In Brief

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. 

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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.

JH 2021
Gustave Dore's 19th century illustration of Dante's meeting with Brunetto Latini. Source:
  Dante (foreground, in red) and Brunetto Latini (at his right shoulder) in Heaven, in a detail from a fresco attributed to Giotto in the Cappella del Bargello, now held in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Source:
  Title page of 1528 Venetian edition of an Italian version of Brunetto's treatise Livres dou Trésor, one of many such translations. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Virgil and Dante meet Brunetto among the sodomites, an illustration from Guido da Pisa's commentary on the Comedia, ca. 1345. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of Dante et Virgile, 1850 oil on canvas painting by William-Adolphe Bouguerau, held in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.