Post-Medieval Illustrations of Dante’s Sodomites

16 Apr

Post-Medieval Illustrations of Dante’s Sodomites

Although Dante’s sodomites have attracted a great deal of attention, illustrations of them have not, especially if those images could be considered post-medieval.  In “Visualizing the Sodomites in Dante’s Commedia,” Steven Stowell broke important new ground by comparing how fourteenth- and fifteenth-century illuminators portray the sinners in Inferno 15-16 and Purgatorio 26, but he stops with Botticelli.[1]  In “The Pose of the Queer:  Dante’s Gaze, Brunetto Latini’s Body,” Michael Camille focuses on a single fourteenth-century miniature in Musée Condé MS 597.[2]  And though Jonathan Katz’s “The Art of Code:  Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg” and Laura Auricchio’s “Lifting the Veil:  Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty-Four Drawings for Dante’s Inferno and the Commercial Homoerotic Imagery of 1950s America” spend more time on Inferno 15 and 16 than their titles might indicate, they do indeed discuss many other images.[3]

My paper will therefore pick up where Stowell leaves off and attempt to address every major post-Botticelli illustration of the sodomites.[4]  After giving a brief introduction to Dante’s characterization of these sinners, and quickly recapping Stowell’s work, I will chronologically discuss each artist’s response to the sodomites, beginning with Jan van der Straet’s drawings from 1586-88.  In each case, I will analyze the visual treatment of the sodomites and then attempt to relate that response to the artist’s immediate circumstances and to the history of Dante illustrations.  I will take advantage of my electronic medium to devote as many or as few words as necessary to each subject, continue to add to this database as I discover important new examples, and not hesitate to repeat myself from one entry to the next.  Unlike many other reference works, however, this one will have an overall thesis that is implicit in each entry, explicit at the end of my paper, and, as is warranted by an open-ended study, flexible.

Dante’s Sodomites

The Pilgrim encounters sodomites in three cantos.  In Inferno 15 he pauses to talk to his old mentor, Brunetto Latini, who is condemned like all the sodomites in hell to perpetually run across burning sands under a fiery rain on the third tier of the seventh circle.  In Inferno 16 he meets Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci, who form a spinning circle as they ask for news about Florence and to be remembered to those they knew on earth.  And in Purgatorio 26 he speaks with the poets Guido Guinizzelli and Daniel Arnaut, who, like the other sodomites among the lustful penitents, must continually circle the seventh terrace of Mount Purgatory and cry “Soddoma e Gomorra” (Purg. 26.40:  “Sodom and Gomorrah”) when not kissing/embracing other lustful penitents who circle the mount in the opposite direction and cry, “Ne la vacca entra Pasife, perché ’l torello a sua lussuria corra.” (Purg. 26.41-42:  “Pasiphaë enters into the cow, that the bull may hasten to her lust.”)[5]

            At least some modern readers may not consider a woman disguising herself as a cow to have intercourse with Jove in the form of a bull to be a natural act.  But that is how many early commentators classified it relative to the sins of the first group.[6]  Which raises the question of precisely what Dante meant by the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah here and by his references elsewhere in the Commedia to sodomy.

            In the Italy of his time, as in much of the world today, sodomy could refer to any sexual act apart from a married couple having intercourse for procreation.[7]  And in the last six decades, Dante’s references to sodomy, particularly in relationship to Brunetto, have been interpreted as metaphors for many non-sexual transgressions.  In 1950 André Pézard claimed that Brunetto’s sin was the “spiritual sodomy” of “extolling a foreign language at the expense of his mother tongue” when he published his Tresor in French rather than Italian.[8]  In 1978 Richard Kay suggested Brunetto’s sin was his “failure” as a Guelph leader “to recognize the political supremacy of the [Holy Roman Empire].”[9]  In 1983 Peter Armour defined Brunetto’s sin as his membership in a heretical sect called the Paterines.[10]  In that same year Diana Culbertson said Dante damned Brunetto for having a “lust for fame.”[11]  In 1984 Sally Mussetter claimed Brunetto’s sin was being a “proto-humanist.”[12]  In 1986 Eugene Vance described Brunetto as guilty of perverting not human bodies but “verbal signs.”[13]  In 1989 Elio Costa insisted Brunetto was condemned for being a poet of carnal, rather than philosophical, love.[14]  And so forth.[15]

            But as Camille has argued, the strong affection Dante expresses for Brunetto suggests they “might have performed more than grammatical exercises” together.[16]  And as Stowell has observed, it would be odd if, on at least one level, Dante did not intend sodomy to mean sexual relations between men.  Though sodomy could indeed refer to some heterosexual acts, late-medieval writers seem to most often associate it with homosexuality.[17]  Moreover, early commentators interpreted Inferno 15 in explicitly physical terms, as when they interpreted the appearance of Priscian in that canto as an indication that all grammar teachers are sodomites.[18]  And in the Convivio (2.1) Dante places considerable importance on literal meaning, which in this case would seem to be homosexuality.[19]

            Of course, that is not to say sodomy meant only one thing in the Commedia, particularly given the allegorical nature of the text.  Indeed, a multiplicity of meanings would be perfectly in tune with Dante’s relatively oblique treatment of this sin on even the literal level.  As with so many other aspects of his text, he is specific enough to invite commentary, yet ambiguous enough to avoid many constraints on it.  He establishes a touchstone that reveals at least as much about his interpreters and their milieux, as about him and his circumstances.


Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Depictions of Dante’s Sodomites

As mentioned above, Stowell presumes that, on at least the most literal level of the Commedia, sodomy means homosexuality.[20]  He then argues that in the Inferno miniatures, “the sodomites demonstrate homosocial (albeit not homosexual) intimacy that is tempered with guilt and self-loathing.”[21]  And he claims these sinners “amplify the psychological conflict that presents itself to Dante by highlighting both the good nature of Brunetto as well as the shame of his sins.”[22]

            With regard to Purgatorio 26, however, Stowell argues that the Pilgrim’s interaction with the sodomites in Dante’s text and in the miniatures is “not inflected with sexual tension.”[23]  He begins by noting that, in both the text and images, the relationships of these sodomites to each other and to Dante do not conform to the transgenerational model that Stowell identifies as the pre-eminent source of tension in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Florentine perceptions of homosexuality.[24]  He also reminds us that the depictions of these figures hugging and kissing are drained of eroticism because the lustful are ordered to perform these penitential acts as displays of brotherly affection and do so with figures that have a different sexual orientation than their own.[25]  Nevertheless, he notes that, by the later fifteenth century and in synchronicity with a general rise of homophobia, images of even this “innocent pleasure” disappear from otherwise faithful copies of earlier illustrations.[26]

Jan van der Straet (Giovanni Stradano or Stradanus)

Between approximately 1586 and 1588, this Flemish artist working in Florence completed 25 dark-sepia drawings of the Inferno and four green drawings of Purgatorio.  He skips many cantos, including Purgatorio 26, but he does not omit as many as may be indicated by the total number of drawings.  Rather than devote each image to a particular canto, he divides his narrative by topographical regions, as in compressing Inferno 14-17 into a single depiction of the third ring of the seventh circle.  While Dante and Virgil look on from a cloud-strewn ledge in the background, a fiery rain falls on Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci circling in the middle of the image, on the other sodomites running at lower right, on the usurers sitting at lower left, and on the supine blasphemers in the center foreground.  Guerra and his two companions strike somewhat feminine poses, but neither they nor any of the other sodomites are explicitly associated with homosexuality or (otherwise) portrayed particularly negatively.

            Though Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci form a rhythm that suggests they are almost dancing, this arrangement may be seen as considerably less homoerotic and perhaps less homosocial than the narrator’s claim that they resembled oiled wrestlers maneuvering for a better grip.  Moreover, in light of the narrator’s insistence that they were all looking up at him, their poses would seem to be largely dictated by the flexibility of their neck, as well as the artist’s apparent desire to screen our view of their genitalia.  And rather than tenderly hold hands, the figures interlace fingers in upraised jumbles that look as if they are playing “mercy,” the modern game in which opponents attempt to bend back each other’s hands until all but one player cries out for relief.

            Of course, the association of sodomy with male homosexuality may be most undermined in this image by the female figure at lower right.  Though she has a dark bulb protruding from between the tops of her thighs, she has very long hair and brightly illuminated, pendulous breasts.  Indeed, since Stradanus never fully depicts genitalia, she could hardly be more conspicuous in her gender.  And particularly given that Dante does not name any women among the sodomites, she represents an extraordinarily independent and insistent assertion that sodomy is not limited to and may not even include male homosexuality.

            In her close proximity to late-sixteenth-century ideals of female beauty, she also represents Stradanus’s comparatively positive treatment of sodomy.  Unlike Alberto Martini and other artists who, as we shall see, portray these sinners as particularly ugly and/or extremely gaunt, Stradanus’s sodomites are often quite handsome and muscular.  Though they may be a bit doughy by modern standards, they are no more so than many of his other sinners, and they are not far from the heroes portrayed by many of his most famous contemporaries, such as Giambologna.  Nor do they seem to be enduring any more suffering or to respond to it any less virtuously than do, say his blasphemers.  As his sodomites raise their hands and cry out or duck their heads in response to the flames raining down on them, they invite our empathy and perhaps even our sympathy.


Federico Zuccari

Stradanus was not the only artist working on Dante at that time, for during a Spanish sojourn from 1585 to 1588, Zuccari, a Florentine, completed 28 drawings of the Inferno, 50 of Purgatorio, and 11 of Paradiso.  Rather than divide Dante’s text by cantos, he tends to lump the souls into broader categories and sometimes entirely departs from Dante’s assignations, as in portraying Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci among the Violent against Nature.  But regardless of where he locates the sodomites, he does not treat them any more narrowly or (otherwise) negatively than does Stradanus.

Indeed, in locating Brunetto and some of his colleagues among the Violent against God, he does not limit their sins to male homosexuality, and he portrays them rather sympathetically.  After Dante breaks a branch off the suicide tree at upper left, and after he and Virgil gaze down from the center of the image at Capaneus and some of the other blasphemers writhing on the burning sands, the two travelers pass hordes of running sodomites at upper right, and Dante stops at lower right to engage Brunetto, who gestures up and past another group of running sodomites just to the left and slightly above him.  At least two members of that group are not male homosexuals, for the second and third runners from the left have long hair and breasts.  And all members of that and the other groups of sodomites are shown rather compassionately, for though some of them throw an arm around another sodomite or reach towards each other, they seem to do so more as if to urge each other on or to otherwise help each other than out of physical attraction.  Moreover, despite the fact that Dante reaches rather defensively for Virgil at upper right, the sodomites never display aggression towards the Pilgrim, and Brunetto does not grab Dante’s robe.  Evidently the Pilgrim is not afraid of his former mentor and chooses to bend over and engage him.

He also seems quite willing to interact with Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci in the next image.  After a vignette at upper left, in which Dante looks longingly back at a fleeing figure of Brunetto, and before another scene at lower right, in which Dante looks down at the usurers, the Pilgrim stands next to Virgil in the center of the image, engaging the three Florentine sodomites directly below them.  He seems somewhat shocked by the figure at left, who rests his right hand on his hip, points his left hand at one or both of his companions, and evidently represents Rusticucci introducing his companions.  But as Dante raises both hands and pulls them slightly back to his left, he stops short of Zuccari’s typical indications of repugnance or of any other reaction beyond surprise.  As in the text, the Pilgrim evidently did not expect what he is hearing, but that does not keep him from continuing to engage the three Florentines.

