Brunetto Latini Essay - Critical Essays

Brunetto Latini


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.

Principal Works

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


Francis J. Carmody (essay date July 1936)

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...

(The entire section is 5486 words.)

Patricia M. Gathercole (essay date December 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 2986 words.)

James R. East (essay date October 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 3362 words.)

Thomas Nevin (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 6477 words.)

Ronald G. Witt (essay date spring 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 8713 words.)

Sally Mussetter (essay date fall 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 8926 words.)

Spurgeon Baldwin (essay date spring 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 7116 words.)

Elio Costa (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 8652 words.)

Lillian M. Bisson (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 6149 words.)

Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 3036 words.)

John M. Najemy (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 8894 words.)

Massimo Verdicchio (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 7667 words.)

Cristiana Fordyce (essay date 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 5535 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)