2021 commemorates the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the father of the Italian language. In his masterpiece poem, “The Divine Comedy”, where he imagines his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, Dante elevates what he calls “Italian”, a vernacular dialect, to the status of a language in its own right. Up until then the only language used in books and art works was Latin.
One day, in particular, is mentioned in reference to the Divine Comedy: March 25, 1300 when Dante imagines the beginning of his journey into the Underworld which begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai in una selva oscura...”. In the middle of the journey of life, I find myself in a dark jungle…
In his fantastic voyage, Dante meets many historical characters as well as people from his own personal life. He lived in Florence in the thirteenth century, a time when first Humanism and then the Renaissance were awakening the minds of artists and much attention was paid to man as the center of the universe. In the third round of the seventh circle of the Inferno, he encounters the “sodomites”, who are subjected to the brutal punishment of having to move constantly to avoid being stuck by flaming darts raining on them. Still today, seven hundred years later, it is not clear what was Dante’s mindset to lead him imagine this scene where many illustrious members of Florentine society, including his mentor Brunetto Latini, are being punished for homosexuality.
He makes a distinction between these sinners in hell and those sodomites he finds in Purgatory, whose names he does not mention and who are placed together with the lustful heterosexuals as if they were less sinful somehow. In fact, at the time it was thought that the sin of sodomy could be either committed on purpose or naturally. The former would have destined for Hell, the latter for Purgatory.
Dante proves to be a man of his times, this was an era when ecclesiastic values were confronted with widespread indulgent behavior and evolving world views. It is evident that Brunetto Latini, as Dante’s mentor and teacher, was to be respected for his great culture and therefore his moral sins were overcome by the esteem Dante had for his master. For the poet, there were much worse sins, such as treason. However, he shows that he is still firmly anchored in the religious morality of his time, otherwise why would Brunetto Latini be in hell at all?
Literary criticism has often dwelt on Dante’s view of homosexuality: does the way he forgives Brunetto Latini mean that he shared his homosexual lifestyle? The fact that Dante’s moral judgement does not condemn homosexuality in full, while often trying to focus on the personal greatness and deeds of the people in his books rather than their more shameful actions, was not accepted well by the critics of his time. It is fascinating to reflect on his life in the 13th century, and how far we have come (or not) in society’s ability to tolerate differences and embrace diversity.