Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown

Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown

by Deborah Parker, Mark Parker


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ISBN-13: 9781137279064
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Deborah Parker is Professor of Italian and Chair of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She has published a monograph and several articles on Dante, and she is the General Editor of The World of Dante (, an interactive media site created for the study and teaching of Dante's Comedy. She has taught the Comedy for over 25 years and knows the poem intimately. The project has been supported by a number of foundations, including the NEH, Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities.

Mark Parker is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at James Madison University. He has published essays on Dante and on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. He has written two books on literary magazines in 19th century Britain, as he has co-authored a book on film in the DVD era.

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Inferno Revealed

From Dante to Dan Brown

By Deborah Parker, Mark Parker

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Parker and Mark Parker,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-39055-4


Dante as Protagonist

How Making Yourself the Hero of Your Own Poem Changes Everything

When Virgil wrote his epic, the Aeneid, he did so at a considerable distance from his subject. He was a court poet, a client of Augustus Caesar, and he wrote within a sophisticated political and cultural circle. The story he told, of Aeneas's flight from Troy and his founding of the Roman Empire, was both mythical and familiar to his contemporaries. His role was to put its loosely connected and contradictory elements into the most beautiful and memorable poetic form that his considerable talent could produce. Virgil does not appear in the poem, except to make brief pleas to his Muse to inspire him. The action of the heroic poem — the deeds of Aeneas — is hidden in the mist of time, and while it has clear relevance to Virgil's world, the connections are made across a temporal gulf.

Similarly, when John Milton began his epic, Paradise Lost, he undertook to tell the story of the rebellious angel Satan, the war in Heaven between God and Satan, the expulsion of Satan's army of fallen angels, and the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in Eden. Milton sought to "justify the ways of God to men," but he did not see any reason to include himself in the story. Like Virgil, from time to time he asks for heavenly inspiration in his writing, and he tells us in no uncertain terms that his Muse dictates the poem to him at night. But he is not the protagonist any more than any other Christian is a protagonist in God's plan for the world. In taking this position as poet, both Virgil and Milton followed Homer, whose Odyssey and Iliad were the standards for the epic in Western culture. Homer is the singer of a tale, not the recounter of his own exploits.

Dante's poem could not be more different. Virgil, as he begins the Aeneid, sings "of arms and a man." Dante writes: "Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost" (Inf. 1.1–3; emphasis added). The prominence of the "I" here warrants notice. Dante is the protagonist, front and center in this epic. His story is, in ways far beyond Virgil's or Milton's poem, his. He does not simply recount; he is changed by the experience, finding a personal good in his journey, a journey that leads to salvation.

This swerve from epic tradition is bold enough, but Dante doubles down on this opening gambit. He complicates his presence in the poem by making a distinction between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim. One Dante narrates the story as a memory of a voyage through the afterlife. The other Dante, the pilgrim, has a different role in the story. He is the wayfarer or traveler, accompanied by his guide, Virgil, through Inferno and Purgatory.

The consequences for Dante's decision to put himself at the center of his epic are enormous, and they reverberate throughout the Inferno. Dante must project and characterize himself. In doing so, his personal attachments also become important; they are not petty details that vanish as he assumes the position of epic poet. One of the consequences of Dante's insistence on himself as pilgrim is that his temperament, personal entanglements, and ambitions become the raw material of the poem.


The persistence and intensity of Dante's assertion of his own central role begins at once — in the first of the 34 cantos (divisions of the poem akin to chapters in a novel) of the Inferno, where Dante describes the conditions that give rise to his journey through the afterlife. Dante wanders in a "dark wood." He has lost the "straight way." Morally and physically exhausted, overcome by fear and sorrow, he compares his plight to that of a swimmer, one who has barely reached the shore, a man who has narrowly escaped death. Suddenly other elements come into play. He is no longer the lone figure in this landscape. We have movement from many directions: In rapid succession, a leopard, lion, and she-wolf assail him. The lean, ravenous wolf poses the greatest threat and causes the pilgrim to retreat into the wood "where the sun is silent" (Inf. 1.60) — that is, where there is no hope.

This is one of the most densely symbolic scenes in the poem. Many of the particulars have an allegorical significance. A Greek word, "allegory" means to speak figuratively of something else. In an allegory, entities have another meaning. In allegorical terms, Dante has strayed from the path of righteousness and truth and wanders in error and desperation. The allegorical significance of the wood and the three beasts derive from a number of traditions — literary, mystical, iconographic, and folk. For example, the association of a forest with sin and error derives from chivalric romances, in which questing knights would often get lost. The three beasts represent different sins — the leopard stands for lust, the lion, violence, and the she-wolf, avarice.

Up to this point in the poem, Dante's combination of allegory and personal presence still allows him to project himself as a kind of everyman. But Dante continues to raise the stakes. A lost soul needs a guide. A saint or angel might have done the trick, but the next section of canto 1 shows the consequences of Dante's decision to cast himself as the protagonist of his epic. After the she-wolf forces him back into the wood, the pilgrim utters "Miserere," a cry for help. No sooner than he emits this cry, Virgil comes to his aid. But Dante does not know yet the identity of the soul and asks him if he is a shade or a man.

