Brunetto Latini c. 1220-1294
Italian poet, translator, critic, and prose writer.
A noted thirteenth-century Florentine scholar and politician, Brunetto is considered a formative figure in the early medieval tradition of vernacular literary composition. His Li Livres dou Tresor (c. 1260-66; The Book of the Treasure), an encyclopedic compendium of classical learning composed in French, was extraordinarily popular in medieval Europe. A companion piece of sorts, his Italian allegorical poem Il Tesoretto (c. 1260-66; The Little Treasure) is believed to have had a decisive influence on Dante Alighieri, who in his Inferno credited Brunetto as his mentor. Subsequent perceptions of Brunetto have been strongly influenced by Dante's sympathetic portrayal of the scholar, who is nevertheless condemned in the Inferno to eternal suffering in the seventh circle of hell. In addition to his status as an influential precursor of Dante, Brunetto is generally remembered as a major figure in the Florentine revival of interest in classical Latin philosophical and political ideas and for his practical and theoretical exploration of the link between rhetoric and civic virtue.
Brunetto was born in or near Florence in about 1220. His father, Bonaccorso Latini, was a well-to-do and respected notary from the Florentine village of Lastra. Brunetto followed in the profession of his father, becoming a notary, or “rhetorician”—an important civic position in medieval Florence. Brunetto's public duties reached far beyond the commissioned oversight of official documents and in 1260 he was sent as an ambassador to the court of Alfonso X el Sabio of Castile. Aligned with the republican Guelph party, Brunetto was charged with obtaining Castilian assistance against the advances of an increasingly belligerent rival political faction, the imperialist Ghibellines. While away from Florence on this diplomatic mission, Brunetto learned that Guelph forces had been resoundingly defeated by a Ghibelline army under the command of Manfred of Sicily (the illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II) at Montaperti in September 1260. Unable to return to Florence, Brunetto sought refuge in France for the next seven years until the Florentine civil war ended with the defeat of Manfred at Benevento in 1266, prompting the subsequent expulsion of Ghibellines from the city. Brunetto composed the majority of his known literary works while in exile, including the The Book of the Treasure, The Little Treasure, and La Rettorica (c. 1266), the last of which appears to have been written in Paris, ostensibly as a gift to his host in the French capital. Upon returning to Florence Brunetto increasingly turned his attention toward politics, acting as the republic's Chancellor between 1272 and 1274 and serving in numerous other municipal functions prior to his death in 1294.
The surviving body of Brunetto manuscripts is extraordinarily profuse and features well over one hundred individual texts dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Manuscript versions of the historically popular The Book of the Treasure include seventy-three in French, thirteen in Castilian, and five in the Catalan or Aragonese dialects of Spanish. Of these, fourteen are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and many of them are abundantly illustrated. Seventeen medieval manuscripts containing The Little Treasure are also extant, the majority of them preserved in Italy. Two modern scholarly editions of The Book of the Treasure in French were compiled by Polycarpe Chabaille (1863) and Francis J. Carmody (1947). Both suffer from apparent textual exclusions but Carmody's work is nevertheless considered the standard critical edition. Contemporary English translations of Brunetto's two major works are also available, including versions of The Little Treasure by Julia Bolton Holloway (1981) and The Book of the Treasure by Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin (1993).
