As Dante continues to descend through hell, guided by Virgil, I too read with a guide of my own—Robert Hollander, whose annotated edition of the Inferno I’ve been using to write about Dante every week. I’ve read the Hollanders’ notes on Canto 15 many times over, but I still find myself getting lost in it—Dante’s encounter here is unlike any other.
Pulling at the pilgrim’s hem is a scorched, unrecognizable sinner. After a few moments, Dante realizes the man is his old teacher Brunetto Latini, who is now among the sodomites. Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto? Dante asks. Are you here, ser Brunetto? This warm, perhaps even affectionate question is underscored, Hollander explains, by something else: “I think he is also asking ‘Are you, wonderful man, down here among the scum?’” It seems, at first, a tender scene: Dante asks if Brunetto will sit with him, and for the first time we see Dante speaking to a sinner about himself and his journey, not standing idly by as a sinner tells his story. It even seems as if the two are catching up. For this reason, Hollander says, readers and critics are often charmed by this scene, but they never examine the relationship between Dante and Brunetto as carefully as they should. Dante’s treatment of Brunetto is colder than it appears. Read More