"No, not a living man, though once I was," he answered me, "and my parents were Lombards, both Mantuans by birth. I was born sub Julio, although late, and I lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying gods. I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned." (Inf. 1.67–75)

The way in which Virgil introduces himself and the way in which the pilgrim responds to him tell us much about how Dante regards Latin culture generally and Virgil in particular. Virgil, the eminent Latin poet, acquires a second life in Dante's Christian epic. The selection of Virgil, whose epic celebrates the founding of Roman civilization, informs the Divine Comedy in significant ways. First and foremost, we learn something about one of Dante's most profound attachments — his love of Virgil's work. Dante could have made the voyage himself, encountered allegorical personifications of sins, or chosen a religious figure for his guide. But he chose Virgil, an indication of his immense esteem for classical culture.

By choosing Virgil as guide, Dante gives an immediate complexity to his story. A Christian epic like the Divine Comedy doesn't obviously authorize such a choice — it might be more fitting to choose a saint, an angel, or at least a fellow Christian as a guide to salvation. The choice of Virgil introduces a certain tension into theInferno: The journey to God is through or by way of a pagan and his pagan epic. Because of his profound personal connection with Virgil and classical culture, Dante's poetic avocation and ambition receive strong emphasis. The outsized presence of the classical past clashes with the providential narrative line and some of the poem's Christian assumptions.

Upon finding himself before his literary idol, Dante pays a heartfelt tribute to Virgil:

"Are you, then, that Virgil, that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech?" I answered him, my brow covered with shame. "O glory and light of other poets, may the long study and the great love that have made me search your volume avail me! You are my master and my author. You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor." (Inf. 1.79–87)

In these lines Dante reveals much about his love of Virgil's works. Dante refers to Virgil as a "fount," a life-giving generative force, and a "light," a beacon of inspiration not only for Dante but for countless other poets. Dante is a devoted follower of Virgil and has read his works with "long study" and "great love." He emulates the Latin poet's lofty epic style. Any honor that Dante has won for his literary achievements is owing to Virgil's illumination. When Virgil offers to guide Dante, the pilgrim readily accedes. Virgil will first guide him through Hell, an "eternal" place, after which they will see the souls in Purgatory. Then "a soul worthier than I," namely Beatrice, will take over as Dante's guide in Paradise.

This fervent speech deserves close attention. We see the tension between classical and Christian elements clearly, as Dante hails Virgil as "master and author" and thanks him for the fame he has achieved as poet. Worldly acclaim sits uneasily with the providential journey, just as Virgil, a damned soul, seems an eccentric choice of guide. Virgil will lead Dante through Purgatory, a region that is forbidden to him. One might explain Virgil's presence by recalling the attempt in early Christian culture to reclaim the poet as an unconscious prophet of Christianity. One of Virgil's poems, the Fourth Eclogue, concerns the birth of a miraculous child, and church commentators often read it as a premonition of Christ's birth. But such attempts at rehabilitation do not make pagan and Christian culture agree; they simply testify to the force of a desire to remove contradiction.

The first canto ends with Dante declaring his readiness to follow Virgil. In the second canto, Dante starts second-guessing himself and hesitates. Apprehensive about his worthiness to embark on such a journey, he tells Virgil, "But I, why do I come there? And who allows it? I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul; of this neither I nor others think me worthy" (Inf. 2.31–33). The allusion to Aeneas and Paul is highly significant, as both undertook trips to the afterlife. Aeneas travels to the underworld in order to speak with the shade of his father, Anchises, who foretells the glorious achievements of his son's descendants. Aeneas is nothing less than the progenitor of the Roman Empire, the one "chosen as father of glorious Rome and of her empire."

The purpose of St. Paul's journey is no less momentous. Paul, the "Chosen Vessel," was rapt to the third heaven by God. Paul, originally named Saul, was an unbeliever and persecutor of Christians before his conversion. While on the road to Damascus, he was struck blind by God and subsequently underwent a dramatic conversion. After he was blinded, Paul possessed far greater vision. His trip to Heaven also had a providential purpose — to bring confirmation of Truth, God, and faith to others.

These two precedents — Aeneas and Paul — provide an important perspective on Dante's status as epic hero. In linking himself to Aeneas and Paul, Dante emphasizes the importance of his voyage — and his worthiness to undertake it. This moment of alignment with Aeneas and Paul stands as an index of Dante's bold swerve from epic conventions. If Dante is not worthy of being elevated to the status of epic protagonist, neither are the contemporaries who populate his afterlife. If Dante is neither Aeneas nor Paul, Francesca isn't a Cleopatra or Paolo a Tristan.


