Q&A: A Real Harvard Dante Scholar Talks Dan Brown’s New Book

Inferno follows fictional Professor Robert Langdon on a tour of Dante's Divine Comedy.


With the release of Inferno this month, author Dan Brown returned us to the world of fictional Harvard art history professor Robert Langdon. The book opens on Langdon awakening in a Florence hospital with a gunshot wound and a mystery that’ll demand Langdon’s knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy. As you’ll recall from the furor surrounding The DaVinci Code, Brown likes to create a veneer of “truthiness” to his books that inspires interest in the academic subjects he weaves through his narratives.

Professor Jeffrey Schnapp is an actual Harvard Dante scholar who probably never expected someone might twist his career into a mystery/thriller, so we called him up to chat about what happens when your life gets Dan Brown’ed and find out the extent to which his own life resembles a bestselling thriller. (Spoiler alert: Not much.)

So how familiar are you with your fictional Harvard colleague Robert Langdon?

Not through direct experience, but the books are so much part of the pop culture air we breathe that it’s hard not to hear about them, particularly given that I’m an Italianist.

Brown’s protagonist Langdon is familiar with Dante and The Inferno mostly because of the Renaissance art the poem inspired, so, like in The DaVinci Code, many of the clues he has to decipher involve artwork. But you’re more interested in the text of the Divine Comedy itself, right? 

Well, since the beginning of my career as a medievalist I’ve been very interested in the very tight coupling between visual and textual culture. In fact, the manuscripts of Dante’s own era are multimedia works of art that weave together language-based forms of artistic practice with many layers of visual crafting.

Medieval authors and scribes were fascinated by the notion of magic words or anagrams and frequently integrated visual tricks and techniques into forms of literary expression. Dante is no exception and makes use of anagrams, acrostics and other embedded visual codes in his Comedy. Neither is an unusual practice.

Wait embedded visual codes … you’re making Dante sound a lot like Dan Brown.            

Dante is perhaps the first author in the western canon to insist on the active role of his readers to seek out clues and to read between the lines. In Dante’s time it was still by far the dominant convention to treat readers as if they were members of a live audience, but Dante alters that pattern in the Comedy, specifically calling on his readers as readers to perform interpretive actions that include acts of decipherment.

Wherever Dante creates a textual puzzle, it’s never an easy puzzle. In the scholarly community sometimes referred to as Dantologists—an ugly word, but there it is—those puzzles are favorite topics of analysis. I’ll give you a couple examples because they’re to the point, and maybe they’re missed opportunities for a future Dan Brown to take up. There’s an extended acrostic in Canto 19 of the Paradiso integrated into a prophecy decrying the decline of the royal houses throughout Europe and the resulting political crises of Dante’s era. We have nine tercets where we the letters of the word lue (or lve in Roman letters) appear at the beginning of each verse. Lue is the word for pestilence or plague. If Brown were playing with this text, you’d think he’d want to have some fun with a cute trick of this kind.

Wait… I don’t remember that appearing in the book, which seems like a missed opportunity for Brown because his plot is very much focused [mild spoiler alerts ahead so skip ahead if you must] on plague and the threat that one will be released into modern society to address the problem of overpopulation.

In each of Brown’s adaptations of themes from Dante’s test, it sounds as if he’s borrowing and distorting. Dante was an era during which actual plagues were relatively frequent. Certainly direct experience of the bubonic plague was a common feature of 13th and 14th century life and deep fears abounded. But what dominates in Dante’s poetic universe, rather than any naturalistic medical notion of the plague, is a moral understanding of the plague. It is moral plagues that plague Dante, so to speak: moral maladies prevail.

On the question of overpopulation, Brown is drawing from the middle of the Paradiso where Dante’s critique of his native Florence comes to a head. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an act of protest and revenge against the city of his birth, Florence, from which he was unjustly exiled in 1304. Right at the center of the Paradiso, Dante meets his great, great grandfather Cacciaguida, a former crusader, who sketches out a thumbnail history of the city in which he claims that Florence devolved from a kind of paradise on earth to a hell on earth … Within that tale, he rather explicitly associates overpopulation with the theme of the mixing of social classes (people from the surrounding hills had gradually moved into the city), the continuous expansion of the city walls, the mercantile revolution, and similar factors. So, overpopulation is surely a feature of Dante’s critique of contemporary Florence, but again with a moralizing cast.

So this is all fascinating, but it doesn’t sound like your life is nearly as suited as Professor Langdon’s to a thriller novel.

Well, it would be an understatement to say that if any Dante scholar like myself (or for that matter any medievalist) were able to track down an autograph manuscript penned by Dante he or she would be willing to give up a limb. We have no examples of Dante’s own writing. So I’ve gone on some wild goose chases to locate manuscripts that were prime suspects. But I wouldn’t say that such quests quite rise to the level of life and death struggles.

So you’ve never woken up in a hospital bed in Florence with a gunshot wound and no memory of how you left Cambridge?

Not as a result of my philological efforts, no … I’ve gotten myself into other tight squeezes but not as a result of my work as a medievalist.

What was the reaction when you and your colleagues learned that Dante was about to get the Dan Brown treatment? Eye rolls? Excitement?

The announcement arrived at the precise moment when the conversation about MOOCs [massive online open courses] and EdX was exploding, and so it did not just raise eyebrows but elicited curiosity on the part of scholarly community. I teach a lecture course on Dante every year at Harvard and the thought of teaching a Dante course to legions of Dan Brown readers inspired to find out more about The Inferno is a interesting prospect. Enrollments of 100,000 aren’t uncommon in the artificial intelligence or robotics fields, so why not Dante studies?

One final anecdote that I would add: Literally, within two hours of the announcement that Inferno would come out three or four months later, I received two inquiries from literary agents asking if I had anything in the can. I’m sorry to say I didn’t. I hadn’t prepared! They then asked if I could lead them to somebody in the community of experts who might be ready to quickly dash off a piggy-back book or companion guide. I haven’t yet seen any such literary artifacts so I suspect that no one was able to turn around a quick guidebook to two Infernos.

Eric Randall
Eric Randall Eric Randall, Contributor at Boston Magazine ericrandall988@gmail.com

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