Nor does he seem to have any reason in this drawing to think they are gay.  As Michael Camille perceived with regard to Brunetto’s akimbo arm in Musée Condé MS 597, which dates to approximately 1327-28 and was illuminated by Buonamico Buffalmacco or a close follower, Rusticucci’s pose here does not seem particularly feminine or otherwise different from standard heterosexual-male behavior in sixteenth-century images.[27]  Nor do the poses of Guerra and Aldobrandi, who seem to be brushing off the burning rain as they join Rusticucci in standing with one foot well forward while they rest their weight on their back foot.  Indeed, many a similar figure could be seen among heterosexual men meeting in an Italian piazza today or, presumably, then.  Rather than join hands and form a circle, much less resemble oiled wrestlers grappling for the best grip, they seem like three gentlemen who just happen to be naked as they discuss politics, economics, or many another topic less scandalous than their presence among the sodomites.

Of course, as Camille argues in relationship to the Musée Condé Brunetto, their gestures and stances are, in some senses, so disconnected from their immediate environment that these poses may draw attention to the nakedness of the figures.[28]  And that, in turn, may invite a carnal interpretation of their reason for appearing here.  But though this may lead to an assumption that they are guilty of some sexual act other than those performed purely for procreation, this category of sin, as we have seen, may include much more than male homosexuality, and the female sodomites in the previous image may, in fact, discourage such an equation here.  Zuccari’s infernal sodomites would appear to be a heterogeneous bunch guilty of indeterminate departures from procreative sex and at least as worthy of our sympathy as any other sinners in Dante’s hell.

And the same could be said with regard to the lustful in Zuccari’s drawing of Purgatorio 26.  While Virgil, Statius, and Dante walk out of the far right corner of the image, the Pilgrim looks back at a frieze of figures running parallel to the lower edge of the frame.  Many of the figures are in mid-stride, as the group yelling “Soddoma e Gomorra” runs by the one yelling “Ne la vacca entra Pasife, perché ’l torello a sua lussuria corra.”  But some of the lustful have slowed enough to grab and kiss members of the opposite group.  Though all of them are somewhat obscured by wavy lines representing smoke and flame, two couples in the center foreground can be seen wrapping or about to wrap their arms around each other, and another couple appears to have locked lips between those two pair.  One or both of the kissers may be female, as their bodies and the back of their heads are obscured by the foreground couples, and as their faces are too abbreviated to compare with the gender of Zuccari’s other figures.  And the figure at right in the left foreground pair has an abdomen and thighs plump enough to compare with Zuccari’s female figures elsewhere in the cycle.  But that figure’s chest and groin are too obscured by arms, thighs, and smoke for us to be sure about his or her gender, and to the degree that the gender of other figures among the lustful can be identified, they all appear to be male.  The fourth, sixth, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth figures from the left have visible penises and/or testicles, while the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and sixteenth figures have beards.  Indeed, as both members of the embracing couple just to the right of center have penises, homosocial relations are literally foregrounded.

Of course, all of these figures are supposedly hugging out of repentance and exchanging a kiss of contrition rather than sexual attraction.  But especially among so many overtly male figures, these acts can hardly help but resonate with homosexuality.  And though Pasiphaë’s transgression was not only interspecies but also intergender, and though Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of sexual sins beyond purely homosexual acts, the homosexuality that is often associated with those two cities may refract through the overt masculinity of the visible lustful to suggest that this canto is primarily about the purgation of such relations.

If so, then, of course, this image may invite a somewhat positive interpretation of homosexuality.  Particularly in the absence of overtly gay behavior among the sodomites in Inferno 15 and 16, it condemns homosexuality as a subdivision of the lustful, for a lack of restraint, rather than for its inherent nature, and leaves the door open to less, and possibly no, condemnation for restraint in homosocial interaction.  Moreover, in perhaps alluding to homosexuality most strongly here among repentant sinners, Zuccari suggests that at least some gay men may be particularly sorry for their transgression and particularly willing to atone for it.  Even as he condemns their behavior as a sin, he portrays them as humble, virtuous, and salvageable.

John Flaxman

Amid Flaxman’s 110 Commedia drawings, which were executed in 1793 and engraved by Thomas Piroli in 1807, perhaps the most striking aspect in his first image of the sodomites is the parallel he establishes between the Pilgrim and Brunetto.  As the latter stands knee deep in the second zone of the third ring in the seventh circle, he turns in profile towards the left, clutches the far side of Dante’s robe, and pulls the Pilgrim into a hunch that echoes his own.  He seems to force Dante to literally, and perhaps figuratively, see things his way, and he may even be pulling the Pilgrim onto the fiery sand.

Yet the parallels do not seem to be entirely coerced.  Dante bends over far more than would seem to be necessary from the comparatively small amount of his robe in Brunetto’s left hand.  The Pilgrim’s facial expression is only slightly less dolorous than that of the sinner.  And, most notable, Dante raises his right hand to his right cheek in a gesture that is nearly identical to that of Brunetto’s’s right hand.  In light of not only eighteenth- and twenty-first-century corporeal language, but also Dante’s textual treatment of Brunetto, the gesture would seem to be one of grief and shame.  And regardless of its precise meaning, it suggests that the Pilgrim is empathizing and sympathizing with his former mentor.

            Nor, perhaps, is Brunetto the only sodomite to invite sympathy, for suffering is also suggested by the open mouth of the figure (pointedly?) just in front of Brunetto’s groin, by the furrowed brow of the sodomite just to the left of the open-mouthed sinner, by the head at far left angled sharply away from us, and by the two fists and two reaching hands that stretch above the sea of heads.  Yet these invitations to sympathy, much less empathy, are not without ambiguity, for the sodomite with the furrowed brow could be interpreted as angry, the open-mouthed sinner has the “nut-cracker” visage long associated with grotesqueness and with the decrepitude of age, and the other figures are little more than the crudest of outlines.  Though Flaxman strongly suggests Dante empathized and sympathized with Brunetto, and though the artist himself may have had great empathy and perhaps sympathy for that relationship, he does not unequivocally express support for sodomy in general.

Indeed, Virgil, who sometimes in this cycle seems like a proxy for Flaxman and/or the moral standards of Flaxman’s day, appears to be immune to sympathy for everyone in this moment of suffering, including the Pilgrim.  He stares straight ahead, over and past Dante’s hunched form, remains emphatically upright, a measured step behind Dante and Brunetto, and is about as far from the nudity of Brunetto and the other sodomites as narratively possible.  His robe wraps around him from ears to feet and, in its almost complete lack of wrinkles and folds, reduces his body to little more than a parabolic contour.  He seems to embody corporeal, sartorial, and emotional distance from the sin represented right in front of him.

Nor does Virgil seem to thaw in his attitude towards the sodomites in the next illustration.  As Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci race around the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil remains enshrouded in his robe.  Indeed, it would now seem to extend past his ankles to the ground.  He does reach out and place a comforting hand on Dante’s left shoulder, but even that hand is heavily wrapped in his robe.  And as he looks at the sinner racing around him at right, he seems to pull his head back from his left shoulder.  He seems to retreat towards the tight little axis his rigidly upright body forms with that of the slightly more relaxed Pilgrim. 

Of course, even the Pilgrim does not seem particularly sympathetic towards these three sinners.  He is far more upright than in the previous illustration, pulls his left arm rather defensively from the sinner at right, and, though his head, neck, and feet are almost completely visible, seems to be thoroughly wrapped up in his robe.  Like Virgil, he, too, seems sartorially, corporeally, and emotionally distanced from these sinners.

All of which is not to say, however, that Flaxman may not have felt some sympathy for these sodomites.  Indeed, he may be expressing and inviting considerable sympathy inasmuch as he shows them in clear and considerable distress.  The figure at right has the wide eyes and raised eyebrow of a desperate figure pleading his case in hopes of eliciting pity.  And the figure at far left wraps his arms protectively around his right shoulder and, as he twists his head back and to the left about as far as one could, seems to embody as much writhing as may be possible for a sprinting man.

But those very same expressions of distress join some of these sodomites’ other body language in suggesting a delicacy and weakness that were far from the (heterosexual) male ideals of the time.[29]  Though all three, particularly the figure at right, exhibit the highly developed muscularity Flaxman and many other artists of his day associated with heroic men, Guerra and his companions are shown in exceptionally light-toed versions of a sprinter’s pose; the wide eye, raised eyebrow, and open mouth of the figure at right suggest a desperation that is far from the stoicism associated with late-eighteenth-century male ideals; and as the sodomite at far left throws his head back and wraps his arms around his neck, he would seem to be even more self-indulgently far from that stoicism.[30]  These three sinners are far from the only ones Flaxman shows in distress, but they express it in a manner that the artist and his contemporaries may have seen as particularly far from (heterosexual) male ideals and particularly close to the effeminacy sometimes associated with male homosexuals.

No less ambivalent and ambiguous than this juxtaposition of overtly masculine bodies and seemingly effeminate actions is the nearly complete absence of such indicators among the lustful in Flaxman’s Purgatorio 26.  Like his sodomites in Inferno 15 and 16, as well as almost all of Flaxman’s other nudes, the lustful do not exhibit their genitalia.  But while two of the three sinners in the image of Inferno 16 have at least general outlines of their scrotum, all eight of Flaxman’s lustful have their genitalia obscured by waves of fire or crossed thighs.  Nor do they otherwise have emphatically gendered bodies.  The figure at left in each of the two outer couples seems to have a beard; the innermost figure in each of the two central couples has comparatively long hair; the innermost figure in the third couple from the left would seem to have the facial features of Flaxman’s typical young woman; and all of the figures have curvaceous, comparatively nonmuscular bodies that recall those of women elsewhere in the cycle.  But the beard on the figure at left in the couple at far right, if it is indeed a beard, is represented by merely two and a half quick, shallow arcs; other than perhaps that figure and the bearded figure at far left, all of the depicted lustful have hair that extends past the nape of their neck; no one apart from the left partner in the third couple from the left has facial features closely aligned with the gendered stereotypes seen elsewhere in the cycle; and, other than the beard(s), secondary sexual characteristics, most notably breasts, are not depicted on any of the figures.  Flaxman has not insisted that the lustful yelling “Soddoma e Gomorra” or those yelling “Ne la vacca entra Pasife, perché ’l torello a sua lussuria corra” are heterosexual, but he has also not even implied that they are homosexual.  Indeed, he has omitted or masked so many opportunities to define the sexual orientation of the lustful that we are left to wonder whether he deliberately evaded an issue that is not entirely clear in the Commedia itself and for which, in almost any case, there would be no reward from his critics.

William Blake

In contrast to Flaxman, Blake does not depict Inferno 15 and Purgatorio 26.  The incomplete nature of his 102 watercolor drawings, which he worked on from 1824 to his death in 1827, makes it difficult to even speculate about his reasons for not doing so, but they may be as simple as a lack of inspiration, especially for the chatty encounter with Brunetto.  Or he may have been (otherwise) daunted by these cantos, particularly Purgatorio 26, which is extraordinarily dynamic and comes at the end of twelve cantos for which we do not have any images by Blake.  But he does not appear to have been put off by their references to sodomy, for he does illustrate Inferno 16.

            Indeed, he could even be seen as inviting sympathy for the sodomites.  They swirl above the burning sands in a graceful, brightly colored vortex that recalls his whirlwind of heterosexual couples in Inferno 5.  They strike balletic poses that show off their ideal bodies, particularly their large but not grotesque muscles.  They look serious, and the lowest figure rather sad, but not as stern or otherwise unattractive as, say, his usurers in Inferno 17, much less many other depictions of the sodomites, such as those we will see by Joseph Anton Koch.  And though Blake gives some indications of a penis and testicles in the two sodomites whose bodies turn towards us, their genitalia are generally so blurred, screened by wind, and apparently flaccid as to minimize their (homo)sexuality, especially relative to Dante and Virgil.

