Dante’s ancient footsteps have been easily traceable in Florence since his exile in 1302, but it has taken Dan Brown to ignite true Dante fever in the Tuscan capital.
Who cares if Brown veers slightly off course in his interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in his latest novel, Inferno? Art historians and literary academics might be up in arms, but blurring the facts into fiction has certainly not upset the Florentine purists who know Dante’s work the best. Indeed, Brown-inspired Dante fever is gripping Florence, and the leader of pack happens to be president of the esteemed Dante Society, Eugenio Giani, who believes a little Dan Brown fairy dust is just what the city needs right now. Brown will be reading from Inferno at a literary festival in Florence on June 6, and Giani plans to thank the American writer personally for reintroducing Dante to a whole new group of readers.
“Dante is the most important figure in the history of this city,” Giani, who is also the head of the Florence City Council, told The Daily Beast on an impromptu tour of the Palazzo Vecchio’s secret passages, which feature in Inferno. “Dan Brown is simply making the introduction to Dante to people who may have never paused to appreciate his genius. It will be up to the readers to form their own opinion about Dante’s real legacy. Either way, people will be talking about him.”
More than renewing interest in the literary great, Inferno promises to breathe new life into Florence’s coffers. The city isn’t short on tourists, mind you, but like all Italian cities, it has been battered by Italy’s enduring recession as hoteliers and restaurants struggle to lure customers. Tourism was up 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, says Giani, but people aren’t staying as long, and when they do, they tend to sleep and eat on a budget. With Brown’s blessing of the city, Giani hopes people who would normally come to Florence for a day trip from their Tuscan villas to skim the highlights or make a quick stop en route from Rome to Venice might stay longer to do some Dante digging.
There are many fabulous details in the book that will delight the average literary tourist. The simple wicker basket beside Beatrice’s tomb in the church of Santa Margherita, where tortured lovers still leave notes of amour and despair, will surely become a cult stop for Brown’s faithful. Dozens of marble placards hung on the buildings around Florence bearing Dante quotes, and the bronze plaque on the Baptistry referring to “the Black Death,” ignored by the masses for years, will suddenly become Inferno tour cornerstones. One also might envision that the somewhat costly and unpopular tour of the Vasari Corridor, connecting the Pitti Palace to Palazzo Vecchio, may suddenly top tourists’ agendas.
But much of the rest of Brown’s Florence is hidden far from the grasp of the average tourist. In the Palazzo Vecchio, for example, Brown’s protagonist, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, seems to make finding secret doors that lead to hidden passageways an easy game. But Brown hits only the highlights, like the hidden door behind the map of Armenia in the Hall of Geographical Maps that opens to a secret passageway. All of Brown’s secret rooms exist, but their true history is far more interesting than Brown’s use of them as scene-setting backdrops and escape hatches. When Brown tells the tale of escaping through a secret door behind the Armenian map, it seems like a simple passageway. But when Giani gives the tour, the real gem is the secret frescoed chamber room behind the map, where dukes and lords of the palace would bring their lovers for trysts and their enemies for torture. The room leads to a stairway with a secret hatch at the bottom where corpses could be easily disposed of in the nearby Arno River, and an adjacent chapel where killers could ask for forgiveness. Brown’s version paints it as a barren hallway.
Likewise, he makes it seem easy to glimpse the words “cerca trova” in white lettering on a tiny green flag on Varasi’s giant mural in the Hall of 500 that depicts the “Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana.” Brown’s Langdon spots it from the floor of the room, but no tourist will have the same luck without binoculars or a serious long-lens camera. Still, one can easily envision hordes clutching their dog-eared paperbacks of Inferno straining to find the flag. Hint: it is on the upper righthand corner.
Brown also misses the chance to set a scene in the Florentine Dante Society, which houses an extensive library with more than 22,000 volumes dedicated to Dante’s Divine Comedy alone. The society is set in a picturesque medieval mini castle not far from the Palazzo Vecchio. The author mentions the sister society in Vienna, but why not give a nod to the original? Especially as it is such a suggestive place, and one that tourists could visit.
The secret rooms and hidden treasures in Brown’s Florence, as well as the brief skip thorugh Venice’s star attractions like St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, will certainly bring some of Italy’s highbrow cultural gems to the mainstream. But most of what Brown exposes is hardly accessible to anyone other than historians, multimillion-copy selling authors, and pesky journalists. “I can’t imagine we’d ever open these rooms to mass tourism,” says Giani as he whisked The Daily Beast behind hidden doors to show off dozens of hidden corridors. “The secret passage tours that exist now are not all-encompassing and available only by special appointment to small groups, and I don’t see that changing.”
That leaves the Dan Brown tourist set left with little to see, save searching door hinges on maps and studying Dante’s death mask, which is easily found in a hallway in the Palazzo Vecchio’s upper balcony over Vasari’s murals. Giani, incidentally, doesn’t believe that it is even the real mask. “Dante’s nose was not nearly as hooked as the mask portrays,” Giani says, unhooking the velvet rope meant to keep humans away to get a closer look, alla Langdon. “A hooked nose is a sign of intelligence and mischief, and through the years Dante’s nose has become more and more hooked in representations.” Giani says the real death mask belongs to a private collector, which is what Brown insinuates in his book.
Still, Dante fever is already gripping the city. Ahead of Brown’s June 6 appearance, Hotel Lungaro is offering up an Inferno weekend package for about $560, including two nights at one of its boutique hotels in the city and a three-hour private tour tracing Langdon’s footsteps through Florence. And bona fide tour guides are increasingly besieged with questions about Dante. Molly McIlwrath, who has degrees in Italian literature and is an expert on the Italian renaissance, works as a licensed tourist guide and docent for Context travel, which caters to studied tourists who don’t want to be stuck behind standard issue umbrella-wielding guides.
McIlwrath has been giving a Dante tour of Florence for years, but she says until now the clientele has been limited to those interested in literature, and she’s not sure how many of her clients are Dan Brown aficionados. She read Inferno out of what she felt was an obligation to understand the phenomenon as it affects her city, and she says Brown barely skims the essence of Dante and only touches in passing on the staples of her three-hour tour, which she admits has never been the most popular tour she offers. “I’m torn because I think this book misses some important points, but it could be an opportunity to introduce people to Dante,” she told The Daily Beast. “But I’m also hoping this book will serve as an impetus to get people interested in Florence as a whole, and to maybe even read the Divine Comedy.”
Either way, McIlwrath says she is sure the book won’t hurt Florence. “It’s a very Dantesque world we live in right now,” she says, pointing to wars, natural disasters, and calamities of the kind Dante referred to in his versions of hell, purgatory, and heaven. “If people get the essence of Dante’s words and if it affects them, then it’s good. Brown certainly opens the door for that, but who knows if the tourists will walk through it.”