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Dante's Inferno and Dan Brown's Inferno compared

Hurry up, ahead, the chasers are hot on our heels. In the chase scenes, Dan Brown's thriller gets Inferno the very momentum that the story lacks elsewhere in the historical descriptions. Speed also strikes us, contained in poetic form, in Dante's eponymous Inferno from the 14th century. Dante's Inferno (literally: Hell) is the first of three volumes of the Divina Commedia, a quest for God that ultimately ends well, unlike the novel laced with science fiction and mostly history by US bestselling author Dan Brown, who broke through to the general public in 2003 with The Da Vinci Code.

Descent into hell with Virgil

Banished from the city of Florence, the poet Dante Alighieri describes how, in a vision, he descends deeper and deeper into hell and which evil spirits from his own life he all recognises there. Move along, move along. Time and again he too is hurried on, here by his companion, the long-dead Virgil, the poet from ancient Rome who was greatly admired in Dante's time, including by himself. Lingering too long in one place is but risky. Then the ultimate goal, heaven and the sight of God, would not be achieved, even with the support of the already dead, now heavenly Beatrice. Ever since his early childhood, she infected him with the virus of infatuation, but he never managed to obtain her, because in those days, you rarely decided for yourself whom you married.

Insane biochemist

Infectious in the most literal sense is evil in Dan Brown's book. A genius but delusional biochemist wants to tackle overpopulation by developing a virus that makes a third of humanity infertile. To do this, he needs time and the help of an organisation that supports him through thick and thin, anonymously. American art historian Robert Langdon is called in against his will. Kidnapped and transferred to Italy to help prevent the all too nefarious plans of this Bertrand Zobritst, using his knowledge of art history and ancient Florence, Dante's birthplace. Much of Dan Brown's thriller is set here, and with that the similarities with Dante's Inferno pretty much end.

Domenico di Michelino, Dante and his Divina Commedia, 1465

Just the tour of this 'Inferno', with all its references to historically existing figures, poets, nobles, popes, merchants, administrators, as well as mythological and Biblical figures to a total of some 800, seems like a tour de force in three meetings, the second of which is entirely devoted to Dan Brown's Inferno, the city of Florence and the other places of action: Venice and Istanbul.

Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

In his three lectures, art historian Barry Heinrichs Nevertheless, he is very good at this. In a calm and clear manner, he first leads us through the structure of the Divina Commedia using numerous representations, images and illustrations. A range of artists were inspired by Dante's poetic visions of hell, the mountain of purification and paradise, or Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Fluently, the lecturer complements these images with details of the historical and political developments in late medieval Florence, the background to Dante's exile by his former political allies and his wanderings ending in Ravenna, where the poet dies.

Dante and Virgil traverse the circles of hell. Detail of Sandro Botticelli's Mappa dell'inferno

The series of three meetings ends with a tour of the many artists who chose precisely Dante's hell as a theme for their art. From Botticelli to Dali, from William Blake, underrated by his contemporaries as a painter and engraver, to illustrator Paul Gustav Doré with his countless copper engravings. Thus we make the poet's journey through hell not so much along his verses, but along the images of mildly punished pagans under a stone, through the lustful to the adulterers. From the misers and the grabbers - condemned to each other to push the bags of money endlessly up the slope, not a bad solution for the present time either - to the more severely punished perpetrators of violence. Even the popes who were out for their own gain and reneged on their Christian duty - and there are not few of them - eventually share the fate of the seducers and deceivers, head over heels in the pits with fire at their feet, a veritable witches' cauldron.

From the age of 11 to 14, Italian children are introduced to Dante's masterpiece and its importance for the development of the Italian language, from Latin through the Florentine vernacular deliberately used by Dante to the national language. From around 16 years old, they wrestle with the literal text. The journey through the horrors of hell, the Inferno, then proves most popular.

Those who never got the same chance as Italian youth are now surely tempted to learn more from this seductive and stern Italian master, who, according to his admirer and follower Boccaccio, was not always master of his own lust either. Although he gradually placed his beloved Beatrice on an unattainable pedestal, nothing human was alien to him. This can be read in Boccaccio's short sketch of the great poet, translated into Dutch by Ike Cialona. And that too I got on the trail thanks to this inspiring introduction, with thanks anyway to Dan Brown but especially to Barry Heinrichs who guided us on this hellish journey with his calm voice. Coffee and tea, before and during the break, did the rest to reconnect us with earthly existence.

This blog was written by guest blogger Herman van der Meer.

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