            As the Pilgrim’s guide stands at far left gazing to his right at the sodomites and rather suggestively thrusting his right hip out while curving his shoulders to the left, he turns his comparatively narrow back, even narrower waist, and wide buttocks towards us.  He is dressed, but, as elsewhere in the cycle, his robe appears to be diaphanous and resembles more a neck-to-floor gown than a toga or any other ancient clothing.  His legs are large, but no more so than those of many (other) female forms in this cycle.  His face is not particularly male, even by Blake’s comparatively androgynous standards.  And his hair is far longer than that of the emphatically male figures in this and other images in the cycle.

            In fact, in this cycle, one of the only figures with hair longer than Virgil’s is Dante, whose locks flow over his left shoulder in this illustration and past the neck line of a gown as diaphanous and suggestive as his guide’s.  The Pilgrim does not seem to thrust his hip out in nearly as provocative a stance as Virgil, and he is not presenting his posterior to us or anyone else.  But as he throws his hands back and cranes his neck forward, he does not seem particularly masculine, and he, too, has facial features that fall on the female side of Blake’s androgynous standard.

            Apart from Virgil’s stance, however, none of these characteristics are unique to these figures in this image.  Indeed, the Pilgrim and his guide seem even more feminine in such scenes as Blake’s painting of Inferno 10, where Virgil in particular seems to have breasts and both figures have long hair flowing past even more stereotypically female faces.  There, as in the painting of Inferno 16 and throughout the cycle, they serve as a foil to the more clearly gendered bodies of the naked souls.  They underscore Blake’s association of sodomy with male sinners and as they normalize gender ambiguity and perhaps even transgression, they help deflect condemnation of the sodomites and their sin.

Joseph Anton Koch

In a series of at least 210 Commedia drawings begun in approximately 1800, Koch joined Blake in omitting Purgatorio 26.  But Koch did refer to that canto in his 1824-29 fresco Espiazione dei sette peccati capitali nelle sette cornici del Purgatorio on a wall of the Stanza di Dante, Casino Massimo, Rome, as well as in a preparatory study for it, and he made a telling change between the sketch and the painting.

            In the drawing the two figures kissing and embracing amid flames at the upper right are almost certainly a man and woman.  The left figure has the short hair and rather lean body of many other males in Koch’s art, while the right figure has not only breasts but also the long hair and comparatively soft body of Koch’s other female figures.  The artist leaves no doubt that the lustful in Purgatory include women, and though she and her partner represent different categories of the lustful exchanging a penitential kiss, Koch’s inclusion of her associates their sin with heterosexuality.

In the fresco, on the other hand, both figures would appear to be male.  The one at left is nearly identical to its counterpart in the drawing, except for a slight change in the angle of the bodies.  But the figure at right is quite different from its counterpart, for, like many of Koch’s men, the painted figure has comparatively short hair, a long nose, a prominent chin, an (otherwise) angular and lined face, a comparatively lean and well-defined body, and no indication of breasts.  Indeed, horizontal striations down the middle of its chest suggest that, like many of Koch’s other male figures, it has relatively large pectoral muscles.  The lustful are now represented by nothing but men, and their sin is pictorially associated with homosociality.

Yet, despite this shift in demographics, the kiss is, after all, a penitential antithesis to lust, and Koch does not particularly condemn homosexuality in his illustrations of Inferno 15 and 16.  In his drawing of all the violent against nature in Inferno 14-17, Virgil and the Pilgrim are shown four times:  coming out of the wood of the suicides and encountering the blasphemers at lower left; talking with Brunetto at middle left; pausing above Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci in the center; and meeting Geryon just behind the usurers at middle right.  In accord with Dante’s text the sodomites are distinguished from the other violent against nature by being shown in mid-stride.  And they have a unique concentration of flames from and in front of their groin.  But otherwise, they do not differ from many figures in this image and elsewhere in Koch’s Inferno:  like almost all of his other male nudes, they have lean, muscular, classically proportioned bodies; through the outlines of the flames in front of their crotch, they expose their genitalia about as often as do the blasphemers, where we have full frontal nudity by Capaneus and the sinner that lies head-to-head with him; and though Koch’s sodomites may seem particularly sensuous as they, say, throw their head back and run their fingers through their hair, they have a very practical reason for touching themselves (namely, to brush off the fire raining down on them), and they are far from alone in the eroticism of their poses, as they are joined by such suggestive figures as the supine blasphemer reaching across his chest with his left hand and resting his right hand on his inner thigh.

            Even the absence of women is not unique to the sodomites.  Though the fire in the groin of these figures may associate their sin with sexual acts, Koch does not equate that transgression as strongly with homosexual acts as he might if the blasphemers, usurers, and many other groups of sinners did not also lack overtly female figures.  Men may be sodomites, but Koch does not insist that their departures from procreative sex were entirely, or even partly, with other men, and he opens the door to the possibility that, just as there were surely women who, say, blasphemed, there may be women among the sodomites.

            Indeed, he continues that approach in the canto-by-canto drawings he derived from the overview.  In his sketch for Inferno 15, Dante again bends over from a low parapet and raises his hands just above a figure of Brunetto striding between two slightly distant groups of other sodomites as Virgil looks on from Dante’s left.  Virgil’s right arm is now slightly more masked by the folds of his cloak, and his feet are visible; Brunetto is farther from Dante’s hands and reaches more directly towards him; and the other sodomites are farther from Brunetto as they strike slightly different and often more-expressive poses.  But while these changes may enhance the clarity of the scene, they do not alter its tone, particularly its comparatively neutral portrayal of the sodomites.

            Nor does the drawing of Inferno 16, or at least not much.  Dante now looks more shocked, as he gazes up and to his left, rather than down and to his right, and perhaps as he spreads his hands with his palms facing down, rather than raising his palms directly in front of his body (though, in Koch’s vocabulary of gestures, two palms raised in front of one’s body would also seem to represent surprise).  Virgil appears to be less interested in the sodomites and more impatient, as he turns to our right, looks back towards us, and points down with his right arm, rather than pointing down with his left arm as he faces towards our left and looks down at these sinners.  But this wane in interest is not unique for this cycle and is not, in any case, particularly condemnatory of the sodomites.  Moreover, the sodomites themselves would seem to invite less condemnation, for they seem less self-absorbed and sensuous, as the one at left faces away from us and drops his hands into a normal sprinter’s pose (rather than facing towards us, reaching across his body with his left arm, and grabbing the top of his head with his right) and as the sodomite at right reaches down and towards the front with his right arm (rather than reaching behind his back with it), moves his left elbow forward, and places his hand directly over his head, rather than behind it.  They seem somewhat less erotic than their counterparts in the overview, particularly after the engravers eliminate even Koch’s outlines of their genitalia, but whatever slight sympathy that change may reflect is offset by the possibility that the Pilgrim is more shocked and perhaps by Virgil’s greater apathy.  Here as in the drawing of Inferno 15 and in the overview of the violent against nature, Koch associates sodomy with male homosexuality, and he does not expressly expand it beyond that, but he allows for that broadening, and he does not particularly condemn this sin or its practitioners.


Gustave Doré

Like Blake, Doré does not illustrate Purgatorio 26 and one of the two Inferno cantos featuring sodomites.  But in his 136 Commedia engravings, which he designed from 1857 to 1868, he portrays Inferno 15 rather than Inferno 16.  As Virgil and Dante stand on a slope at left against a dark cliff and beneath streaking flames from above, an exceptionally lean and muscular Brunetto reaches up from farther down the slope and grabs the Pilgrim’s left arm.  The sodomite seems to be speaking, since his mouth is open, but Virgil and Dante are apparently mute at the moment, for their lips are closed as they frown and gaze down at the sinner.  Indeed, rather than engage Brunetto, the Pilgrim pulls his left arm across his body while Virgil extends his left palm toward the sodomite.  Contrary to Dante’s text, neither the Pilgrim nor his guide expresses any sympathy for, much less welcome to, Dante’s old mentor and literary influence.

            Nor does Doré otherwise portray Brunetto in a particularly flattering manner.  While this sinner may seem even closer to the ideal Greco-Roman body type than are many of Doré’s other men, he looks rather desperate and seems almost dangerously aggressive.  As he latches onto Dante with not one but two hands, he glares from beneath a deeply furrowed brow that seems to extend all the way down to the prominent bones of his skull.  Though there seems to be a wind blowing Virgil’s robe to the left, Brunetto’s hair flows back and to the right from his high forehead.  And he thrusts his lower jaw forward beneath a sharp and prominent nose that rivals Dante’s and outdoes Virgil’s in size and thrust.  He seems more rapacious than eager, more predatory than friendly, more threatening than tender.

            Perhaps more solicitous of our sympathy, if not that of Virgil and the Pilgrim, are the other sodomites in this image.  Though they are so massively muscled as to rival even Michelangelo’s Sistine figures, they are thoroughly pitiful in pose and expression.  The running figures in the background duck their heads and sometimes stumble as they attempt to avoid the fire raining down on them, and though one of the reclining figures in the foreground reaches towards Virgil and the Pilgrim, he does so weakly, as his neighbors bury their head in their hands, clutch at the ground, desperately attempt to brush cinders off their body, or curl over in a kneeling position.  These sinners are far from threatening and would seem to be suffering great agony for their transgressions.

            Of course, the precise nature of those sins is not even hinted at, much less declared, by the engraving.  Though Brunetto seems somewhat threatening, it is not particularly sexualized, as even his nudity is common among other categories of sinners.  And though the sodomites in the background run in a rather tight pack, such proximity is not uncommon among the sinners in this cycle.  Indeed, the foreground sodomites are spaced further apart than many of the sinners in Doré’s other engravings, such as those of the gluttons or the wrathful, and they do not show any particular interest in, much less affection for, each other, Dante, or Virgil.  Doré does not include any female figures among the sodomites or otherwise actively work against the possibility that they are homosexual, but he does not encourage that perception, and he does not, in any case, particularly attack them.

Francesco Scaramuzza

When Scaramuzza executed his 243 pen-and-ink drawings of the Commedia, which were commissioned in 1853 and published from 1865 to 1870, he devoted far more space to the sodomites than did Doré.  But he did not portray them with any more overt bias or associate them any more clearly with male homosexuality.  They look and act much like other, heterosexual sinners in this cycle, and they never particularly invite contempt, though it could be argued that he condemns homosexuality by overtly and selectively obscuring the sodomites’ gender.

            In the depiction of Inferno 15, a balding, bearded, rather fleshy, and not so youthful Brunetto grabs a bit of Dante’s robe in his right hand, reaches up with his left, looks at the Pilgrim, and takes a step up the slope on which Dante stands.  Brunetto’s buttocks seem rather large, even for a muscular man seen from the rear in a three-quarters view, and they may allude to anal sex, but if so, the reference is rather indirect and difficult to distinguish from the meaning of buttocks seen in Scaramuzza’s drawings of, say, the cowards in Inferno 3.  Nor are Brunetto’s gestures particularly predatory, as is the case in some of the other illustrations we have seen and as has been associated with Dante’s description of this scene.  He does not grab much of Dante’s robe; he does not grab high on Dante’s robe or otherwise seem to force the Pilgrim to bend; he does not extend a suppressing palm towards him; and, as Dante reaches towards Brunetto with both arms, the Pilgrim would seem to be welcoming his old mentor and to return Brunetto’s affection in a manner appropriate for Italian (or other European) men of any sexual orientation during the mid- to late nineteenth century.[31]

            Two of the other five sodomites in the image have their genitalia obscured by flames, but these fires may be well in front of their groins.  Rather than clearly emanate from between their thighs, as do the flames in Koch’s illustrations, these fires would appear to be part of the burning rain falling on this circle and would appear to be merely convenient screens.  Rather than denote an instrument of and targeted punishment for these sinners’ transgressions, they would appear to be merely a concession to audience modesty regarding full-frontal nudity, as also appears to be the case with the bush conveniently crossing the groin of the fleeing suicide in the second illustration of Inferno 13 and with the crossed thighs among the cowards in Inferno 3 and the blasphemers in Inferno 14.

