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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)  

Dante's Divine Comedy depicts , people whom we would now call "homosexuals," twice in the afterlife: those damned and eternally punished in Cantos 15 and 16 of Inferno, and those saved but still undergoing penitential purification in Canto 26 of Purgatorio.

Sodomy is punished in the deep seventh circle of Hell as a form of violence, according to Virgil in Inferno 11, and violence of the very worst kind--that committed against God. This sexual misconduct violates the godhead by means of "despising nature" (11.48), whose course is divinely ordained. Contempt of nature is expressed by precluding the proper end of sexual acts, which is reproduction.

This idea is implicit in the environment of the sodomites, who must incessantly move under falling fire and over a sandy "plain that rejects all plants from its bed" (14.8-9). The hot, arid sand is an image of the infertility of intermale sexuality. The sin is thus conceived of as one against nature, and the judgment is the standard one of Catholic moral theology.

But the conception and categorization of the sin are drastically revised in Purgatorio. There sodomy is treated as a form of lust, the least serious of the seven capital sins expiated on the seven terraces of the mountain of Purgatory. The homosexually oriented souls move through the fire on the topmost terrace of the lustful, as do also, but in a counter direction, their opposite numbers, the heterosexually oriented souls, who had been located above them in Hell by a full five circles.

Every other offense is more blameworthy than these two fleshly faults. In the seventh infernal circle, sodomites had been placed lower than all the incontinent sinners, but now they are promoted above all but the carnal wrongdoers, with whom they are on a par, and so they are now accounted less culpable than misers or spendthrifts or gluttons.

The schema of the capital sins in Purgatorio is crossed with another schema, that of "moderation," whereby excess becomes the determinant of sexual guilt. In Canto 17, Virgil, again, expounds universal moral truth and the coordinated tripartite scheme of the seven terraces in terms of love. Love is sinful when for an evil object or in being deficient or excessive when for a good object.

The immoderate souls of the upper three levels lavish inordinate love on terrestrial goods, such as wealth or food or persons of either sex passionately desired. Sodomy is an excess of male erotic love for a male. It follows that if the sexual passion were tempered, rather than, say, extravagantly or compulsively or irresponsibly indulged, the practice of same-sex love would not be sinful at all.

Never is sodomy in Purgatorio judged to be unnatural, nor can it be since the aptitude to love is "natural" to human creatures (17.90-93; 18.22-27), and sodomy is one of the kinds of love. In this canticle, Dante departs, radically and astonishingly, from the orthodoxies of Catholic moral theology.

Moreover, Virgil himself, idolized by Dante and given so significant a role in the poem, as, for example, the voice of greatest moral authority until his disappearance in Purgatorio 30, was known in the Middle Ages to be a lover of boys.

Even in Inferno, Dante manifested an anomalous attitude toward homosexuality in condemning the sin but esteeming the sinners. This lenience is most dramatically revealed in the memorable encounter between the wayfarer through Hell and his revered old master Brunetto Latini.

The meeting is so affectionate and poignant as to have prompted some commentators, most notably André Pézard and Richard Kay, to attempt to exonerate Brunetto from the scandal of sexual perversion. Among the arguments used to support their untenable theses is that no documentation outside the poem and its contingent exegesis confirms the imputation of to Brunetto. If so, we may have from the author of the Inferno the first--and the classic--instance of "outing."

The Divine Comedy does not recognize lesbian sodomy, but it does confound some gay historicist "theory" in so long ago recognizing as distinct personality types men who desire women and men who desire men.

Joseph Pequigney


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literature >> Overview:  Italian Literature

Until quite recently, male homosexuality has had a discontinuous, fragmented, and largely condemnatory history in Italian literature, and lesbianism has been almost totally ignored.

literature >> Overview:  Pastoral

Both the elegiac and the romantic pastoral have been associated with homoerotic desire from their beginnings in classical literature to their echoes in contemporary literatures.

arts >> Botticelli, Sandro

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literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.


Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Trans. E. F. M. Beneke. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966.

Dall'Orto, Giovanni. "Dante Aligheri (1265-1321)." Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Wayne R. Dynes, ed. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1990. 1:294-296.

Dante. The Divine Comedy. Ed. and trans. Charles S. Singleton. 6 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970-1975.

Harris, John. "Three Dante Notes (1: Brunetto the Sodomite...)." Lectura Dantis: A forum for Dante research and interpretation 2 (1988): 73-78.

Holsinger, Bruce. "Sodomy and Resurrection: The Homoerotic Subject of the Divine Comedy." Premodern Sexualities. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, eds. New York: Routledge, 1966. 243-274.

Kay, Richard. Dante's Swift and Strong: Essays in "Inferno" XV. Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

Pequigney, Joseph. "Sodomy in Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio." Representations 36 (1991): 22-42.

_____, and Hubert Dreyfus. "Landscape and Guide: Dante's Modifying of Meaning in the Inferno." Italian Quarterly 5-6 (1961-1962): 51-83.

Pézard, André. Dante sous la pluie de feu. Paris: Vrin, 1950.

Varanini, Giorgio. "Sodomiti." Enciclopedia Dantesca. Umberto Bosco, ed. 6 vols. Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970-1978. 5:286-287.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pequigney, Joseph  
    Entry Title: Dante Alighieri  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 5, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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