Composed in Old French, Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure is an encyclopedic compendium of classical knowledge compiled from an assortment of Latin sources, some of which, according to some scholars, have almost certainly been lost. Comprised of some 437 chapters, the work is divided into three books. Book I contains information on history and natural philosophy, including selections on the Bible and theology, astronomy, geography, music, mathematics, and the physical and biological sciences. Book II features a substantial translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as well as numerous additional sources and commentaries. Its primary focus is the nature of human virtue and vice. Brunetto drew extensively on the works of the Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero for Book III of The Book of the Treasure, which is devoted to politics, government, logic, and especially to rhetoric. A major philosophical and political theme in this last portion of the work is the nature of good government and civic responsibility and is oriented toward the republican ideals and social institutions Brunetto championed in thirteenth-century Florentine society. Written in Brunetto's native Italian rather than French, The Little Treasure is an allegorical dream-vision in verse. The poem opens with an introductory autobiographical section in which Brunetto summarizes the events leading up to his exile, then recounts a fanciful story of how he became lost in a strange forest after hearing of the ruinous defeat of the Guelph faction at Montaperti. The remainder of the work's 2,994 total lines detail Brunetto's imaginative encounter with three successive allegorical figures—Natura (Nature), Vertute (Virtue), and Amore (Love). The Roman poet Ovid appears in the final section as a personification of love and mutability. Thematically, the poem lays out Brunetto's quest for wisdom and knowledge grounded in rationality, while eschewing the chaotic and potentially destructive forces associated with Love and Ventura (Fortune). As in The Book of the Treasure, significant portions of The Little Treasure also demonstrate Brunetto's fundamental concern with civic and rhetorical subjects. Devoted completely to this last topic, La Rettorica is a partial translation of Cicero's De Inventione and includes extensive commentary on the Roman orator's rhetorical works. Among Brunetto's minor and miscellaneous pieces, Il Favolello (c. 1267) is a letter in verse addressed to Rusticho di Filippo that principally deals with the subject of friendship. A collective work of documentary rather than literary significance Sommetta (c. 1267) concerns the rhetorical formulae used in official diplomatic correspondence.
Regarded as a seminal vernacular compilation of classical Latin knowledge, Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure was, with the possible exception of the encyclopedic Bibliotheca Mundi by Vincent of Beauvais, the most popular work of its kind during the Middle Ages. Critics since the medieval period have particularly admired its excellent organization, translations, and assembling of the finest Latin authorities available to a European writer of the thirteenth century, and they have continued to explore its varied contents. While at the time of his death Brunetto was well admired by his fellow Florentines, he would later be notoriously immortalized by his former pupil Dante in the renowned Italian poet's Inferno, in which Brunetto is condemned to languish in the seventh circle of hell, accompanied by blasphemers, usurers, and sodomites. In the contemporary period, a great deal of Brunetto scholarship has been focused on the perplexing nature of Dante's literary portrait of his mentor in Canto XV of the Inferno. Numerous critics have sought to uncover the true reason for Brunetto's damnation, which has conventionally been interpreted as homosexuality. Yet no proof that Brunetto was homosexual exists, and much evidence suggests that he was not. In a variant explanation, André Pézard asserted in the mid-twentieth century that Brunetto's sin should be understood as intellectual rather than physical. Thus, according to Pézard, Dante did not charge Brunetto with sodomy, but rather with the associated offense of blasphemy. More specifically, the critic urged that Brunetto was not literally guilty of any bodily sin and that it was Dante's intention to figuratively convey what he saw as his former mentor's intellectual sterility and pride. Interpretations of Brunetto's crime have occupied many other critics, who have alternately viewed the irony and pathos inherent in Dante's evocation of Brunetto as a repudiation of Brunetto's methods of scholarship, his elevation of reason above love in The Little Treasure, or his republicanism. Meanwhile, another branch of Brunetto criticism, while acknowledging the writer's immense influence on Dante, has attempted to evaluate his works outside the context of his more-renowned successor. For such critics, Brunetto's key contributions to the thirteenth-century revival of interest in classical knowledge, his translations of Latin works into the French and Italian vernaculars, and his application of Ciceronian rhetorical theory to written discourse constitute much of the enduring scholarly appeal of this prominent Florentine writer.
Li Livres dou Tresor [Il Tesoro] (encyclopedia) c. 1260-66
Il Tesoretto (poetry) c. 1260-66
La Rettorica (translations and criticism) c. 1266
Il Favolello (poetry) c. 1267
Sommetta (nonfiction) c. 1267
Il Tesoretto (The Little Treasure) (translated by Julia Bolton Holloway) 1981
The Book of the Treasure (Li Livres dou Tresor) (translated by Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin) 1993
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SOURCE: Carmody, Francis J. “Latin Sources of Brunetto Latini's World History.” Speculum 11, no. 3 (July 1936): 359-70.