            Nor do the other five sodomites in any way appear particularly guilty of homosexuality or especially worthy of our condemnation.  They are muscular but not much more so than many other sinners in Scaramuzza’s cycle, and their bodies depart, in accord with their age, from the traditional Greco-Roman ideal, as in the elderly, somewhat wrinkly and saggy figure second from right.  They do run in a close pack at right, but Brunetto and the figure at left are clearly separated from their colleagues and even the pack at right does not include suggestions of penetration or the more mild acts of homosocial affection that one finds in the grabbing among the suicides in the first scene of Inferno 13.  These sodomites would appear to be just another horde of souls trying to avoid a punishment that, in this case, is not overtly indicative of their crime.

            And the same is true of Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci, the only three sodomites shown in Scaramuzza’s drawing of Inferno 16.  The one closest to the Pilgrim and facing us may depart a bit from mid-nineteenth-century heterosexual ideals of masculinity, as he crosses his arms and looks a bit pouty, but neither he nor the other two give any indication of specifically homosocial behavior.[32]  He looks to our left and seems to be initiating a step in that direction; the near figure looks towards him and the Pilgrim at upper left while making a long stride to our right; and the figure at far right looks towards the Pilgrim while making a long stride towards our left.  Perhaps owing to limits on space and visibility, these sinners are not far apart, but they do not lock hands and form a closed circle, as in Dante’s text, and the much brighter illumination of the middle figure helps to distinguish him from the others and to correspondingly downplay any hint of homosociality among them.

            As do the Pilgrim and his guide.  Rather than extend a palm or in any other way acknowledge the sodomites, much less treat them as a danger or (in any other way) condemn them, Virgil stands with folded hands gazing passively towards Dante from slightly behind and to the right of him.  Meanwhile, the Pilgrim leans towards the sodomites, but not nearly as far as in the previous scene.  And instead of reaching towards them with a welcoming embrace, he points towards them with two fingers that, while articulating a connection between him and one or more of these sinners, also function as a deictic that separate the “you” of them from the “I” of him.  Like Brunetto and the other sodomites in the previous illustration, these sinners would appear to be just another group of souls trying to avoid a punishment that, in this case, is not overtly indicative of their transgression.

            Far more reflective of the sin being punished in a canto is, of course, the kiss of repentance among the lustful in Purgatorio 26.  And Scaramuzza indicates this act repeatedly in his first of two drawings for that canto.  But with a white haze of flame and smoke, he largely obscures the kisses, the nudity, and the gender of these sinners.  Three pairs of human figures can be seen embracing, and the left figure in each of the two nearest pairs would appear to have long hair, as do many of Scaramuzza’s overtly female figures.  But those details are fuzzy at best; none of the figures have visible genitalia or (other) secondary sexual characteristics; and the rest of their bodies and faces are not articulated clearly enough to compare with those of other figures in the cycle.  They and their sin are not associated with any particular sexual preference.

            Indeed, they constitute a remarkable and perhaps pointed contrast to the sinners in Scaramuzza’s second illustration of the canto.  As Virgil and Statius confer at far right, and as Dante leans forward and raises both palms just to the left of them, two of the lustful pause at left and a third approaches in the middle of the image.  We cannot see the genitalia of any of the three, but at least the two at left have the contours of a male body, and all three appear to have short hair and beards.  In accord with Dante’s text the two figures at left would seem to represent Guido Guinizzeli and Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante apparently located here for their love poetry and does not treat as homosexual.  Thus, Scaramuzza overtly articulates the gender of figures that Dante does not particularly associate with homosexuality, but the artist does not do so for figures that are clearly homosexual and shown in an act that resonates with the homosocial nature of their sin.

            In that contrast, as in the absence of homosocial indications in his drawings of Inferno 15 and 16, he certainly is not promoting homosexuality and may even be implicitly condemning it.  By skirting the issue so completely and polyvalently that his avoidance paradoxically becomes rather obvious to all but the most opaque viewer/reader, he may wind up promoting the censorship and implicit condemnation of homosexuality.

Alberto Martini

In the paintings Martini completed in approximately 1901 for Vittorio Alinari’s 1902 edition of the Commedia, and in the preparatory sketches at the Oderzo museum named for Martini, the artist downplays the association of sodomy with homosexuality and invites very little sympathy for sodomy in any form.  He ignores Purgatorio 26 and portrays the sinners in Inferno 15 and 16 as comparatively unattractive figures who are psychologically and, apart from Brunetto, physically distant from a spectral Virgil and a brooding Dante.

            In the main drawing, the Pilgrim approaches us from the center of the image with his head down and his hands behind his back.  To the right, and quite a bit closer to us, a rather ghostly Virgil stares straight ahead from behind a swirl of smoke that obscures him from the waist down.  And at the lower left, beside or perhaps slightly in front of Dante, the upper third of Brunetto emerges from smoke as he leans out of the frame at left, points with two fingers at his chest, and opens his mouth.  His gesture may be indicating that he is homosexual, for the “V” formed by his fingers were (and are) a nearly pan-European symbol for vagina, and being gay is sometimes equated with femininity.  But if that is indeed the meaning of his gesture, it is a remarkably indirect way of indicating he is homosexual.  Moreover, he appears to be uttering the handwritten caption, “ti si fará, per tuo ben far, nimico” (Inf. 15.64:  “[that thankless, malignant people who of old came down from Fiesole] will make themselves an enemy to you because of your good deeds”); he is not shown here with any of his colleagues, much less interacting with them; and he is apparently not even approaching, much less grabbing, Dante.  Indeed, he leans away from the Pilgrim and seems far from the aggressive figure Virgil attempts to tamp down in, say, Doré’s engraving of this scene.

            Nor does the figure of Dante move towards Brunetto.  Rather than follow the text and bend towards the sinner, the Pilgrim remains firmly upright.  And rather than reach towards Brunetto, as in, say, Scaramuzza’s drawing of this canto, he keeps his hands firmly behind his back.  Indeed, he does not even look at the sodomite.  Though Dante’s narrator treats Brunetto as a beloved mentor, this figure of the Pilgrim seems lost in thought, oblivious to his friend, and far from the homosocial behavior of his counterpart in the text and in many other images we have examined.

            And much the same neutrality would seem to be true for the pendentive illustration that was designed to appear just above the main scene.  Though the figure of the Pilgrim, who is seen from the rear in the center of the image, now bends his head down towards a small crowd of sodomites who poke slightly above waves of smoke, he does not really approach them.  Indeed, the edge of the ridge on which he stands and a strip of smoke at his feet emphatically distinguish him from them.  And these sinners do not seem to particularly interact with each other.  Though they are crowded, there is no apparent contact among them, and, in accord with Dante’s text, they seem to be preoccupied with Virgil and the Pilgrim.  The middle of the three nearest figures—which presumably represent Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci—appears to be speaking to Dante, and all of the sodomites around him appear to be looking towards Virgil and the Pilgrim.  Though the viewer may extrapolate from the neighboring text of the Commedia that the sodomites include homosexuals, the image itself would not seem to indicate that.

            Nevertheless, the sodomites are aesthetically denigrated.  Though they may not be as ugly as the grizzled, cadaverous Capaneus in the previous image or many other sinners in Martini’s cycle, they are not particularly handsome.  The faces at Dante’s feet have enormous chins and noses that meet in the sort of “nutcracker” visage that has long represented the grotesque.  And their features are not improved by their extreme squinting and deeply furrowed brow, which echo with the narrator’s claim that the first sodomites he encounters “ci riguardava come suol da sera/ guardare uno altro sotto nuova luna;/ e sì ver’ noi aguzzavan le ciglia/ come ’l vecchio sartor fa ne la cruna.” (Inf. 15.18-21:  “looked at us as men look at one another under a new moon at dusk; and they knit their brows at us as the old tailor does at the eye of his needle.”).  Indeed, they resemble stereotypical images of old women and may be meant to invoke that form of denigrating older gay men.  But such an association would be undermined by Brunetto, for though his features comprise a massive furrowed brow above deep eye sockets over sunken cheeks and a long, beak-like nose, he has a lengthy beard that leaves no doubt about his gender.  Though he may not be handsome, he is neither female nor explicitly homosexual.

            And the same is true in an ink-on-cardboard illustration Martini executed in approximately 1901 for a separate Commedia cycle.  Beneath a black, white-flecked sky and the white words, “QUELLO INGRATO POPOLO MALIGNO,/ TI SI FARA A PER TVO BEN FAR NIMICO./ GENTE AVARA INVIDIOSA E SVPERBA/ AVRANNO FAME DI TE./ MA LVNGI FIA DAL BECCO L’ERBA” (which comprises slightly altered excerpts from Inferno 15.61-72 and translates to:  “that thankless, malignant people will make themselves an enemy to you because of your good deeds.  The people avaricious, invidious, and proud shall be ravenous against you, but the grass shall be far from the goat”), Brunetto’s head and left shoulder protrude above a cracked ledge and partly eclipse a horizontal band of running figures leaning to the right.  These background figures, like the even more distant band slightly above them and at right, are only loosely sketched, but Brunetto is described in minute detail:  his face is etched with more wrinkles than a peach pit; the gaps between and around his four visible teeth are crisp and blatant; and every fold of his shriveled left ear is defined in full.  He is a wizened, seemingly ancient figure with sunken cheeks and preternaturally deep eye sockets in which his eyes roll up and back into his head.

            A little less ugly but perhaps far scarier are Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci in a related drawing for Inferno 16.  Though these figures have far more hair above far fewer wrinkles and far less mangled features, their furrowed brows and wide-eyed stares confront us with their intense passion for Florence, whose walls barely contain a great battle unfolding in the black sky above the sodomites.  They themselves are cut off from us by the frame that crops most of their bodies and much of their heads, but their desperation is almost palpable and threatens to spill beyond the image.  They are presented as far more menacing to us than are any of their counterparts in earlier Commedia images, and they would seem to invite sympathy only insofar as we feel sorry for anyone who is so crazed and desperate.

            Far more sympathetic are the souls in Martini’s drawing of Purgatorio 26, from the same series.  Beneath labeled images of “Soddoma” and “Gomorra” aflame, as well as a labeled scene of “Pasife” crawling into a hollow bull, three couples embrace or kiss amid flames that tower above them.  They would all appear to be young, smooth-skinned, well-groomed, and fit, relative to Martini’s other nudes in this cycle.  And though all four figures in the central and right couples roll their eyes up, they do not do so as far as does Brunetto or in a manner that would otherwise distort their pleasant, even idealized features.  Whether crying “Soddoma e Gomorra” or “Ne la vacca entra Paife, perché ’l torello a sua lussuria corra,” these souls seem far more likeable than the sinners in Martini’s Inferno 15 and 16.

            Of course, that is not to say they invite sympathy for homosexuals.  The figures at right in the couples at center and right are clearly female, as they have breasts.  And though the figure at left in the couple at left has a beard and his companion has short hair, which Martini otherwise reserves for men, they are shown in a rather distant embrace, albeit perhaps just an early or late stage of their meeting.  Moreover, the fact that these kisses and hugs represent the intersection of two different groups, only one of which is directly associated with Sodom and Gomorrah, and that these interactions are defined in the text as penitent and fraternal makes it difficult here, as in other illustrations of the canto, to discern how the artist is characterizing the sodomites.

            Indeed, regardless of the feelings Martini invites for the sodomites, he never completely associates them with male homosexuals.  The quote above Brunetto in the print of Inferno 15 dwells on Dante’s reputation; among the running figures behind him is at least one figure with breasts; Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci are most overtly characterized in the Inferno 16 print by their patriotism; and though they are squeezed into a relatively small space, and though a knee (?) appears at left among them, they are not shown pursuing one another or otherwise exhibiting lust and/or affection for other males.  They may be homosexuals, but they are not explicitly depicted as such, and as with the sodomites in Martini’s drawing for the Alinari edition, their resistance to sympathy is not necessarily a commentary on “the love that cannot be named.”

