Twice in successive chapters the novel alludes to a figure
from Dante's Divine Comedy, Brunetto Latini, to evoke
Stephen's search for paternal affirmation. In Scylla and
Charybdis he recalls some words of "Messer Brunetto"
while enduring the harsh glare of John Eglinton's eyes, and at
the end of his conversation with Almidano Artifoni in Wandering
Rocks the narrative evokes the end of Dante's
conversation with Brunetto as Artifoni runs after a tram.
The allusions in these passages oppositely characterize
Eglinton and Artifoni—older men who respectively scorn and
encourage Stephen's artistic aspirations.
Brunetto Latini was a 12th century Florentine writer who
today is known almost entirely through the picture that Dante
paints of him in canto 15 of the Inferno. The young
Dante who is traveling through Hell extravagantly admires him.
One of only a handful of people in the entire Comedy
whom he respectfully addresses with the formal "You" (Voi),
and one of only three to address him as a kind of son (figliuol
mio), Brunetto predicts the bitter exile lurking in the
poet's future and urges him to be strong when it comes, just
as Cacciaguida (another father figure) will do in Heaven.
Dante, in turn, wishes that his prayers could save Brunetto
from eternal exile, "For I remember well and now lament / the
cherished, kind, paternal image of You / when, there in the
world, from time to time, / You taught me how man makes
himself immortal (s'etterna)" (82-85).
Ironically, Brunetto has failed to eternize himself in any
desirable way in the divine realm: he is eternally condemned
to suffer the rain of fire that tortures a group of men whose
sin is never named but which is almost certainly sodomy. But
his Livres dou Trésor (Books of Treasure), an
encyclopedic prose treatise written in French, says that fame
makes one immortal on earth. And his Tesoretto (Little
Treasure), a narrative poem written in Italian, appears
to have given Dante an inspirational model for how that could
be done. Though unfinished at his death in 1294, it was the
longest such poem to date, and Dante appears to have echoed
several of its passages in his epic poem.
At the end of canto 15 Brunetto implores Dante, "Let my Treasure
(Tesoro), in which I still live on, / be in your mind (Siete...raccomandato)"
(119-20). Many commentators believe that this work is the
well-known French Trésor. But others believe that it
is the unfinished Tesoretto. If the Italian poem did
give Dante inspiration for writing a long narrative poem in
the vernacular, then Brunetto may be pleading for remembrance
of his little-known poem as a kind of encouragement for Dante
to complete his own ambitious narrative, which at this point
is less than one sixth finished. Robert Hollander's commentary
to the Inferno notes that Brunetto's poem refers to
itself three times in the text as the Tesoro, and that
in the first of these he commends (racomando) himself
to the reader. Dante may well be evoking this passage when he
has Brunetto ask that his Tesoro be "raccomandato"
to Dante. And Brunetto seems to be aware that Dante too is
engaged in a massive artistic labor: "Had I not died too soon,
/ seeing that Heaven so favors you, / I would have lent you
comfort in your work (l'opera)" (58-60). Dante seems,
then, to be staging an encounter with another poet who tried
to do something like what he is trying to do, and who offers
him solidarity and encouragement.
Encouraged by his reading of Dante (like Joyce, he studied
Italian at university so he could read him in the original),
Stephen Dedalus appears to have sought out Brunetto's Livres
dou Trésor and read some of it in an Italian
translation. When John Eglinton expresses skepticism about his
view of Hamlet, "Stephen withstood the bane of
miscreant eyes glinting stern under wrinkled brows. A
basilisk. E quando vede l'uomo l'attosca.
Messer Brunetto, I thank thee for the word." The quoted
sentence comes from a description of the mythical basilisk in
the first book of Brunetto's prose compendium: "And when it
sees a man it poisons him." Stephen invokes the Italian
writer, then, as a kind of charm against the malign influence
of Eglinton's disbelief. Rather than encouraging the efforts
of a younger writer on Dublin's literary stage, Eglinton seems
determined to poison him in his cradle. And in fact Eglinton
did more to offend the young Joyce than just glare. In 1904,
as the editor of Dana, he rejected an essay by Joyce
titled A Portrait of the Artist.