[In the following essay, Carmody surveys the source texts of Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure, regarding the work as an excellent example of thirteenth-century scholarship despite certain corruptions in the sources used.]
Originality or artistry in an encyclopaedia are likely to defeat the purpose of science, which seeks accuracy, simplicity, and convenience. These last virtues are those of Vincent's Speculum Naturale and of Brunetto Latini's Trésor (1268 a.d.),1 at least in accordance with thirteenth-century standards. In the historical section Latini sought to be brief, to present a very complex and long account in a few pages, saving space for subjects he felt more capable of development. As a consequence his historical chapters are far less full and less well documented than those of such a work as the General Estoria2 of Alfonso el Sabio (1270 a.d.), where one chronicle after another was referred to, with resultant repetitions and contradictions. Li Tresors did not seek out controversial points, it desired merely to vulgarize as much and as varied knowledge as possible.
Nevertheless, Li Tresors was carefully composed and based on standard source materials. Latini was a capable scholar, and his...
(The entire section is 5486 words.)
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SOURCE: Gathercole, Patricia M. “Illuminations on the Manuscripts of Brunetto Latini.” Italica 43, no. 4 (December 1966): 345-52.
[In the following essay, Gathercole details the artistry of the illustrations and miniatures found in fourteen manuscript copies dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, of Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure.]
“Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro, Nel qual io vivo ancora.”
(Dante, Divina Commedia, Inferno, XV, 119-120)
Brunetto Latini's Livre du Trésor,1 a vast compendium of knowledge written between 1262 and 1266, was extremely popular during the Middle Ages.2 The variety of subjects treated appealed to the readers of the author's time. For its mass of learning, legends, and wisdom in politics, moreover, the book has remained an interesting treatise for many generations.3 In Book I, Brunetto discusses philosophy and the history of the world: cosmography, geography, physics, and natural science; Book II contains a partial translation of the Ethics of Aristotle with commentaries on the virtues and the vices; Book III is dedicated to politics, beginning with a treatise on rhetoric that reveals borrowings from Cicero.4 More specifically Brunetto deals with the birth of all things, the medieval elements, planets,...
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SOURCE: East, James R. “Brunetto Latini's Rhetoric of Letter Writing.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 54, no. 3 (October 1968): 241-46.
[In the following essay, East stresses the historical significance of Brunetto's writings on vernacular rhetoric contained in his The Book of the Treasure.]
In thirteenth-century Florence Brunetto Latini gained prominence as a notary and as a literary figure who, possibly as an associate and certainly as a writer, strongly influenced Dante. In the Inferno, Canto XV, Dante immortalized Latini by referring to him as his master. Some readers take this reference to mean that Latini was Dante's teacher, but in actuality Dante refers to one whose writings helped direct him in his own composition.1 As the two part, Latini says to Dante in Canto XV, “Remember my Treasure in which I still live on. I ask no more.”2 Latini's reference to Treasure is probably to his Li Livre dou Tresor (The Book of the Treasure) or to Tesoretto (The Little Treasure), both of which Dante admires.
The purpose of this article is to take Brunetto Latini from the Inferno, as it were, and to place him in the mainstream of the history of rhetorical theory and practice. In particular, this study will examine Latini's application of rhetoric to letter writing in his Book of the Treasure. Therefore, it will be...
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SOURCE: Nevin, Thomas. “Ser Brunetto's Immortality: Inferno XV.” Dante Studies 96 (1978): 21-37.
[In the following essay, Nevin argues that Dante's placement of Brunetto in the seventh circle of hell in the Inferno, alongside the sodomites, usurers, and blasphemers, is meant to suggest the Florentine scholar's embodiment of the “sterility of intellectual pride” rather than his guilt for engaging in the physical sin of sodomy.]
In the Pilgrim's meeting with Brunetto Latini (Inferno XV), Dante creates an episode of poignant intimacy unsurpassed in all of the Commedia. Clearly, it seems, Dante intends that, like the hapless Pier della Vigna, Brunetto should compel our sympathy and, like the awesome Farinata, command our respect. The deferential “voi” (vv. 30, 35, 80, 83) by which the Pilgrim addresses his former master serves to convey a pity and a reverence tinged with irony. But unlike Pier, Farinata, or any other citizen of Dis, Brunetto holds a special claim upon the Pilgrim, the affectionate bond between preceptor and student. Yet, the character of that bond, and hence of Dante's debt to Brunetto, has not, I think, been sufficiently appreciated in relation to the damnation Brunetto suffers in Hell's seventh circle.