Franz Stassen

In his 100 pen-and-ink drawings for a 1906 edition of the Commedia, Stassen joins Martini, and departs from many other artists we have seen, by dwelling on the sodomites in not only Inferno 15 and 16 but also Purgatorio 26.  His sodomites are sometimes sexualized, but never overtly homosexual and not always shown in great suffering.  Indeed, they sometimes seem more to represent Classical ideals and Art Nouveau beauty than to be ignominious figures who have been condemned for crimes against God.

            Perhaps the major exception to that idealism and beauty is Brunetto.  As his ribs, vertebrae, and skull seem to almost protrude from his skin, he clutches Dante’s robe with his right hand, reaches out with his left, and throws his head back so far that he seems to be looking straight up.  Far from an elegant, muscular, and handsome young man, such as Stassen’s Paolo Malatesta, he seems desperate, beseeching, and perhaps a bit scary.  He evidently compels the Pilgrim to pull his hands back, lean his lower body away, and tilt his upper body forward in compensation for that retreat.

            Far less menacing and macabre, though apparently no less miserable and desperate, are the other sodomites in the image.  The figure at lower left joins Brunetto in throwing back its head, looking up, and apparently crying out, but it has long, thick, curly hair, defined and fairly substantial muscularity, and balanced, symmetrical facial features.  And though none of the other sodomites in this image are nearly that visible, they, too, reveal nothing but handsome heads and lean, muscular bodies with ideal proportions and elegant expressions of their suffering.

            A figure in the distance would seem to have a tonsure, but none of the other sodomites, except Brunetto is unequivocally male.  Though all of the bodies in this image are leaner and more muscular than Stassen’s female figures, none of the sodomites reveal their genitalia, some of their bodies are rather curvaceous, relative to Stassen’s male figures elsewhere in the cycle, and some of their faces, such as the one visible between Brunetto’s arms, are rather feminine, or at least androgynous, in their proportions.

            Nor are any of the figures (otherwise) overtly homosexual.  Stassen arranges the composition so as to reveal two sets of buttocks retreating from us, as the sodomites run into the distance.  And the lower left figure has a rather erotic pose, as it raises its left arm in an apparent attempt to ward off the rain of fire.  But perhaps apart from that eroticism and its classical associations with female (and young male) figures, this pose is not indicative of sexual preference, and, as noted above, the figure’s own gender may be called into question.  Moreover, neither that figure nor any of the other sodomites display interest in, much less affection or lust for, each other, and again, as noted above, none of the figures displays the primary instrument with which male homosexuality was and is associated—a penis.

            Which is also true of Guerra, Rusticucci, and Aldobrandi in the drawing at the top of Inferno 16.  Though their figures appear to be completely nude and are shown from the knees up, their genitalia is hidden, as the figure at left turns away from us and as the two figures at right cross their thighs.  Nor do any of the three show particular affection for each other or anyone else.  Though they overlap hands in the center of their circle, they seem to do so carelessly, and certainly without any particular tenderness, as they gaze slightly up and towards the right foreground.  Even apart from Dante’s text, their lean, muscular bodies, physiognomic types, and, in the case of the two figures at right, beards leave no doubt that they are male, but they do not include any particular indication that they are homosexual.

            And regardless of their sexual orientation, they are not especially condemned.  Like every sinner in the previous image, except perhaps Brunetto, their bodies have ideal proportions and completely lack blemishes.  The figure with the black beard has a rather large forehead relative to the size of his face, but otherwise all three figures also fit physiognomically with Stassen’s ideals of male beauty.  And none of these three sinners seems to be in great pain.  Though all three slightly furrow their brow, and though the figure at far right may be slightly grimacing, they do not cry out like Brunetto and the figure at lower left in the illustration of Inferno 15, and they do not duck, cover their head, or otherwise indicate that they are in torment.  Indeed, relative to such sinners in Stassen’s cycle as the thief in Inferno 25, they seem to be suffering very little for their transgressions.

            As is also true for the sodomites and other lustful in Stassen’s illustration of Purgatorio 26.  All of these extraordinarily handsome figures appear to be comparatively pain-free.  In the center of the image a dark-haired man who presumably represents Guido Guinizzelli, Dante’s main interlocutor in this canto, calmly turns his relaxed features towards the Pilgrim, who leans into the scene from the left.  Behind and to the right of Guinizzelli, four other male figures slightly furrow their brow and appear to be in motion as they utter one of the two phrases ascribed to the lustful.  But they are not nearly as frenetic as many of Stassen’s other figures, such as the thief in Inferno 25, or the lustful as portrayed by many other artists, such as Dalí.  And their expressions are not nearly as desperate or anguished as, say, Stassen’s thief.  Moreover, the two figures farthest behind and to the left of the central figures depart from the haste suggested by the lustful in Dante’s text and seem to exchange a genuinely tender kiss.

Of course, the leftmost figure of the two, like the fragmentary figure just to their right, would seem to be female, as she has the long hair and delicate features Stassen typically gives women.  But as we have seen, the presence of some female figures in this canto says little about an artist’s perception of sodomy, as Dante specifies the appearance of at least Pasiphaë among the lustful.  It is perhaps noteworthy that Stassen does not even suggest male homosexuality by having two men kissing, and that, with the judicious use of smoke tendrils, he again hides the figures’ genitalia.  But as we have seen, he is far from alone in these traits and only comments on the sexual preference of the figures to the degree that he departs from Zuccari and other artists who do in fact show overtly male figures kissing in this canto.  Here, as in his illustrations of Inferno 15 and 16 he does not rule out the possibility that at least some of these sinners are homosexual, but he does not actively promote that possibility, and he certainly does not suggest that they are any less attractive or suffer any more than other sinners.

George Grosz

In his 34 black-and-ochre sketches for a 1944 edition of the Carlyle-Wicksteed Commedia (Random House), Grosz was sparing in his depiction of the sodomites.[33]  He completely skipped them (as well as the rest of the lustful) in Purgatorio, as his cycle jumps from a scene of the gluttons circling the tree in Canto 24 to a portrayal of Dante and Virgil in Canto 30 circumnavigating a cliff.  And his only drawing from page 79, which is the second page of Inferno 14, to page 92, which is the first page of Inferno 17, is an illustration between pages 78 and 79 of two fiery figures running from the back right to the near left through a wall of smoke and flame.  The closer figure appears to be male, for though his groin is obscured by flames, he is fairly muscular, seems to have a beard, and does not appear to have breasts.  The other figure may be female, as its muscles are less prominent, and as it has a pendulum of flesh extending from the right side of its highly foreshortened chest, but its gender cannot be determined with certainty from the image alone.  Evidently, clear depiction of sexual identity, not to mention sexual orientation, was sacrificed to contemporaneous limits on nudity in popular art.

Salvador Dalí

In Dalí’s 101 Commedia watercolors, which were designed from 1951 to 1954 and first published in 1960, he too is largely inscrutable in his characterization of the sodomites, particularly relative to male homosexuality.  In his painting of Inferno 16, he depicts Dante facing us from the far side of Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci, who are portrayed here as three lumpy, highly attenuated figures that throw their heads forward or back as they stride left or right.  The two leftmost figures of the three have prominent male genitalia dangling from between their widely spread legs, while the figure at right has what appear to be breasts above a pubic area that is blocked from our view by its left leg.  If the right figure is indeed female, she is, to my knowledge, unique among post-medieval portrayals of Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci, but certainly not impossible, given the famously idiosyncratic sexuality of Dalí’s theories and methods of art.[34]

Of course, in the light of these theories and methods, Dalí’s art is not easily subject to rational analysis.  His inclusion of a figure with breasts, if indeed that is what the sodomite at right has on its chest, does not necessarily mean this figure is something other than a male homosexual, particularly given the frequent feminization of gay men in the culture around Dalí at the time he executed this painting.[35]  And though the prominent male genitalia of the other two figures would seem to indicate they are in fact men, it does not necessarily reflect anything about their sexual orientation.  In fact, though the center figure of the three fits almost within the frame of the left figure’s legs, and though that left figure almost seems to wrap its right leg around the Pilgrim, these are highly indirect images of intersection and are perhaps overshadowed by the great distance of the Pilgrim from the sodomites and by the self-absorption with which these sinners apparently respond to their torment.  Rather than address Dante or each other, the two figures at left bend their head forward and bury it in their hands, while the figure at right throws back its head and wields its right arm as a shield against the burning rain.  An isolated, guideless, apparently pitiless Pilgrim stares at us across three figures lost in pain for sins that may involve their unusually prominent genitalia but are not otherwise deducible from this image.

Perhaps even more inscrutable is Dalí’s image of the lustful in Purgatorio 26.  Echoing his painting of the lustful in Inferno 5, a whirlwind of roughly sketched figures swirls from lower left to middle right and then to upper left.  The nearest figure, at center bottom, has prominent testes and the large, overt muscles common to many of Dalí’s males in this cycle.  But the gender of the other figures is not clearly defined, and even if it were, the figures could hardly be described as homosocial.  Rather than exchange kisses and hugs, as in Dante’s text, they at least seem to fly solo at the top of the image, form ranks at lower left, and collide at right.  Indeed, the nearest figure seems to be driving both of its fists into the back of the dark figure just to the upper right of it, and that dark figure extends into a dark splash overlapping a form that would seem to be an upright figure turned to our left.  At no point does there seem to be the sort of atonement Dante prescribes for these sinners, much less any particular indication of their having committed any particular form of sodomy, including male homosexual acts.  As in his illustration of Inferno 16, and like so many other artists we have seen, Dalí apparently comments on homosexuality only in the possibility that he does not address it.

Karl Kunz

In sixty-one ink-drawings executed from 1951 to 1956 and published by Gustav Lübbe in 1965, Kunz approaches the Inferno via what Max Bense has called the “mannerism of surreality” (“Manierismus der Surrealität”).[36]  The abstraction of this style, which resembles Cubism refracted through Constructivism, makes identification of subjects a challenge, and in Kunz’s sole drawing of the sodomites, it obscures not only their culpability but also their sexual preferences, and perhaps even their sexuality itself.

            In this illustration, which Kunz titled “Bl. 42 zum 16. Gesang,” three vertical forms with fragments of human anatomy twist in front of a shadowy, mountainous backdrop.  The triangle created by the arms of the figure at right, as he apparently attempts to shelter himself from the burning rain, recalls that of the sodomite at right in Dalí’s painting of this canto.  And to the degree that the outlines of Kunz’s figures can be determined, they echo the attenuation of their counterparts in Dalí’s illustration.  But Kunz is far less specific than Dalí in defining the gender of his figures.  None of them apparently have breasts, a penis, or testes.  Just to the right of the middle figure, there are some rather organic lines that taper into points or curl into rather paisley-like forms, but to define even these forms as male genitalia would be an interpretative stretch.  The left figure does have a swoosh of closely hatched lines not too far from its midriff, but if this is meant to represent pubic hair, it is quite high and peripheral to the general zone that would correspond to the figure’s groin area.  And though the middle of each figure includes curved lines that may represent buttocks, they cannot be confirmed as such and do not, in any case, appear to indicate anything sexual about the figures.

