Brunetto Latini Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.