The Divine Comedy: Inferno’s “Canto XV” begins with the reader joining Dante pilgrim and Virgil as they exit the wood of the suicides on their way to the third ring of the seventh circle of hell: the burning sands. This is where the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers are held for their eternal punishment. Dante and Virgil walk atop a narrow, stone path and when they reach the point where the wood can no longer be seen, they spot a group of damned souls rushing towards them. Among these souls is Brunetto Latini, Dante’s old teacher, and Dante is both delighted and disheartened to see him in this state. Brunetto asks to speak with him but admits that part of his eternal punishment is that he may not stop moving lest he desires to spend one hundred years laying on the sand and unable to brush the brutal rain of fire from his skin. Dante moves along the path with Brunetto tugging at his hem, the two discussing Dante’s journey through the nine circles of hell which Brunetto encourages him to continue in order to reach heaven. He laments his early death, falsely believing that if he had lived longer that he would have been able to not only support Dante in his work as a poet but also to see his own literary accomplishments reach more fame, thus making him a great man and immortalizing him. After naming a few other sinners within this circle, all of whom were respected men, Brunetto spots another group of sodomites with whom he is not allowed to have contact. He rushes off to catch up with his group and is so far behind that to Dante it appears as if he is first.
Interestingly enough, the term sodomy is never mentioned within this canto but is instead clarified in “Canto XI” by Virgil when he mentions the cities of Sodom and Cahors in context with his explanations of the sin of violence against Nature and God. The city of Sodom is where the term sodomy is derived from, referencing the biblical tale of Genesis 19, and is used in modern day English to almost exclusively reference the relations of homosexual men. In the 1300s, however, this term had not yet been coined nor was Genesis 19 solely interpreted as a condemnation of same-sex relationships. This in mind, throughout this essay I will explore Dante’s interpretation of the biblical tale in comparison with other understandings of it as well as how Inferno’s “Canto XV” translates to artistic work, ultimately concluding that what gives the canto meaning is not the original intention but rather what readers absorb from it.
Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–29) tells the story of two angels who upon their visit to the city of Sodom are grossly mistreated by all of the townsmen save for Lot and his family. While being housed by Lot, the townsmen come to him and demand that Lot “bring [the angels] out to [them], [so] that [they] may know them.” Biblically, the action of ‘knowing’ refers to carnal knowledge and sometimes denotes sexual behavior, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes no effort to explicitly state that the sin in question was homosexuality. Due to this lack of clarification, a number of alternate interpretations have arisen including that the men were either betraying or trying to humiliate their guests, engaging in bestiality, or hoping to take on the sacred abilities of the angels through sexual contact.
Beginning with the concept of lack of hospitality, the ancient Jewish culture described in Genesis placed a high emphasis on the importance of neighborliness, so the practice of engaging in sexual acts with a non-consenting visitor would have been considered an extreme act of violence and therefore an act against God. It is unlikely, however, that Dante used this interpretation as the Sodomites would have then needed to be placed in the ninth circle of hell with those who have committed traitorous fraud against guests. Possibilities of other forms of sin arise with the interpretation of Sodom in Ezekiel 16 stating that “[Sodom] and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy,” implying greed and gluttony. Once again, Dante has not placed the sodomites with the incontinent gluttons or avaricious of circles three and four, but rather in the seventh circle denoted as ‘violence’ with the murderers, suicides, blasphemers, and usurers. Sectioned off from ‘violence against others’ and ‘violence against the self,’ the Sodomites’ sins are categorized as ‘violence against God.’ They are equally as condemned as those who spoke sacrilegiously about God and those who lent money and charged unreasonably high interest rates, thereby wasting productive skill intended to be used to emulate the goodness of God. This concept of unproductive behavior is key when going on to explore Sodomy as a sexual sin.
The possibility of Dante having interpreted Sodomy as a sin of treachery or incontinence aside, the idea of sodomy as a sexual sin is worth exploring. The idea of the act as bestiality comes into consideration when acknowledging the fact that the angels would technically be a species other than man, as Jude 1:7 of the New Standard American Bible translation states “Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” Here this term ‘strange flesh’ refers to the bodies of the angels, but it is unclear as to if it is strange due to their sacred nature or because they are presented as men. Regardless of whether or not this is a reference to bestiality or homosexuality, the problem at the time of Genesis would have been the same: no reproduction. Having children was of dire importance during Dante’s time, and male sexual relations would have been seen as behavior that failed to result in familial expansion and thus an act of sterility. This is where we see the connection between the murderers, suicides, blasphemers, and usurers as their actions all fail to result in productive forward motion. Despite the lack of direct reference to homosexuality, there is a tie between Dante and Brunetto Latini that falls into this realm of sterility. In the time that Dante lived, it was not unheard of for there to be relations maintained between an older and younger man particularly in terms of scholarly associations. While Dante may not be referring to a male-male relationship between him and Brunetto Latini, it is not entirely unlikely that what he is remarking about is their collective obsession with their poetic work rather than devotion to God and what is considered ‘natural’ behavior. Similarly to what was interpreted from the Bible as the sterility of the homosexual relationship, Brunetto Latini and Dante’s literary accomplishments could not be what was allowed to immortalized them.