            Nor is it easy to define the relationship among the figures, for though parts of them seem to overlap or even merge, it is never entirely clear whether or not they actually contact each other, much less whether they do so lustily, affectionately, or otherwise.  The figure at left apparently raises a right arm whose lower half would also seem to represent the head of the central figure.  And the central figure raises an arm that would seem to curve into or past the head of the figure at right, but it is impossible to locate the two figures in depth, much less relative to each other, as is also true for the figure at right.  He raises a right arm past the right arm of the figure at right, it would seem, but the outlines interpenetrate each other, and there are no shadows on either one to locate them in space.  We would therefore seem to have Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci represented by three androgynous figures that interact but not in a definable manner, much less one that represents their sexual preference or Kunz’s relative perception of their sin and its (im)morality.

Robert Rauschenberg

As Jonathan Katz notes, homosexual references can be found in much of Rauschenberg’s art, and, as Laura Auricchio notes, that may be particularly true of the artist’s 34 mixed-media Inferno prints from 1959-60.[37]  For many of his figures, he evidently drew inspiration from publications that catered to a gay male audience, and throughout his cycle he employs what Auricchio defines as “veiled homoerotic imagery” that introduces “a camouflaged expression of homosexual longing into the predominantly heterosexual mores of the mid-century American avant-garde.”[38]  But he does so to a significantly lesser degree in Inferno 15 and 16.  Indeed, as Auricchio observes, he seems to downplay homosexuality in these cantos.[39]  Though he continues to echo gay male publications by having a hurdler in shorts and a tanktop represent the sodomites in Inferno 15, and though, as elsewhere in the cycle, he has a man clad in nothing but a towel represent the Pilgrim in Inferno 16, he does not have nearly as many nudes in these two cantos as in, say, Inferno 20 and 21, and he otherwise keeps Inferno 15 and 16 comparatively asexual.[40]  Though he may be reimagining Dante’s journey as what Auricchio terms “an excursion through a hidden terrain of same-sex love,” he seems to have recognized that the effectiveness of this approach required him to be at his most surreptitious in the very cantos where Dante most directly invokes and comments on sodomy.[41]

Rico Lebrun

In 36 drawings and 4 lithographs of the Inferno, all of which are dated 1961 and were first published by Leonard Baskin’s Kanthos Press in 1963, Lebrun plays down not only homosexuality but also sodomy.  Ignoring Brunetto and the other souls guilty of that sin in Canto 15, as well as the blasphemers of Canto 14, the artist skips directly from Canto 13 to 16, where he portrays Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci on the recto of a folio that faces the text:


Bolgia of the violent against nature and art

We could already hear the rumbling drive

of the waterfall in its plunge to the next circle,

a murmur like the throbbing of a hive,

when three shades turned together on the plain,

breaking toward us from a company

that went its way to torture in that rain.

They cried with one voice as they ran toward me:

“Wait, oh wait, for by your dress you seem

a voyager from our own tainted country.”

Ah! what wounds I saw, some new, some old,

branded upon their bodies!  Even now

the pain of it in memory turns me cold.

Rather than label them as sodomites or limit the caption to “the violent against nature” (as we will see Baskin do for his own depiction of this bolgia), Lebrun, or whoever else arranged this presentation, expands it to “the violent against art.”  And rather than excerpt any portion of Dante’s text that includes allusions to the sexual transgressions of these sinners, the designer dwells on the passage wherein they are introduced as Florentines, their suffering is broadly described, and the narrator notes his own reaction to that punishment.  At no time are Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci textually linked here to homosexuality.

            Nor are they pictorially linked in any overt way to that sin.  It is true that, though we have a direct view of part of the left figure’s decapitated neck, and though we see the front of his feet, his buttocks are exposed directly to us, and he has a rather phallic-like object extending from the top of his right thigh to his right calf.  And it is true that the central figure comprises a thigh beneath a body that resembles the Belvedere torso seen from the back—that is, a highly celebrated Greco-Roman portrayal of male beauty missing its genitalia but seen from what may otherwise be the most homoerotic angle.  However, that allusion is wrapped in the prominence this historic sculpture is given within the Western art canon and is somewhat estranged by the disembodied leg on which it sits; the buttocks of the figure at left are not part of an equally, or perhaps even remotely, idealized, much less homoerotic, body; the phallic form in that image is a bit too far right to be easily seen as this figure’s genitalia and is not associated with any other figure; and the figure at right, which has the only pubic area seen frontally in the image, does not appear to have any male genitalia at all.  Moreover, like the figure at far left, it has lumpy proportions that are too abstracted to be sure they lack breasts and are otherwise androgynous not only in general but particularly relative to the more concretely gendered figures in this cycle by Lebrun.

            Indeed, the image seems to be more about literal violence against nature and art than about sodomy as an unnatural act.  The decapitation and doubly twisted form of the figure at left, not to mention its absurdly small arms and other disproportions, depart from standard conventions of anatomy; the disembodied leg beneath the torso in the middle underscores the fragmentary nature of that torso and establishes an odd juxtaposition with its status as a canonical idealization of male anatomy; and, especially since the text on the opposite folio includes Dante’s reference to these figures running, the displacement of most of the right figure’s right leg with a pedestal may be intended to introduce the long-standing question of what constitutes art, much less “high” art.  Once again, sodomy would appear to be commented upon only insofar as it is omitted.

Renato Guttuso

In 1961, the same year Lebrun completed his drawings and lithographs, another famous Italian, Guttuso, executed 56 Commedia illustrations in pen, ink, and watercolor.  He skips Inferno 16 and Purgatorio 26, but he portrays Brunetto as a pleading figure to be pitied, and though this image is far from sexualized, it suggests sympathy with the sodomites.

            As we turn to this folio in Il Dante di Guttuso: Cinquantasei tavole dantesche (1970), which is the first publication of these illustrations, we encounter Brunetto almost head-on.  His left leg is stepping up and forward slightly towards our left, and as he leans on his right arm, he extends his left hand and gaze in the same direction as his left leg.  In accord with the text, he is evidently reaching and looking towards the Pilgrim just “off-screen” to our left, but we appear to be no more than two or three feet from Brunetto and are very much in on the scene.  Indeed, we would presumably have no trouble hearing him say “Qual maraviglia!” (Inf. 15.24) as he reaches for his former pupil, and, at this proximity, it seems clear that, despite his words, he is far more desperate than delighted.  In his lunging form and anguished expression, he exhibits great effort and apparent anxiousness to escape the blurry pit and loosely sketched forms behind him.  The fiery orange and red washes that inundate the pit leave little doubt as to why he might want to escape his punishment, but they also obfuscate the nature of his sin.  While, within the illusionism of the image, his genitalia are blocked by his left thigh, those of the other sodomites are not even accommodated.  Indeed, these sinners are represented by little more than a rough outline of their head and perhaps their shoulders, upper chest, and/or an arm.  Their gender, much less their sexual proclivities, are from defined and only a sharp twist of their neck or bending of an arm over their head suggests their suffering.  Dante’s sodomites have been reduced to little more than a desperate old man pleading for contact with an old friend and former student.

Leonard Baskin

After publishing Lebrun’s illustrations, Baskin printed his own in 1970, and he, too, summed up the sodomites and other denizens of Inferno 14-17 in a single image.  However, he labeled it the “Violent against Nature,” rather than the “Violent against Nature and Art,” and he rendered his image less overtly sexual than that of Lebrun.

Baskin lumped together all the sinners of these cantos in a small, badger-like head emerging from the top of a larger head that has a hole between its eyes, fur around its sides, and legs that end in claws.  If the larger head has a torso, it is lost in the nearly pure black of the background, and though the figure has two round, rather testicular shapes beneath its chin, it does not have a phallic form in that vicinity and cannot be definitely said to have male genitalia.  Of course, given the abstractness of the image’s theme and of its execution, and in the light of Baskin’s known interest in Freud, the protruding badger head, taloned legs, open mouth, and gaping hole between the eyes of the larger head may be associated with the form and/or function of genitalia.[42]  But there is no direct support for such an interpretation, much less for ascribing homosexual connotations to the image, and in portraying a particularly nasty-looking creature splitting the cranium of a wide-mouthed, wide-eyed figure that apparently spreads its talons in pain, Baskin would seem to be portraying betrayal and viciousness above all else.  As in omitting any image of Purgatorio 26, he evidently skips the opportunity to comment specifically on sodomites or related groups of sinners as he concentrates on his overall response to larger aspects of Dante’s text.

Tom Phillips

Phillips’ five illustrations of the sodomites are not easily understood, especially apart from the other 133 multi-media prints he created from 1976 to 1983 for his self-published translation of the Inferno.  Their meaning may be somewhat clarified by his comments for Thames & Hudson’s 1985 reprint of the book, for he repeatedly defines sodomy therein as homosexuality and claims to be following Dante’s lead in denigrating it as an “inverted” and “steril[e]” love.[43]  Yet, in both word and image, he sometimes goes well beyond Dante in his condemnation of these sinners.

            In his first illustration for Inferno 15, he adapts his author-portraits of Dante and Virgil to Brunetto.  Through a frame much like that around the earlier images, we see a similar study that again features what Phillips describes as “the pen and ink of authorship, the cypress with its twin function of phallic ikon and memento mori (though now it overlooks no voluptuous landscape of feminine undulations but a parched desert under a scorching sky), and the three books, one of which still retains the ROMA of its title.”[44]  Unlike the earlier images, this illustration does not depict anyone sitting in front of those books, but it does have a “(faintly punning) bentwood chair which seems to be dissolving [and] represents a trickster element in Ser Brunetto, who in his [Tesoretto] had hypocritically condemned sodomy, the very sin we now see him punished for.”[45]  And in the upper right corner of the scene is Virgil’s author-portrait “coarsely reproduced to indicate the imprecise knowledge of Classical literature amongst Brunetto Latini’s generation and set in a frame whose shape echoes the lawn of A Folly for Wisdom (cf. Canto IV/1) which appears again in the last illustration of this Canto.”[46]  The reversal of Virgil in the inset may merely be a reflection of the tendency for printmakers to reverse their models, but, in the light of Phillips’ remark about the inverse nature of homosexuality, it may also reflect Phillips’ claim that the inset responds to the possibility that Dante subtly acknowledges Virgil’s homosexuality by having him uncharacteristically silent in this canto and having the Pilgrim largely ignore Virgil when the Mantuan does venture to say something.[47]  A highly nuanced literary interpretation of Dante’s text is thus converted into a closely parallel and extraordinarily sophisticated visual interpretation of it.

            It is overtly supported, moreover, by Phillips’ next illustration of Inferno 15.  In the second of his four images for this canto, he adapts his first of four images for Inferno 5 by repeatedly showing two intertwined nudes in the background of a schematically rendered phallus penetrating an orifice while a semen-like configuration of words squiggles across the base of the penis shaft.  As Phillips himself notes, the adaptation is literally a negative play on the original, and is designed as such to “represent Dante’s view of the inverted nature of homosexual passion.”[48]  Moreover, he claims that “the ‘treasure’ of the interior text once again refers to Brunetto’s work, the Tesoro (Thesaurus) being the only child he can produce in the sterility of this love.”[49]  To an even greater degree than in the first illustration, all other considerations fall away as Phillips focuses his commentary, and apparently image, on homosexuality and its supposed inversion of heterosexuality.