Almidano Artifoni plays a quite different role in Wandering
Rocks. A vocal teacher based loosely on an Italian man who
was nine years older than Joyce (Eglinton was based on the
writer William Kirkpatrick Magee, fourteen years older),
Artifoni warmly encourages Stephen to persist in his singing
career because he has a great gift. At the end of the
conversation, which is—significantly—conducted entirely in
Italian, he runs to catch a tram: "Almidano Artifoni,
holding up a baton of rolled music as a signal, trotted on
stout trousers after the Dalkey tram. In vain he trotted,
signalling in vain among the rout of barekneed gillies
smuggling implements of music through Trinity gates." The
scene evokes the end of Inferno 15, where the flakes
of fire oblige Brunetto to break off his talk with Dante and
run after the group of men he left earlier in the canto:
"After he turned back he seemed like one / who races for the
green cloth on the plain / beyond Verona. And he looked more
the winner / than the one who trails the field."
In the races outside Verona the runners ran naked, just as
the homosexuals in Dante's seventh circle do. The winner was
given a piece of green cloth as a trophy, while the loser had
to carry a rooster back to the city, enduring the mockery of
the spectators. Dante's pilgrim says that Brunetto looked like
the winner of the race, but to the reader of his poem he looks
more like a loser, quite literally trailing the field and
spiritually far from "immortal." In the scene on College Green
Stephen's maestro holds up "a baton of rolled
music," signalling not only his status as a contestant
(racers pass batons) but also the honor of artistic mastery
(conductors lead with them). He signals "in vain,"
however, lost in a "rout" of pedestrians and unable to
gain the tram driver's attention. Joyce thus reproduces the
ambiguity in Dante, where Brunetto is a revered and generous
artistic predecessor who has nevertheless lost life's most
important race and who is lost in a shameful crowd.
In Joyce and Dante: The Shaping Imagination (1981),
Mary Reynolds shows that Joyce imitated this scene long before
he began writing Ulysses. Chapter 18 of Stephen
Hero describes a conversation that Stephen conducts with
an old Clongowes schoolmate named Wells who is training to
become a Jesuit priest. Joyce wove many echoes of Inferno
15 into the passage, Reynolds notes, as a way of sharpening
his attack on the Jesuits (44-51). But when he revisited the
Dantean scene in Wandering Rocks, she observes, it was
to help make Artifoni "a fully sympathetic figure, like
Brunetto" (52). Artifoni's "human eyes" contrast sharply with
Eglinton's basilisk gaze. He tells Stephen that he has a
beautiful voice and should not waste his talent. He says that
when he was young he too thought that the world was beastly ("Eppoi
mi sono convinto che il mondo è una bestia"),
echoing Brunetto's advice to Dante to "Let the beasts of
Fiesole (le bestie fiesolane) make
forage / of themselves but spare the plant, / if on their
dung-heap any still springs up" (73-75). And he trots off
after the tram.
Reynolds notes one more echo of Dante in Scylla and Charybdis that appears to tie in with the allusions to Brunetto. The chapter describes Stephen "battling against hopelessness" two sentences before he says that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet he had "thirtyfive years of life, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita." The quotation of the opening line of the Inferno recalls Dante's state of being hopelessly lost at age 35, which seems relevant to the hope offered him by the older Brunetto. Although Reynolds does not make the connection, it also recalls the way Dante was rescued from despair in canto 1 by another spiritual father: Virgil. Like Brunetto, Virgil is a writer and father figure who gives Dante hope of surviving his misfortunes and becoming the poet he knows he can be. Stephen, who broods on fatherhood throughout Ulysses and who is discussing it at this moment—"A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil"—likewise finds two older men with sympathetic understanding of his quest: Artifoni and Bloom.