Dan Brown’s Inferno

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The doors of the Baptistryof San Giovanni in Florenceare described in detail in Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Dan Brown’s Inferno
Tracing The Author’s Steps Through Italy’s Famous Sites

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

Open the pages of Dan Brown’s latest thriller, Inferno, and you will find yourself following the serpentine trail of Robert Langdon and his sidekick, Dr. Sienna Brooks, in Florence, Italy.

You will travel through the ancient cobblestone streets and hidden passageways of Florence, and occasionally you will find yourself in Venice, which Brown calls “an outside slowly sinking museum.”

On seeing Venice, Brown says, “Eyeing the canal (that would be the Grand Canal) filled with water taxis, vaporettos, gondolas and private speedboats, it was a floating traffic jam. Somehow, the congestion that would be maddening in Boston felt quaint in Venice.” The Doges Palace and St. Mark’s Square in Venice also have roles to play in this thriller.

At one point in Inferno, page 272 in the hardback edition to be exact, Robert Langdon even winds up in Geneva to attend a World Health Conference. Langdon does get around in this book.

I read Inferno while traveling all through southern Italy this past summer on a belated honeymoon. I was only in Florence one glorious day and my Triple AAA-Trafalgar guide had already prescribed our adventures for July 19.

Seeing Michelangelo’s David was at the top of the list. He is Italy’s “most admired male nude sculpture,” according to author Brown. Perusing David in the round at the Art Institute is now a treasured memory. He lives in splendor in his own soft gray private gallery, which has a vaulted ceiling, high arches and an abundance of artistic molding. There is bullet-proof plexiglass around the lower one third of this 15’ high sculpture, to protect David from all of us as we walk around the sculpture, to view it from every angle. No drooling, please.

Those who have read Brown’s other books, especially The Da Vinci Code, know he is a writer who deals with cryptic codes and symbols, angels, demons and mythical gods. Brown also frequently asks his readers to ponder provocative questions about the role of cutting edge science in our future.

I won’t spoil the story for you, but Inferno is definitely not a travelogue. However, if you are looking for future places to travel, this book is a grand scavenger hunt. And that’s how I chose to read it. Dan Brown is not one of my favorite authors. I outgrew mysteries when I overdosed on Nancy Drew sagas as a child. As an adult reader, I’ve never been into mysteries and spies and my life has plenty of intrigue without Brown’s literary advice.

But since his descriptive words paralleled many of the places I was seeing in Italy, I thought I should respect his viewpoint. I read Inferno with notebook and pen in hand, jotting down the places he was in, or I was about to see, or wished our itinerary had allowed time to visit.

All that day in Florence, I kept thinking about the main character, Robert Langdon, who does seem to come to life in the book. Is he following me? Is he behind that statue? Will I bump into him going down this dark, mysterious street in the center of Florence? Is he hiding in the Duomo?

Let’s start with Ponte Vecchio. It was an ancient entrance to Florence and is today the most famous medieval stone footbridge in the world. It is lined on either side with jewelry and goldsmith markets, which are held up by stilts.

There’s been a market on the bridge since the 1400s, when open air butchers ran a thriving meat market. According to Brown, “they were banished in 1593, when the rancid smells of rotting meat wafted up into the Vasari Corridor and assaulted the delicate nostrils of the grand duke.”

The Vasari Corridor is “the quintessential secret passageway” in Florence, quite similar to the famed Passetto in Vatican City in Rome. Both were (still are?)secret escape routes so Florence’s leaders/royalty could escape to safety unseen. Likewise, the Passetto allowed (allows?) the Pope to move in and out of Vatican City with anonymity. It’s doubtful Pope Francis uses it, since he’s very visible in his travels, even drives his own car around Rome, according to our Trafalgar tour guide.

The Ponte Vecchio connects the Pitti Palace to the old city in Florence. This famous palace is situated in a low valley overlooking the Arno River, which has a colorful history in the growth of Florence. Residents have a love-hate relationship with The Arno. They love it because it brings trade to Florence, which equals money. They hate it when it floods. It’s never been as temperamental as Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii, however.