            The next image includes two more squiggles of text that derive from Phillips’ own self-described Tesoretto (his A Humument, which was published in 1980 as a facsimile edition by Thames & Hudson and is based on W. H. Mallock’s Victorian novel, A Human Document) and pertain to sexuality, specifically the sterility of homosexuality.  But unlike the earlier squiggle, these two quotes appear on opposite folios of an open book portrayed at the bottom of the page and say respectively, “I still live in my life’s spring my little treasure a child to me” and “‘Can it be in my Barren garden that you flower?’”  Moreover, Phillips does not comment on their reference to a byproduct of homosexuality, much less on homosexuality itself.  Indeed, his only remark on the latter pertains to the word “Tesoretto,” which fills the folios of an open book above the left-hand squiggle, and which is broken into four blocks of stenciled capital letters:  “TE” at the top of the left folio; “SO” beneath it; “RE” at the top of the right folio; and “T(T)O” beneath it.  “Spelled out in this way,” according to Phillips, the title “forms different words, notably sotto which hints at some Templar implications in the text (the Templars were branded as Sodomites by their persecutors).”[50]  And the indirectness of that reference to homosexuality via a word that “hints at” some implications related to a medieval group who were sometimes branded Sodomites by some of their contemporaries is amplified by the graphic design of that word, for the two “T”s in “sotto” are formed by splitting the stem of a single “T” down the middle.  While reiterating twiceover the sterility of sodomy, which is apparently to say homosexuality, Phillips’ throws in a reference to extreme persecution in the name of homosexuality, but does so in a form that is so oblique as to be extraordinarily hard to discern without his textual reference to it.  Brunetto’s literary connections to Dante are wrapped around (and Brunetto’s political connections to his student are almost completely eclipsed by) identification of Dante’s mentor as a homosexual, and specifically as someone whose sexual preferences mean he will not produce children.

            Which is not to say that Brunetto will not endure.  As suggested by the textual squiggles on Phillips’ last image of Inferno 15, Dante’s mentor will live on through his Tesoretto, just as Dante lives on through his Commedia and, along with Phillips himself, through the latter’s illustrations.  While a nude male figure from Eadward Muybridge’s photo sequence The Human Figure in Motion races away from us and toward a green diamond at upper right, two sets of interconnected word bubbles at the upper left of the red-and-orange background read, “Document one little I on paper.  still lives my little treasure” and “all we selves in the wood,”.  The choice to base Brunetto’s image on an enduring photograph of a fleeting action from a work whose fame has only grown since Muybridge shot it in 1872 reinforces the longevity of art, especially relative to much else in our world.  But it is perhaps the green flag that is most meant to dive home this theme, for Phillips notes that it “echoes the shape once again of the lawn of a Folly for Wisdom (cf. Canto IV/1) to show the immortality as poet and savant to which Ser Brunetto seems to aspire.”[51]  The sterility of Brunetto’s human love would seem to be here contrasted with the celebrated fertility of his intellectual life.

            And he is quite clearly portrayed in a far more flattering manner than are Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci in the first of Phillips’ four images for Inferno 16.  This “unholy Trinity,” as the artist describes them, comprises three emaciated, almost skeletal figures gazing towards us as they take long strides and form an inverted triangle with their arms.[52]  Their details are sometimes lost in the repetition of their outlines and in the close hatching that occasionally intrudes from the seemingly dirty, gray-brown background, but they have overtly distorted facial features and grotesque exposure of their anatomy.  The figure at lower left, who has an open mouth and may therefore be Aldobrandi, seems to reveal his vertebrae, ribs, and anus, as his sunken eyes stare at us from beneath a low brow and above a porcine nose and fang-like teeth.  The figure at top center has a rather squashed, disgruntled expression above an erect phallus that protrudes straight up and apparently into his open abdomen.  And the figure at lower right seems to turn his mouthless face in multiple phases above a body that appears to be flayed from the shoulders to the thighs.  These ugly revelations may pertain to the fact that these three figures are politicians, as Phillips himself labels them in his commentary on this canto.[53]  Yet though that would fit rather well with his focus in the next image on the politics of Florence, Phillips seems to also be continuing his condemnation of homosexuality, for apart from the reference to them as politicians and from a digression into the background of his technique, his comments on the illustration dwell on homosexuality.  These three figures are not just politicians, but “Sodomite politicians.”[54]  And “[their] arms are here made to form an inverted triangle.”[55]  They are not just a sinful counterpart to the Trinity and to many other threesomes that are found among the Christian blessed, but constitute a three-pointed, three-sided shape that is a modern international symbol of homosexuality.  Moreover, if we are to judge from the raging phallus of the top, central figure and from his leer towards us, not to mention the fangs of the lower left figure, they are somewhat of a threat.  To a far greater degree than even Phillips’ Brunetto as a sterile, hypocritical trickster, they are a highly unflattering image of sodomites. 

Sandow Birk

In the frontispiece vignette and full-folio illustration for each canto in Birk and Marcus Sanders’ 2001-2005 textual adaptation of the Commedia, Birk joins Phillips, Rauschenberg, and many other artists we have seen who overtly refer to earlier art.  Indeed, like many other aspects of his lithographs, his poses for Virgil, Dante, and Brunetto in his full-folio print of Inferno 15 are so close to those of their counterparts in Doré’s cycle, that some critics have suggested they could be seen as plagiarism.[56]

Yet, in locating Dante’s narrative amid a hybrid of modern cities, Birk greatly alters Doré’s setting.  The background cliff is replaced by an elevated highway at right.  Brunetto stands not on a slope but in a trench for utility repairs.  Dante wears ordinary street clothes.  Virgil wears an advertising banner for a construction company.  And though the caption for the image is the line, “And as they checked us out, one seemed to recognize me and grabbed me by the pant leg,” and though the many phallic forms in the image may be substitutes for souls whose sins revolve around male genitalia, that connection is rather thin, and “they” themselves are only directly represented by Brunetto.  As Birk updates the stage on which the sodomites act in Dante’s text and in Doré’s images, he forsakes the chance to comment on those sinners by any means other than omission or oblique substitution. 

Nor, despite ample opportunity, do Birk’s other engravings clarify his views on sodomy.  In his drive to produce two scenes for each canto, he had unusual freedom with regard to Inferno 16 and Purgatorio 26 because, as we have seen, Doré did not portray them.  But rather than give his interpretation of the three Florentine sodomites in Inferno 16, he shows Virgil and Dante observing the rise of “Greyon” (sic) at the very end of the canto.  And rather than depict male homosexuals, or any of the other lustful, running through Purgatorio 26, he portrays Virgil, the Pilgrim, and Statius meeting Arnaut Daniel as a Latino snackbar operator, as a Spanish-speaking parallel to the character who writes (ostensibly heterosexual) love-poetry in a foreign language.

Of course, the absence of sodomites in these scenes may once again be a statement about the acts for which Dante punishes them.  Though it is always risky to connect an artist’s life with his work, the California surfer-culture with which Birk closely and often identifies is not particularly open to homosexuality.[57]  And his frequent swearing, macho posturing, and (other) attempts to establish “street cred” in interviews suggest he may be especially close to the intolerant end of what little spectrum exists within that culture.[58]  That is to say, he may have concentrated on the literal and figural margins of Inferno 16 and of Purgatorio 26 because he and/or his anticipated audience are not particularly comfortable with homosexuality.

Certainly his and Sanders’ text suggests a certain evasiveness and ridicule of the issue.  When the narrator first encounters the sodomites in Inferno 15, he says, “They were staring at us greedily, like a closet gambler with a Scratch ’n’ Win lottery ticket.”[59]  When asked if any of the other sodomites are famous, Brunetto names Priscian, Siegfried and Roy, Francesco d’Accorso, and “the priests from Boston.”[60]  And he adds, “If you really want to know about these, ahem, ‘men,’ I’ll tell you that there’s a bishop in the group who was transferred from Florence on the Arno River to Vicenza on the Bacchiglione by His Holiest of Holies, the Pope, and I hear them say that his, well, underside was sore from all the use it got there.”[61]  The sinners in this circle are named in the “argument” that precedes and summarizes each canto in this adaptation, but otherwise, they are even more obliquely identified as sodomites than in Dante’s text, and to the degree that they are identified as such they are far more denigrated than in Dante’s text or pretty much any other verbal or visual version of this canto.

In Inferno 16, male homosexuality and, in fact, all other forms of sexuality are not even obliquely invoked, but in Purgatorio 26, male homosexuality is overtly discussed in relationship to the lustful.  As the narrator talks with the first group of souls he encounters, he mentions a second group coming down the road towards the first and says, “It was weird:  a guy from the new group would come at a guy from the first bunch and give him a quick, intense kiss on the lips, and everyone seemed fine with it.  It was like dogs in a city park, how they run up to each other and quickly sniff each other’s ass, and it tells them everything they need to know.”[62]  And slightly later one member of the first group, Guido Guinizelli, says, “Those guys you just saw going the wrong way ’round this ring are all here for the same sin that had some calling Caesar a ‘queen.’  That’s why you heard ’em all shouting ‘Sodom!’ as they ran away from us in humiliation.”[63]  And a couple of sentences later, he begins defining his group and their sins by noting “our sins were heterosexual.”[64]  Though Birk’s and Sanders’ text may be even more oblique than Dante’s in associating male homosexuality with sodomy, they clearly condemn it in the overtness with which they associate it with inappropriate lust and in the crude ribaldry with which they treat it.  Particularly when their words are seen in conjunction with Birk’s lithographs, they are perhaps the most unsympathetic Commedia interpreters we have seen.

Seymour Chwast

In a 2010 graphic novel that refracts the Commedia through film noir, which is a famously macho and homophobic genre, the renowned illustrator Seymour Chwast sometimes dissociates sodomy from homosexuality so overtly that he winds up suggesting a link between the two.[65]

            If the reader perceives homosexuality in the text of Inferno 15, then Chwast’s depiction of that canto may seem to almost studiously avoid that form of sodomy.  Beneath a dense shower of zigzags that resemble cartoon lightning and are labeled “FIRE RAIN,” seven kneeling or standing nudes writhe in apparent agony and open their mouths as if crying out with pain.  Virgil and the Pilgrim are absent from the scene, and none of the sinners interacts with, much less shows any form of affection for or attraction to, other figures.  Each seems lost in suffering for a sin that is not evident from the picture alone.

Moreover, two of the seven have visible breasts.  Even if the viewer is aware that the sodomites inhabit this canto, s/he is discouraged from equating that sin only and perhaps at all with homociality, much less homosexuality.  As in the illustrations by, say, Stradanus, sodomy is at least opened to cross-gender acts.

And, indeed, the caption at the top of the image echoes Baskin in treating these sinners as “SODOMITES WHO COMMIT VIOLENCE AGAINST NATURE.”  For viewers who have not read Dante’s text or are otherwise unfamiliar with the specifically sexual connotations of “violence against nature,” this label may particularly obscure the sins of the figures.  And for those viewers who are aware of those connotations, it specifically equates sodomy with a far broader range of departures from procreative sex than just homosexuality.

Similarly, a caption at lower left, which says nothing more about Brunetto than that he “PRAISES ME BECAUSE OF ALL MY POLITICAL ACTIONS,” eliminates any hints by that soul or Dante that Brunetto was homosexual.  It foregrounds their party allegiance and, like the rest of the image, avoids any reference to the mutual fondness expressed by the sinner and his student.  Rather than defend or condemn homosexuality directly, it comments only indirectly by omission.

And the same could be said about Chwast’s depiction of Inferno 16.  Five and perhaps part of a sixth bust emerge from flames at the bottom of the image and apparently far beyond a profile of the Pilgrim’s head at right.  Their faces lack features other than a hash of diagonal lines, and an inscription at the top of the image states, “FLAMES HAVE WIPED OUT THE FACIAL FEATURES OF THESE SODOMITES.”  The use of “these” in that caption suggests we may be dealing with a different group of sodomites than those in the previous illustration, and the busts in this canto appear to lack breasts.  But there are no direct indications that these figures even partially represent male homosexuality.  They are so minimal in their definition and sometimes so eclipsed by flame that it is difficult to be sure of their gender.  They stand almost side-by-side and face, as it were, the same direction.  Nor do they otherwise evince any interest in each other or Dante.  Indeed, the three Florentine sodomites who approach and talk to him in the text are not even distinguished here from the rest of their colleagues.  And the caption at the top of the image literally and figuratively foregrounds an aspect of the canto that is never represented by the other illustrators we have discussed and is only obliquely, if at all, related to indications of homosexuality among the sodomites.

