“The old city is where we need to go,” Langdon declared. “If there are answers, that’s where they’ll probably be. Old Florence was Dante’s entire world.”
Sienna nodded her agreement and called over her shoulder, “It will be safer, too—plenty of places to hide. I’ll head for Porta Romana, and from there, we can cross the river.”
The river, Langdon thought with a touch of trepidation. Dante’s famous journey into hell had begun by crossing a river as well.
Sienna opened up the throttle, and as the landscape blurred past, Langdon mentally scanned through images of the inferno, the dead and dying, the ten ditches of the Malebolge with the plague doctor and the strange word—CATROVACER. He pondered the words scrawled beneath La Mappa—The truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death—and wondered if the grim saying might be a quote from Dante.
I don’t recognize it.
Langdon was well versed in Dante’s work, and his prominence as an art historian who specialized in iconography meant he was occasionally called upon to interpret the vast array of symbols that populated Dante’s landscape. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, he had given a lecture on Dante’s Inferno about two years earlier.
“Divine Dante: Symbols of Hell.”
Dante Alighieri had evolved into one of history’s true cult icons, sparking the creation of Dante societies all around the world. The oldest American branch had been founded in 1881 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New England’s famous Fireside Poet was the first American to translate The Divine Comedy, his translation remaining among the most respected and widely read to this day.
As a noted student of Dante’s work, Langdon had been asked to speak at a major event hosted by one of the world’s oldest Dante societies—Società Dante Alighieri Vienna. The event was slated to take place at the Viennese Academy of Sciences. The event’s primary sponsor—a wealthy scientist and Dante Society member—had managed to secure the academy’s two-thousand-seat lecture hall.
When Langdon arrived at the event, he was met by the conference director and ushered inside. As they crossed the lobby, Langdon couldn’t help but notice the five words painted in gargantuan letters across the back wall: WHAT IF GOD WAS WRONG?
“It’s a Lukas Troberg,” the director whispered. “Our newest art installation. What do you think?”
Langdon eyed the massive text, uncertain how to respond. “Um … his brushstrokes are lavish, but his command of the subjunctive seems sparse.”
The director gave him a confused look. Langdon hoped his rapport with the audience would be better.
When he finally stepped onstage, Langdon received a rousing round of applause from a crowd that was standing room only.
“Meine Damen und Herren,” Langdon began, his voice booming over the loudspeakers. “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.”
The famous line from Cabaret drew appreciative laughter from the crowd.
“I’ve been informed that our audience tonight contains not only Dante Society members, but also many visiting scientists and students who may be exploring Dante for the first time. So, for those in the audience who have been too busy studying to read medieval Italian epics, I thought I’d begin with a quick overview of Dante—his life, his work, and why he is considered one of the most influential figures in all of history.”
Using the tiny remote in his hand, Langdon called up a series of images of Dante, the first being Andrea del Castagno’s full-length portrait of the poet standing in a doorway, clutching a book of philosophy.
“Dante Alighieri,” Langdon began. “This Florentine writer and philosopher lived from 1265 to 1321. In this portrait, as in nearly all depictions, he wears on his head a red cappuccio—a tight-fitting, plaited hood with earflaps—which, along with his crimson Lucca robe, has become the most widely reproduced image of Dante.”
Langdon advanced slides to the Botticelli portrait of Dante from the Uffizi Gallery, which stressed Dante’s most salient features, a heavy jaw and hooked nose. “Here, Dante’s unique face is once again framed by his red cappuccio, but in this instance Botticelli has added a laurel wreath to his cap as a symbol of expertise—in this case in the poetic arts—a traditional symbol borrowed from ancient Greece and used even today in ceremonies honoring poet laureates and Nobel laureates.”
Langdon quickly scrolled through several other images, all showing Dante in his red cap, red tunic, laurel wreath, and prominent nose. “And to round out your image of Dante, here is a statue from the Piazza di Santa Croce … and, of course, the famous fresco attributed to Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello.”
Langdon left the slide of Giotto’s fresco on the screen and walked to the center of the stage.
“As you are no doubt aware, Dante is best known for his monumental literary masterpiece—The Divine Comedy—a brutally vivid account of the author’s descent into hell, passage through purgatory, and eventual ascent into paradise to commune with God. By modern standards, The Divine Comedy has nothing comedic about it. It’s called a comedy for another reason entirely. In the fourteenth century, Italian literature was, by requirement, divided into two categories: tragedy, representing high literature, was written in formal Italian; comedy, representing low literature, was written in the vernacular and geared toward the general population.”
Langdon advanced slides to the iconic fresco by Michelino, which showed Dante standing outside the walls of Florence clutching a copy of The Divine Comedy. In the background, the terraced mountain of purgatory rose high above the gates of hell. The painting now hung in Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore—better known as Il Duomo.