It’s a bumper week for fans of the Dantesque. Dan Brown’s new book enters the world of the Inferno and, for those who like their evil televisual, the new Hannibal is playing on Sky. The proprietors of Florence’s Serial Killer Museum must be delighted. (And yes, there is one, I haven’t made it up.)
To my mind, one of the most memorable pieces of art in Florence is the stunning thirteenth-century gold-grounded mosaic of the Devil in the city’s Baptistery (part of which is shown above). In the three mouths of the three-headed Satan are the traitors Judas, Brutus and Cassius, just as Dante would later depict them. It’s a reminder of the mentalities of medieval Florence, of a world where the Devil was always with us.
The Inferno is the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Writing in the early years of the fourteenth century, the author looks back to the year 1300 and imagines his younger self on a journey through Hell. In the company of the ancient poet Virgil, who as one of the unbaptized is condemned to live in its outer circles, he eyes the fates of the souls condemned to its fires.
Central to Dante’s Hell is the contrapasso – the punishment that fits the crime. Dante didn’t come up with the idea of the contrapasso himself, but his visualisations have inspired writers for centuries. He shows us a sower of discord, Gaius Curio, who advised Caesar to cross the Rubicon and thus precipitated the Roman civil war. Gaius has his tongue cut out. He shows us a schismatic: Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, accused of dividing Islam into Sunni and Shia. Ali’s head is cleft in two. Dante’s are bloody punishments. No wonder Hollywood, with its current penchant for ultra-violence, loves them. For a modern version of the contrapasso you need look no further than David Fincher’s Se7en.
Of course, Dante’s not the only Italian point of reference in Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code builds its plot on a conspiratorial interpretation of the artist’s celebrated Last Supper. In Angels and Demons the plot ricochets around the baroque monuments of Rome, through the Vatican Secret Archives (I’ve been, and no, they don’t look like that), and into a papal conclave.
Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, is a professor of religious symbology, and that prompts some mockery, but symbols are indeed important in Renaissance art. Few modern viewers can read them, but the paintings of the period are layered with meaning. Animals, birds, flowers, particular poses: all can carry messages. A glance through Cesare Ripa’s seventeenth-century guide to emblems, Iconologia, will give you a sense of their ubiquity. (A better web edition, but only in Italian is here.)
To symbolism, Brown adds conspiracy, another staple of Italian history. To the ancient conspiracies of Catiline and others, the Renaissance Florence famously added that of the Pazzi, who plotted against their Medici rivals. In 1478 they assassinated Giuliano de’ Medici – and narrowly failed to kill Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo – as they attended mass in the Duomo of Florence. Want to play at the Pazzi conspiracy? Try Assassin’s Creed II (but don’t expect historical accuracy). Want a proper historical account? Try Lauro Martines’ excellent April Blood.
My favourite fictional take on both Dante and the Pazzi conspiracy, though, is Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, now enjoying a new lease of life with the NBC-produced prequel showing on Sky in the UK. Mads Mikkelsen, in the title role, says Hannibal Lecter’s ‘as close as you can come to the Devil’. In fact, the books are more complex still: at times the Hannibal character inhabits the persona of Dante’s Virgil, and in a clever, twisted play on Florentine history the Renaissance Man persona of Lorenzo de’ Medici too.
But there’s something to the idea of serial killer as modern Devil. In a secular society fewer of us believe in an Antichrist: today’s ultimate evil is found in people. In the Inferno, Dante was the man who walked through Hell, who saw its torments in close-up. His closest literary equivalent today is the fictional detective, witness to the worst of human depravity, to the perverse genius plotting destruction or the killer dispensing an amoral sort of justice. If you know that character – and it’s almost certain you do – you know something of Dante. Seven centuries on, it’s a remarkable legacy.
Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield working on Renaissance Italy and England. If you’d like to read more of Catherine’s work, you can follow her on twitter @cath_fletcher, and her book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (published in hardback as Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador) is out in paperback.
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