The concept of creative achievement being what defines a person resonates heavily within the artistic movements of the 20th century. Robert Rauschenberg is a prime example of this as a Neo-Dada painter paving the way for developments within the art scene. As a gay artist, Rauschenberg had a unique perspective on Dante’s Inferno, particularly in terms of comparison between himself and Brunetto Latini as he also maintained a half-professional half-personal relationship with the younger gay artist Jasper Johns. In Rauschenberg’s work Canto XIV: Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art from his series Thirty–Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno he takes a new stance on the visualization of the sodomites by tracing an outline of his own footprint onto the canvas. As the sodomites are the sinners forced to walk across the burning sands while the other two sit or lay sprawled out, Rauschenberg is equating himself with whatever sin they represent. Despite the fact that his and John’s relationship with each other and their artistic endeavors match well with that of Brunetto and Dante, it is highly likely because of the popularity of don’t-ask-don’t-tell art that this is a reference to his closeted sexuality. The solvent transfers of athletic-looking men and the repetition of a man wearing only a towel references Dante’s comparison of the Sodomites to professional wrestlers in “Canto XVI,” attempting to capture an idea that there is a stark difference between male-male contact of a sexual nature and one of sportsmanship. Rauschenberg’s representation, however, leans more towards an obsession with his own sexuality and a combining of sport and sexual attraction than an effort to separate the two. The selected transfers are significant in that their inclusion activates an association of the male physique with gay erotic culture, particularly in the form of sport pornography. In this case, the imagery has been used as a method of making a thoughtful statement validating the reality of what might be otherwise swept under the carpet: the fact that gay men do exist, and that they exist in every social group including athletics. This element of the piece works in interesting contrast to the professional wrestler comparison in “Canto XVI” as it essentially confirms what Dante is attempting to discount. While there are a number of ways to interpret this section of The Divine Comedy either directly from references to the bible or Dante’s depiction of the Sodomites’ sin, Rauschenberg took the scenes of the canto as a chance to express himself in a manner of self-criticism through his bold self-insertion.
Another image that takes a unique stance on the events of “Canto XV” is Tom Phillips Canto XV: [no title] made in 1981. The lithographic piece depicts familiar imagery of Brunetto Latini sprinting back towards the group of Sodomites he travels with, his body covered in red marks presumably from the constant rain of fire down across the burning sands. The year the piece was created, however, was the first time the United States began to see rare diseases developing in young gay men as a result of the immunosuppression caused by the HIV virus. Along with this risk for a wide range of infections came various types of skin sores and lesions, many of which appeared in forms similar to those shown on Brunetto’s body. While this work differs from Rauschenberg’s in that Tom Phillips never publicly disclosed himself as gay, he is still actively engaging with the events of the world around him in correlation with the interpretations of The Divine Comedy. These two pieces in conversation, it becomes clear that regardless of if Dante’s intention was to portray the sodomites as homosexuals, artists have taken the liberty of making the connection themselves.
On the basis of such research, the production of artistic works depicting the Sodomites as gay men demonstrates that the significance of the biblical tale is in the reader’s experience with the literature. Although the original story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a wide range of interpretations that have been somewhat narrowed by Dante’s work but still not made fully clear, Rauschenberg and Phillips’ art collectively shows a trend in preferred portrayals of the canto. The rise of LGBT awareness in modern culture as the result of things like the AIDS crisis as well as the movement for equality and people to safely express their sexuality has allowed not only for artists to openly relate to the Sodomites as homosexuals and depict themselves among them, but has also allowed for artists outside the queer community to engage with modern social issues. The importance of the original message that Sodom and Gomorrah was meant to portray has been essentially released into the hands of modern interpreters, only further complicating the process of deciphering the biblical reference of “Canto XV” through the support of a large variety of opinions. Therefore, regardless of the effort put into deciphering the sins of the deviant city, the most popular explanation of the Sodomites as homosexuals will remain as long as artists give it weight.