letters.

Luckily, I found art, music, and concepts related to Dante for some of the trickier letters.

For whatever reason, I’ve tended to have bad luck when clicking on links in the master A to Z list the last few years. Many bloggers gave up early or never started, and I even found one without a link. The theme sounded great, but there was no way to check it out from a hyperlink!

Also annoying are blogs without the option to comment or where we have to sign up with a unique-to-the-blogger commenting service, or a really uncommon commenting interface.

As other people have been noticing, participation does seem down in recent years. Then again, the medium of blogging itself has undergone a lot of changes over the past decade. Many of the bloggers I knew 5–10 years ago have entirely stopped blogging or moved to a much more infrequent schedule.

Post recap:

Dante Alighieri
Beatrice Portinari
The Battle of Campaldino
The Divine Comedy
Empyrean
Florence (Firenze), Italy
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines
Hell
Italian language
Jacopo Alighieri
Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss
Brunetto Latini
De Monarchia
Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta
Ovid
Pietro Alighieri
Quartan fever
Ravenna, Italy
A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy
Terza rima
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca
Virgil
The Wood of the Self-Murderers
Xenia
Yesterdays
Zealotry

Since this is Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit year, I’ve got a bunch more thematic posts on tap for the upcoming months. I’m also working very hard on memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno (up to the first 43 lines as of 11 May), in both Italian and English, and if I master them in time, I’m going to make a video of myself reciting them on Dante’s Jahrzeit.

I have at least seven more future A to Z themes on tap for my main blog, and I hope I can eventually resume more research-heavy themes on my names blog.

Zealotry

The Zealots were a band of resistance fighters in Roman Judea, active from 6–73 CE, who sought to expel the occupying Romans by any means necessary. A subgroup, called Sicarii (Violent Men or Dagger Men) in Latin, killed people opposed to this war.

According to historian Josephus, the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans or keep fighting on under siege, but modern archaeological investigation has revealed this probably didn’t happen. Regardless, because of this probable urban legend, the word “zealot” now refers to any rigid fanatic for a political, religious, or other cause.

Medieval Italy was beset by zealots, in the form of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. They’d been fighting since 1125, the result of a German power struggle between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spilling over into another region. Even long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, people continued fighting and drawing rigid lines for the next few centuries.

Each side believed they were in the right and that the other side was unacceptably wrong, to the point of needing to be quashed and brought to heel. They saw no room for compromise or agreeing to disagree peacefully. When Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Ghibelline, married his daughter to a Guelph to try to secure his power against hostile enemies, he instantly became persona non grata and started down the tragic, violent path which ultimately led to his starvation death in prison.

Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830

Even after the Guelphs emerged victorious as the leaders of Florence (Firenze) after the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, it still wasn’t good enough. Before long, they began bickering among themselves and split into White and Black factions.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Black Guelphs teamed up with Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, to seize control of Florence while Dante was with a White Guelph delegation to the Pope in Rome. Much of Florence was destroyed during their dominance-asserting rampage, and many White Guelphs were tried on phony charges, found guilty by kangaroo courts, heavily fined, killed, and/or condemned to exile. Some, like Dante, were tried in absentia.

Dante had his property and money seized, which meant he had no way of paying that huge fine even if he’d wanted to. After he refused a 1315 offer of amnesty, on the grounds that it would mean admitting to crimes he was innocent of, orders were put out to behead him if he were caught.

When his four children came of legal age, they were sent into exile too, deemed guilty by association.

There’s a teaching that the Second Temple, while obviously physically destroyed by the Romans, was truly destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This internecine bickering tore apart the Jewish community from within. Sects like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots constantly clashed, and were unable to unite as a single front against their common enemy.

Too many times throughout history, people have forgotten we’re all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, a Divine spark within each of us. They divide the world into Self and Other, and never the twain shall meet. Once zealously committed to a cause, it’s a quick leap to dehumanising and mistreating the other side.

In De Monarchia, Dante idealistically dreams of a unified world ruled by an enlightened Emperor guided by pure love, charity, justice, and selflessness. When we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine potential, since we were created in the image of God, and God is one.

Dante believed God created us to make full use of our highest intellectual potential, and that it’s easier to do this when we have universal peace. We can’t accomplish this beautiful, lofty ideal very easily if we’re beset by strife, wars, political fights, and rigid zealots who can’t accept any views but their own.

Let us strive to see beauty and truth in everything and everyone instead of behaving like zealots. Our every step should be guided by the force behind everything in creation, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”