Dan Brown and the Case of the Wrong Dante
By Teodolinda Barolini
Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown, by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer (Story Plant, 2013)
Introduction: Let me begin with a personal note. This is the first Dan Brown novel that I have read. I accepted the invitation to think about Brown’s Inferno because I have spent my life studying the “real” Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. As a scholar I have an interest in making sure that information about Dante is accurate (Mr. Brown graciously included our website, Digital Dante at Columbia University, in his Acknowledgments). I figure I owe something—if not to the public that reads Mr. Brown’s novels then certainly to Dante, who has given me a lifetime of intellectual pleasure.
In Brown’s book, Professor Robert Langdon is pitted against an adversary who is a Dante fanatic. Bertrand Zobrist, a biochemist, is “a proponent of the Population Apocalypse Equation” (177), the alleged mathematical recognition that only a mass extinction event can save our planet. Based on the conviction that the fourteenth-century Black Death conferred long-term socioeconomic benefits on Europe by having “thinned the human herd” (177), Zobrist has worked out his own scheme to save humanity by unleashing a virus. With a young doctor whom he meets in a Florentine hospital (Sienna Brooks), where he awakens with his head full of terrifying infernal visions, Langdon is on a desperate quest to decipher the clues that Zobrist has left behind, hoping to prevent the release of the virus.
Beginning with a projected image of Botticelli’s map of Dante’s Inferno, various clues lifted (and twisted) from Dante’s Divine Comedy direct Langdon to extraordinary works of art and architectural monuments in Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. The eastward directionality of the quest (“St. Mark’s was so eastern in style that guidebooks often suggested it as a viable alternative to visiting Turkish mosques” ; Istanbul is called the “waystation between two worlds,” where West meets East) suggests a reversal of the human itinerary from its cradle in Mesopotamia. Reversals are programmatic in Brown’s Inferno, as they are in the original: “Dante’s Inferno. The finale. The center of the earth. Where gravity inverts itself. Where up becomes down” (409).