Shortly before their arrival in that circle, Virgil explains to the Pilgrim the vices peculiar to its rings (XI, 28-51), of...
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SOURCE: Witt, Ronald G. “Brunetto Latini and the Italian Tradition of Ars Dictaminis.” Stanford Italian Review 3, no. 1 (spring 1983): 5-24.
[In the following essay, Witt examines Brunetto's adaptation of the rhetorical principles found in Cicero's De Inventione to the practice of letter-writing in his La Rettorica and The Book of the Treasure.]
Living in exile in France early in the 1260's, cut off from the public life of Florence, Brunetto Latini, the learned dictator and former politician, spent a portion of his free time translating into Tuscan and commenting on Cicero's De inventione, one of the two most popular manuals of ancient Latin rhetoric throughout the Middle Ages. Written as a gift for his Florentine host in Paris, this translation with commentary, entitled Rettorica, was designed to provide guidance in composition to those without an advanced formal education in Latin rhetoric.1
The Rettorica was left unfinished but the author borrowed some of its material a year or so later for a new work entitled the Livre dou Tresor. Written in French, the Tresor was an encyclopedia in the medieval tradition of Northern Europe. Brunetto devoted the last of the three books to rhetoric and political science.2 Inspired by Cicero's De inventione, he dealt not only with the art of speaking and...
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SOURCE: Mussetter, Sally. “‘Ritornare a lo suo principio’: Dante and the Sin of Brunetto Latini.” Philological Quarterly 63, no. 4 (fall 1984): 431-48.
[In the following essay, Mussetter considers Dante's repudiation of Brunetto as a sodomite in his Inferno within the context of the differing approaches to politics and secular knowledge represented by these two writers.]
It is not easy after nearly seven hundred years' familiarity with Inferno 15 to persuade ourselves that Brunetto Latini has not been condemned as a sodomite in the usual sense of the term. The sterility of the burning sand, the searching of one man's eyes for those of another, the touch of hand to garment, hand to face—all seem calculated to evoke the suspicion of homosexuality in a canto devoted to one of the most poignant testimonials to male friendship ever to appear in the literature of Europe. Virgil himself has all but set the name to the sin of the man who taught Dante “come l'uom s'etterna.” Preparing the pilgrim for what he will find within the walls of Dis, he says that the smallest giron, the place where Brunetto runs his ceaseless circles on the sand, stamps with its seal those who have done violence to God in nature—that is, the citizens of Sodom, the usurers of Cahors, and the blasphemers of Thebes.1 And even if we do not recognize in Brunetto's squint an allusion to that...
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SOURCE: Baldwin, Spurgeon. “Brunetto Latini's Tresor: Approaching the End of an Era.” Corónica 14, no. 2 (spring 1986): 177-93.
[In the following essay, Baldwin discusses the tradition of medieval encyclopedic writing, summarizing the structure and textual history of Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure—a pivotal late work of this genre.]
Dante's teacher, immortalized in Canto 15 of the Inferno, was born in Florence around the year 1220. Notwithstanding the moral cloud which hangs over him, he achieved public prominence in his native city, figuring in documents from as early as the year 1254. Of central importance for our purposes was his participation in an embassy to the court of Alfonso X to request aid in the conflict against the Ghibellines: this journey to Spain took place in the year 1260. As we read in the Tesoretto, he was on his way back to Florence when in the vicinity of the Roncesvalles mountain pass he met a young Spanish student who had just come from Florence; this young man informed him of the disastrous results of the battle of Montaperti. Brunetto then proceeded directly to France, where he spent nearly seven years in exile, during the course of which he wrote, in French, the Livre dou Tresor. We have very little record of these years: his name first appeared on a list of exiles in September of 1260, and his presence is recorded later in Arras,...