Dante takes pains to show that his voyage, like those of Aeneas and Paul, is divinely sanctioned. Virgil assures the pilgrim of this by recounting the story of Beatrice's visit to him in Limbo (the first of Hell's nine circles). Beatrice is the most significant local feature of Dante's Divine Comedy. To understand her intervention, we need to look at the backstory of Dante's beloved. Although we do not know exactly who the historical Beatrice was, Dante's son Piero, who wrote a commentary to the poem, identified her as Beatrice Portinari. Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron and the first biography of Dante, further reports that she was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a Florentine banker. Dante first writes of Beatrice in an earlier work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), which examines his infatuation with her. The work mixes spiritual exaltation and religious transformation with an intense eroticism by combining the fiercest intellectual rigor in tracing the significance of his love with a lush romanticism in describing pivotal moments of the relationship.

Dante first encountered Beatrice when he was nine and she was eight; he saw her again nine years later. What we know about this relationship comes almost entirely from Dante's account of it in the Vita Nuova, which idealizes and poeticizes it. Since women of Beatrice's class were sequestered until marriage, each meeting was momentous for Dante. The encounters themselves — more precisely these sightings or greetings — would have been facilitated by the proximity of their homes. Dante's Florence was divided into six subdivisions known as sesti, or sixths. The Alighieri lived in the sesto of San Pier Scheraggi and the Portinari in that of San Pier Maggiore. The houses of the two families might have been as little as 50 yards apart. In any case, Dante's Beatrice, if not the proverbial girl next door, was the girl in the next sixth. In the Divine Comedy, she is Dante's inspiration and spiritual guide. Beatrice embodies absolute perfection and functions as an intermediary in Dante's ascent to God.

Without Beatrice, Dante's Divine Comedy would not exist; Beatrice, as we learn, sets the voyage in motion. Virgil makes this explicit when he tells Dante of her visit to Virgil in Limbo. The lines that describe Beatrice's appearance are among the most beautiful in the Inferno. "Her eyes were more resplendent than the stars, and she began to say to me, sweetly and softly, in an angelic voice ..." (Inf. 2.55–57). To describe Beatrice's divine beauty and grace, Dante draws on the style of writing he had used in the Vita Nuova. This poetic style, called the Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style), refers to Italian courtly poetry of the thirteenth century: The terms "sweet" and "new" refer to both the words and the melodic, lyrical style of the poetry itself. To emphasize these associations between Beatrice and the Dolce Stil Novo, Dante laces these lines describing his beloved with expressions that recall this kind of writing, such as "stella" (star), "dir soave e piana" (say to me ... softly), and "angelica voce" (angelic voice). Dante will use this style again when he encounters Beatrice at the top of Purgatory.

Just as Dante elevates himself in aligning himself with Aeneas and Paul, so does he elevate his beloved. Describing the scene in Heaven that preceded her visit to Virgil in Limbo, Beatrice informs the Roman poet that St. Lucy, a fourth-century martyr of Syracuse and the patron saint of sight, had alerted her to Dante's distress in the dark wood. Another blessed woman, the Virgin Mary, had summoned Lucy, forming a chain of concerned women who intercede for Dante. Thus we see that Dante's love, Beatrice, becomes the "local" presence among three blessed heavenly women. The sanction for his voyage could hardly have come from a higher authority, but the mediation ends with a contemporary person.

Ultimately, Dante's double selection of guides creates an oscillation in the poem. He projects a range of affiliation that cannot form a continuum: The classical and the Christian cannot easily coexist. Again Dante complicates his journey to God by including other elements.


We can see some of this tension in Dante's next encounter. The pilgrim has just presented himself as the object of Christian intercession by three blessed women in Heaven and as a devotee of Virgil. This humility does not last for long. Upon entering the first circle of Hell, Dante meets the virtuous pagans, among them eminent poets, philosophers, and scientists. Here he meets the greatest poets of antiquity: Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey; Lucan, author of the Pharsalia, an account of the civil war between Roman Republicans and Julius Caesar; Horace, whose works include four books of Odes, the Satires, and the Art of Poetry; and Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses. This encounter provides the occasion for one of the most extraordinary moments in the poem. As Dante recollects, the six poets turn to him: "After they had talked awhile together, they turned to me with sign of salutation, at which my master smiled; and far more honor still they showed me, for they made me one of their company, so that I was sixth amid so much wisdom" (Inf. 4.97–102).


Excerpted from Inferno Revealed by Deborah Parker, Mark Parker. Copyright © 2013 Deborah Parker and Mark Parker,. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii

Note to the Reader ix

Introduction 1

1 Dante as Protagonist: How Making Yourself the Hero of Your Own Poem Changes Everything 7

2 Scandalous Contemporaries: Dante's People 25

3 A Divided World: Politics, War, and Exile 45

4 Churchmen in Hell 71

5 Hell on Earth: Dante's Treatment of Place 99

6 The Legacy of Dante's Inferno 121

7 Popular Adaptations of the Inferno 139

8 Dan Brown's Inferno and the Legacy of Dante 165

9 A Complete List of Allusions to the Divine Comedy in Dan Brown's Inferno 199

Appendix: Timeline of Dante's Times and Life 221

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 233

Bibliography 237

Index 239

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