Yet, once again—and perhaps particularly so, given the rest of this image—the omission of (almost all of) Dante’s references to male homosexuality may paradoxically underscore that permutation of sodomy.  In an echo of the fact that the inscription at the top of the image and the diagonal lines on the heads of the figures may draw attention to (the absence of) their facial features, so the lack of overt homosociality among the figures may draw attention to Dante’s oblique association of homosexuality with sodomy.  These figures do not mingle with each other or approach Dante as do Guerra, Aldobrandi, and Rusticucci, and any viewer with direct knowledge of Dante’s text may wonder why that is.

They may also wonder why heterosocial relations are singled out among the lustful in Chwast’s drawing of Purgatorio 26.  As the Pilgrim declares, “I LOVE YOUR WORK” and gazes with Virgil and Statius at multiple figures amid a cone of flame capped by the words “THE LUSTFUL,” boxed inscriptions among the flames state:  “SODOM & GOMORRAH,” “THE POET ARNAUT DANIEL,” “PASIPHAË” (with an arrow from an adjacent box stating “ANIMAL LUST”), “THE POET, GUIDO GUINICELLI,” and “HETEROSEXUAL.”  The figure partially beneath the latter label has no breasts, no long hair, nor any other indication that it is female; there is no direct counterpart in this image to that caption; and male homosexuality is not otherwise evident in the illustration.  Indeed, Pasiphaë is only one of two figures with breasts in the image, and though the flickering figure beneath the caption “SODOM & GOMORRAH” has no overtly female characteristics, sports the only head lacking a face in this image, and may therefore be meant to echo the sodomites in Inferno 16, Chwast is, as we have seen, neutral on the sexuality of those earlier figures and does not otherwise indicate that this figure is homosexual.  Thus, once again in Chwast’s work, male homosexuality is conspicuously, and perhaps pejoratively, absent.


Though Chwast does not overtly attack the sodomites, he and many of the other twenty- and twenty-first-century illustrators strike a less sympathetic tone than do their predecessors, even apart from the broad stylistic and/or iconographic opacity of Dalí, Kunz, Rauschenberg, Guttuso, Baskin, and Phillips.  Where Stradanus and Zuccari depict the unrepentant sodomites as graceful, rather idealized figures, Martini portrays them as wizened old men or hags.  Where Flaxman suggests Dante is, and perhaps we should be, sympathetic towards Brunetto, Phillips and Birk at least textually go beyond the Commedia in expressly denigrating sodomy.  And where Blake, Koch, and Doré hardly distinguish the sodomites from other sinners in suffering or forbearance, Moser, Chwast, and perhaps Rauschenberg single out sodomy by their conspicuous omissions of it.

The illustrators also increasingly define sodomy as homosexuality, albeit never overtly in their images.  Rauschenberg’s scantily clad men in his prints of Inferno 15 and 16 are far from unique in his cycle, but to anyone versed in Dante’s text, much less some of the other illustration cycles we have examined, they may associate sodomy with homosexuality precisely to the degree that they conspicuously do not depart from the sexuality of the cycle as a whole.  Birk does not overtly link sodomy with homosexuality in his drawings, but he and Sanders clearly do so in their text.  And though Phillips also does not make that association clear in his illustrations, he comments on them as if sodomy were nothing other than homosexuality.

            Thus, when these illustrations are seen relative to their origins, all except Rauschenberg’s resist larger trends and suggest a growing bias against homosexuality.  Even as they represent a greater willingness to address same-sex love and to overtly associate it with a canonical text, even as they depart from the letter of the label “the love that cannot be named,” they increasingly abide by its spirit.

[1] Steven Stowell, “Visualizing the Sodomites in Dante’s Commedia,” Dante Studies 126 (2008), 143-74.

[2] Michael Camille, “The Pose of the Queer:  Dante’s Gaze, Brunetto Latini’s Body,” in Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 57-86.

[3] Jonathan Katz, “The Art of Code:  Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Significant Others:  Creativity and Intimate Partnership, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1993), 193-208.  Laura Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil:  Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty-Four Drawings for Dante’s Inferno and the Commercial Homoerotic Imagery of 1950s America,” in The Gay ’90s:  Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Formations in Queer Studies, ed. Thomas Foster, Carol Siegel, and Ellen E. Berry (New York:  New York University Press, 1997), 119-54.

[4] Though omission is, of course, also a form of commentary, I will not directly address Barry Moser and other illustrators who do not depict the sodomites at all.

[5] All Italian quotes of the Commedia are from Giorgio Petrocchi’s 4-volume edition for the Società Dantesca Italiana (1966-68; 2nd ed. Florence:  Casa editrice Le lettere, 1994), and, unless otherwise noted, all English translations of the Commedia are from Charles Singleton’s edition (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1970-75).

[6] See page 384 of the notes by Laury Magnus, Allen Mandelbaum, and Anthony Oldcorn in Mandelbaum’s three-volume translation of the Commedia (New York:  Bantam, 1982 [notes, 1983]).

[7] Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London:  Gay Men’s Press, 1982); Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries:  Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1992), 18-19; and specifically in relationship to the Commedia and the milieu in which it was written, Camille, “Pose of the Queer,” 63.

[8] André Pézard, Dante sous la pluie de feu (Paris:  Vrin, 1950), 94-95.

[9] Richard Kay, Dante’s Swift and Strong:  Essays on Inferno XV (Lawrence:  Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), 14.

[10] Peter Armour, “Dante’s Brunetto:  The Paternal Paterine?,” Italian Studies 38 (1983), 1-38.

[11] Diana Culbertson, “Dante the Yahwist, and the Sins of Sodom,” Italian Culture 4 (1983), 11-23.

[12] Sally Mussetter, “‘Ritornare a lo suo principio’:  Dante and the Sin of Brunetto Latini,” Philological Quarterly 63 (1984), 431-48.

[13] Eugene Vance, Marvelous Signals:  Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 230-56.

[14] Elio Costa, “From ‘locus amoris’ to Infernal Pentecost:  The Sin of Brunetto Latini,” Quaderni d’italianistica 10 (1989), 109-32.

[15] For more examples, see Peter Armour, “XV,” Lecture Dantis 6 (Supplement:  Dante’s Divine Comedy:  Introductory Readings, I:  Inferno) (1990), 189-208, at 204-5.

[16] Camille, “Pose of the Queer,” 61.

[17] Stowell, “Visualizing the Sodomites,” 145.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 150.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 158.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 158-59.

[26] Ibid., 158-70, with quote from 158.

[27] Camille, “Pose of the Queer,” 66-72.

[28] Ibid., 59-64.

[29] For characteristics and characterizations of sexual preference in eighteenth-century England, begin with Randolph Trumbach, “London’s Sodomites:  Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the 18th Century,” Journal of Social Histories 11/1 (1977), 1-33; Claude J. Summers, ed., Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England:  Literary Representations in Historical Context (New York:  Haworth Press, 1992); Byrne R. S. Fone, A Road to Stonewall:  Male Homosexuality and Homophobia in English and American Literature, 1750-1969 (New York:  Twayne Publishers, 1995); Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution:  Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998); Allen J. Frantzen, Before the Closet:  Same Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998); Kent Gerard and Gert Heckman, ed., The Pursuit of Sodomy:  Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe (New York and London:  Harrington Park Press, 1989); Robert F. Gleckner, Gray Agonistes:  Thomas Gray and Masculine Friendship (Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); and, for a rich repository on documents pertaining to the subject, see the website Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, ed. Rictor Norton, Updated 27 January 2012 <;, accessed March 14, 2012.

[30] Ibid.

[31] For more on the characteristics and characterization of sexual orientation in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe, including Italy, begin with Graham Robb, Strangers:  Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (New York:  Norton, 2005).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Note that, for the title page and the obverse of the folio across from it, Grosz also did a polychromatic image of Dante writing.

[34] For more on the specific issue of sexuality in relationship to Dalí’s art and theories, begin with Haim N. Finkelstein, Salvador Dalí’s Art and Writing, 1927-1942:  The Metamorphoses of Narcissus (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1996); and The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, ed. Haim N. Finkelstein (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[35] For gay history during that period in Spain (or almost any other country), begin with The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, ed. Robert T. Francoeur, vols. 1-4 (New York:  Continuum Publishing, 1997-2001), posted on the web at <>, last accessed March 14, 2012.  For British gay history during that period, see also Tom Sargent, Bugger’s Talk:  A History of Homosexuality in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1:  Why the Invert Swings His Hips (London:  GMP, 2001).  For American gay history during that period, see also the relevant documents in Gay American History, ed. Jonathan Katz (New York:  Harper and Row, 1985).

[36] For this quote, see p. 9 of Bense’s introduction to this volume.

[37] Katz, “Art of Code”; Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil.”

[38] Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil,” 119.

[39] Ibid., 138-39.

[40] In “The Art of Code,” Katz has pointed out (201-2) that Rauschenberg, who had had a number of homosexual relationships since and perhaps before divorcing his wife in 1953, traces the outline of his foot at the top of Inferno 14.  But though that canto unfolds in the same circle as that of the sodomites, it is dedicated to the blasphemers, and even if this were an attempt by Rauschenberg to “out” himself, he does so only to an extraordinarily small “in” crowd who would recognize the outline of his foot and bridge its nearly one-canto gap from a group of sinners, the sodomites, who, as we have seen, are not universally identified as (solely) homosexuals. 

[41] Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil,” 119.

[42] For evidence of Baskin’s interest in Freud, which permeated a discussion I had with Baskin a year before his death in 2000, see, for example, his design for the cover of John Rickman’s A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud (New York:  Anchor, 1989).

[43] Tom Phillips, “Iconographical Notes and Commentary on the Illustrations,” Dante’s Inferno (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1985), 294.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 295.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Doug Harvey, “Sandow Birk’s Fast-Food Inferno,” preface to Birk and Sandow’s Inferno, vi, and especially ix; and Robert Lloyd, “Sandow’s Inferno:  Out of L.A. and into the Fire.” LA Weekly.  6 March 2003. <http:///;.  Accessed 2 April 2010.  In an interview with Richard E. Cheverton, Birk claimed “I’d simply look at [Doré’s (work)] and update it,” “L.A.’s ‘Inferno’,” a preview of “Dante’s Inferno” at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery, West Hollywood, 1 March-5 April 2003.  Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine.  16 February 2003.  <;.  Accessed 2 April 2010.  And in the preface to Birk and Sandow’s Purgatorio, Marcia Tanner notes that in an e-mail from 28 August 2003, Birk said, “Doré’s goal, and strength, to me, is that he took this dreamy poem and depicted it in concrete settings, making the ‘vision’ of Hell and Purgatory imaginable as real places that one could go to and walk around [. . .].  Dante’s poem does that too, but Doré really created the visual idea of what the place would like.  Now that he’s done that, I don’t have to.  I can spin off his ‘accurate’ depictions and make my own comments on the world” (vii-viii).

[57] For evidence of this, see the backlash in such recent gay surfing publications and blogs as <>.

[58] See, for example, his remark to Lloyd, “We’re really proud of [our Commedia . . .].  I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets blasted by some scholar who’s offended, like, ‘Who the fuck are these kids who think they can mess with this thing?’  But we’re not saying read ours instead of; read ours also.  Because it’s more fun.  And it’s easier. And it has good pictures.”

[59] Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, Dante’s Inferno (San Francisco, CA:  Chronicle Books, 2004) , 88.

[60] Ibid., 92.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, Dante’s Purgatorio (San Francisco, CA:  Chronicle Books, 2005), 164,

[63] Ibid., 166.

[64] Ibid.

[65] For more on the gender orientation of film noir begin with W. Ann Kaplan, Women in Film Noir (London:  BFI, 1998); and Linda Mizejewski, “Dressed to Kill:  Postfeminist Noir,” Cinema Journal 44/2 (2005), 121-27.


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