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SOURCE: Costa, Elio. “From locus amoris to Infernal Pentecost: The Sin of Brunetto Latini.” Quaderni d'italianistica 10, nos. 1-2 (1989): 109-32.
[In the following essay, Costa investigates the main philosophical and literary themes of The Little Treasure in relation to Dante's evocation of Brunetto in his Inferno, maintaining that Dante's condemnation of Brunetto was mainly based upon his opposing view of Florentine politics.]
The fame of Brunetto Latini was until recently tied to his role in Inferno 15 rather than to the intrinsic literary or philosophical merit of his own works.1 Leaving aside, for the moment, the complex question of Latini's influence on the author of the Commedia, the encounter, and particularly the words “ché 'n la mente m' è fitta, e or m'accora, / la cara e buona imagine paterna / di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora / m'insegnavate come l'uom s'etterna” (82-85) do seem to acknowledge a profound debt by the pilgrim towards the old notary. Only one other figure in the Inferno is addressed with a similar expression of gratitude, and that is, of course, Virgil:
Tu se' lo mio maestro e'l mio autore; tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
If Virgil is antonomastically the teacher, what facet of Dante's...
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SOURCE: Bisson, Lillian M. “Brunetto Latini as a Failed Mentor.” Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 18 (1992): 1-15.
[In the following essay, Bisson underscores the intellectual rather than physical nature of the sin ascribed to Brunetto in Dante's Inferno XV, suggesting that the scene demonstrates Dante's artistic rejection, rather than moral denunciation, of his former mentor.]
Dante's educational development took place in the context of the Florentine revival of classical ideals concerning the importance of participating in civic and communal life. No one played a greater role in the initial stages of this movement than Brunetto Latini, who argued that through skillful use of language and wise teachings the rhetor/orator should move others to responsible and just behavior. True nobility, he argued, comes from virtuous action—not from noble blood or wealth; fame is the reward for such virtue (Davis, Dante's Italy, 180). Though Dante was deeply influenced by Brunetto's teachings and shared many of his values, the fact that he placed Brunetto in the Inferno suggests that he finally rejected the essence of Brunetto's teaching.
Dante came to see himself as a poet-prophet capable of capturing theological truth through metaphor in a way that would match—even surpass—that of the theologians. This understanding of his mission appears to have emerged gradually as he worked...
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SOURCE: Barrette, Paul, and Spurgeon Baldwin. Introduction to Brunetto Latini: The Book of the Treasure (Li Livres dou Tresor), translated by Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin, pp. vii-xvii. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Barrette and Baldwin survey Brunetto's life as well as the structure, content, and textual history of his The Book of the Treasure.]
It is fair to say that the name of Brunetto Latini will be familiar to most modern readers only because he was Dante's teacher; in the well-known passage in Canto 15 of the Inferno Dante remembers him with affection, but nevertheless condemns him to suffer among the Sodomites. The actual nature of his transgression has long been a matter of controversy, but we will not attempt to deal with the history of scholarly speculation here, and there is very little material in The Book of the Treasure which could conceivably shed any light on the subject. There is nothing, in fact, aside from a couple of very brief observations as to the ugly nature of the Sin (such as Book II.33.1, where a somewhat opaque passage tells us that “lying with a male” is to be condemned as worse than adultery). In the anecdote about Pericles and Sophocles as governors (Book II.75.2), Sophocles' admiration for a handsome young man was said to be inappropriate, not in itself, but coming from the mouth of a governor; Brunetto goes on to...
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SOURCE: Najemy, John M. “Brunetto Latini's ‘Politica.’” Dante Studies 112 (1994): 33-51.
[In the following essay, Najemy explores Brunetto's treatment of political issues in The Book of the Treasure and The Little Treasure within the dual context of thirteenth-century Florentine civic responsibility and economic exchange.]