Along with the impressive sculpture of David, the Pitti Palace is one of Florence’s most famous landmarks, having been the home of the Medici family. This is where the Medicis, one of the wealthiest of the noble families, lived and reigned, creating very turbulent times for Tuscany from 1569 to 1737.

Today it is a seat of government and an art museum. Oklahoma has a special connection to the Pitti Palace, which Brown was probably not aware of.
Currently on view at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is a show titled “The New Frontier,” which originated at the Palazzo Pitti in 2012. More than 300,000 people saw the exhibit, which was organized by the Pitti and Gilcrease, which is now owned by the University of Tulsa.

The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence and an art museum. Brown writes, “It resembles a giant chess piece, as it guards the southeast corner of the Piazza del Signoria.”

The Uffizi plays a big role in Inferno. It is one of the most famous and important art galleries in the world. While Robert Langdon and Sienna are being pursued inside the Uffizi, my husband and I were being stalked outside in the Uffizi’s immense street gallery to buy a work of art.

The artists who set up easels all over Florence may not be producing museum quality work, but we found an exceptional 1850s reproduction of a Venice canal scene that now graces our living room. My husband bargained the artist down from 15 euros to five ~ $7.50 American, so it was a steal.

The Uffizi is located at the corner of Piazza della Signoria, the center of life in Florence. Across the street is the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence’s home of the municipal government. Both buildings are ornate, expressing Florence’s unusual blend of Gothic and Romanesque styles of architecture.

Of course, the Duomo has a role in the book, too. It is the best known site in Italy and this impressive cathedral has a towering presence, with its exquisite dome, the largest built of brick and mortar in the world.

Better known historically as Santa Maria del Fioro, it is a must see for every Florence tourist, along with the Campanile, a landmark tower, much like the Washington Monument in D.C., and the Baptistry, across the street from the cathedral, which houses ornate mosaics, telling stories from the Bible.

Some of the most exciting action in Inferno occurs in the Boboli Gardens, a Palazzo I wish had been on our tour. This is a 111-acre masterpiece in a wooded setting. The gardens also feature a sprawling museum with all kinds of intricate rooms, perfect places for Robert and Sienna to hide.

At one point, they are hiding near the Boboli’s famous grotto, which is full of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as sculpted animals in a cavernous area oddly intended as a children’s playground. There’s even an oculus in a ceiling housing a bubble with floating red carp.

This oculus is not to be confused with the famous oculus in The Pantheon in Rome, where Julius Caesar would stand on a certain day every year in April, so the sun could shine down directly on his self-centered head.

Also while Robert and Sienna are in the Boboli, they’re being chased madly by a drone. Do they escape? Can’t tell. I must not spoil this part of the story.

I will say Inferno is filled with breathless excitement. There are police chases, close calls, hidden passageways, scary ancient streets. There are lies and deceptions. Robert and Sienna are sometimes looking down the barrel of a guard’s handgun. There’s a suicide. Even the robbery of Dante Alighieri’s death mask.

Frequently, Brown cites passages from Dante’s Inferno, when he thinks the passages will move the story along. More often, he dissects this epic poem, as it provides clues to the mystery Robert Langdon is set on solving.

Inferno is not a quick read, even though the action on the pages will get your pulse up. Sometimes you need a scorecard to keep up with the characters. It takes 451 pages for Brown to tell this story, which is hair raising at times.

Near the end of the book, you will find yourself in Istanbul, along with Robert and Sienna, and several other intriguing characters they have collected along the way. They are ever so fearful and frightened of a virus that could threaten the world.

Read the Epilogue. It will at least provide some soothing comfort for the tumultuous journey you’ve been on in this book.

We were celebrating our approaching first wedding anniversary on this Italian sojourn. Having married last October, my husband and I are still discovering things about each other, even though we’ve been friends since the first grade.

“Why don’t you like Dan Brown’s books?” he asked while proofreading this story.

“That’s easy,” I said. “His books are filled with intense action, suspense, and high drama. They make my pacemaker work overtime.”

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