Canto XV begins on the same structural note with which XIV ended – Dante observes the diking system of Hell – ingeniously made, like those which the Flemings make. It interests me that he uses such a foreign example first, then mentions the Paduans. He certainly would have been to Padua sometime – it would have been easy to get to Ravenna that way – but he never traveled in the North. I suppose Dutch dikes were already a byword. Lots of Florentines would have been to Bruges, of course.
The dike system provides a setting – Dante and Virgil are walking along the top at a higher level than the sinners racing below (remember, the blasphemers lie supine, the usurers squat, and the sodomites run).
When following the dike we met a band
of spirits coming toward us, and each one
stared at us hard as one is wont to stare
As someone in the dark of the new moon,
knitting their brows to keep us keen in sight
as an old tailor threads the needle’s eye. (15.16-21)
Esolen notes this simile a little oddly: “The images in this tercet derive from common experience in town life and thus prepare us to meet one of Dante’s townsmen and to hear from him a harsh appraisal of that town” (445). I certainly get the everyday life aspect, but why would that make us think of Florence rather than everyday life?
Oh well – more pertinently, I think these two tercets are doing something else – and stand in contrast to Dante’s action just below, when “even the charred features could not keep / My intellect from recognizing them” (27-8). Dante’s use of vision corresponds to something we’ve seen over and over again – the reference to Aristotelian science and the Thomist appreciation of what goes wrong in sin – that sinners have failed in their intellect as well as in their flesh.
Contrariwise, the hard stare of the sinners is not the intellect-laden gaze, but cruising. Remember, the sinners in Dante’s Hell have never given up their sin – that’s why they’re there. People who gave up their sins are elsewhere – Purgatory and Heaven. Sinners who chose lust first and then chose God show up in Purgatory XXVI – sodomites explicitly among them.*
So it should be no surprise that a band of souls suffering for having spent time cruising under the new moon are still at it.
Dante greets the soul whose charred features he sees through with the polite pronoun and a title – only the second time in Hell Dante uses voi. Dante makes clear his respect for ser Brunetto as a mentor, “la cara e buona imagine paterna” (15.83).
The actual sin doesn’t get discussed in this canto – and Brunetto doesn’t even want to name many of his fellow sinners, and only describes the sin as “the same fall.”
Know, in a word, that they were scholars all,
great men of letters, clerks of wide renown,
made filthy in the world by the same fall.
In somma sappi che tutti fur cherci
e litterati grandi e di gran fama
d’n peccato medesmo al mondo lerci.
Listen to those sharp, bright clicks in the Italian! -pi, -ti, -ci, -di
So, without ever going into detail, ser Brunetto runs away – and Dante favors him with a last simile. He runs like someone in a race, “and of those he seemed / The one who wins, and not the one who loses” (15.123-4).
*Yes, yes, I know that some modern commentators on Scripture suggest, for good reasons involving things like references to Sodom in other parts of the Old Testament, other sins for the condemnation of Sodom, like violating host/guest relations or uncharitableness – but Dante had no question what counted as sodomy, and its his poem.
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