A curious aspect of Brunetto Latini's fate is that, despite what Dante has him say (Inferno XV, 119-120) about living on in his writing (“… il mio Tesoro, / nel qual io vivo ancora”), Brunetto's general reputation has in fact been shaped more by what others wrote about him than by his own texts. The imaginary encounter in the Divine Comedy has practically dictated the terms and context in which Brunetto is remembered, and even studied. Another of Brunetto's younger contemporaries who did much to fashion his reputation was the chronicler Giovanni Villani. Among the notable events of the year 1294 (according to the Florentine style, and 1295 in the modern style) Villani included the news of Brunetto Latini's death and also provided this memorable portrait of him:1
In 1294 a worthy citizen by the name of Brunetto Latini died in Florence; he was a great philosopher [gran filosofo] and the most distinguished master of rhetoric, both of the knowledge of speaking well and of composing letters. He it...
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SOURCE: Verdicchio, Massimo. “Re-Reading Brunetto Latini and Inferno XV.” Quaderni d'italianistica 21, no. 1 (2000): 61-81.
[In the following essay, Verdicchio concentrates on the irony with which Dante depicts Brunetto in Inferno XV, contrasting Dante's strongly negative assessment of Brunetto and his writings with Brunetto's own words on the subjects of sin and repentance in The Little Treasure.]
One of the enigmas of the Commedia, beside the Veltro and the DXV, has been the status of Brunetto Latini and his supposed role as Dante's teacher, and his punishment as a sodomite.1 In a way, we have always known an answer to these questions, despite good arguments to the contrary. Latini was never Dante's teacher, there is no evidence that he was a sodomite. Furthermore, as many critics have noted, many parallels can be drawn between Latini and Dante: their career as poet-philosophers, their political life, their exile.2 Quotations from Latini's works abound both in the Convivio and in the Commedia, and, as critics have shown, much of Inferno I is indebted to Latini, as most of the language seems right out of Il tesoretto. Still these questions continue to nag us because we do not really have a satisfactory answer as to why Dante would make those claims in the first place, why he would undermine the image of a man that in his lifetime...
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SOURCE: Fordyce, Cristiana. “The Pro Ligario: Volgarizzamento as a Means of Profit.” In The Politics of Transition in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Luise von Flotow, and Daniel Russell, pp. 107-20. Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Fordyce studies Brunetto's updating of Cicero's Pro Ligario in his La Rettorica, a translation and commentary on Cicero's De Inventione.]
In 1267, the illustrious citizen Brunetto Latini was allowed to return to victorious Guelf Florence after six years of exile in France. The notary and chancellor, who had served the city until the defeat of his party, had continued his commitment to the city abroad by assisting rich Florentine merchants residing in France. Providing support to the mercantile class, the primary function of most lawyers, meant for Brunetto the backing of the commune not only economically, but politically. Before and after his exile, Brunetto was to Florence what Coluccio Salutati would be a century later: a rhetorician who made the art of letter-writing the most powerful weapon for the defense of the city.
Brunetto conceived rhetoric as a tool of persuasion, as an art that could not just convince the mind, but conquer the will.1 He found the model for this kind of rhetoric in the classics, especially in Aristotle...
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Holloway, Julia Bolton. Brunetto Latini: An Analytical Bibliography. London: Grant & Cutler Ltd, 1986, 153 p.
Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources arranged by subject.
Alba-Salas, Josep. “Excerpts from a Castilian Translation of Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Tresor (late 13th century).” Cornell Working Papers in Linguistics 17 (fall 1999): 124-35.
Reprints and translates two excerpts from the bestiary section of Brunetto's The Book of the Treasure, preceded by a brief introduction centered on the popularity of this work in the late medieval period.
Armour, Peter. “The Love of Two Florentines: Brunetto Latini and Bondie Dietaiuti.” Lectura Dantis, no. 9 (fall 1991): 11-33.
Offers a political reading of Brunetto's love poem “S'eo sono distretto jnamoratamente” as it indicates his patriotic devotion to the city of Florence.
———. “Brunetto, the Stoic Pessimist.” Dante Studies 112 (1994): 1-18.
Emphasizes Brunetto's literary influence on Dante and endeavors to clear the scholar of Dante's charge of sexual (as opposed to metaphorical) sodomy in the Inferno.
Brownlee, Kevin. “The Conflicted Genealogy of Cultural Authority: Italian...
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