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Dan Brown’s latest thriller is set in Florence; see the old Italian city for yourself

By Margo Hammond
Washington Post

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In the Hall of Five Hundred at the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, tourists are craning their necks and staring upward. They’re trying to spot the words “cerca trova” – “seek and you shall find” – on a Vasari mural that figures in the plot of “Inferno,” the latest bestseller by Dan Brown. (Hint: You need binoculars.) In his latest book, Brown has art historian Robert Langdon racing across Florence in pursuit of a bad guy who’s obsessed with Dante Alighieri, the author of the original “Inferno.”

The hall is magnificent, but I’m in Florence on a different mission: to seek out what’s left of Dante’s medieval world. Would the great poet recognize anything in this city if he were to return? The last time he walked these streets, after all, was 700 years ago.

This morning, when I crossed the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria to reach the Palazzo Vecchio, I was literally following in Dante’s footsteps. Dante would have come to this turn-of-the-14th-century building often when it was known as the Palazzo dei Priori, housing the city’s municipal councilmen. Dante served in that capacity in 1300. But now all that’s left of the poet in this palace is his so-called death mask (also part of Brown’s Dante-inspired plot).

I mount a steep staircase and find the mask to the left of the hall’s back balcony. Not even a real death mask, it’s a reconstruction based on written descriptions and measurements of the poet’s skull. An eerie-looking object, it sits in a box all by itself atop a bureau in a bare, narrow corridor, looking like a discarded artifact. Among the more dazzling objects of the Renaissance here, he seems like an afterthought. Has Florence forgotten Dante?

Its merchants certainly haven’t. I’ve already spotted a leather shop called Dante Alighieri that sells guitar-shaped purses, a restaurant that promises Il Paradiso della Pizza, a Hotel Dante, and street vendors selling everything from Dante busts to illustrations of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

The city also has plenty of Dante memorials – paintings and sculptures – that honor the poet. More than 30 plaques emblazoned with Dante’s verses are placed in locations mentioned in his work.

We know only a few facts about the 13th-century poet. We don’t know his birth date, but we do know that in the 33 or so years he lived in Florence, he fought in a battle, joined a political party, fell in love with a woman he met only twice but idealized the rest of his life, married a woman he had been betrothed to since he was 12, and fathered three children with her.

Oh, and he wrote poetry.

But only when he was exiled in 1302 and condemned to be burned at the stake if he returned to Florence did his poems become famous, particularly a three-part masterpiece he wrote in exile that came to be known as “The Divine Comedy.” It chronicles a three-day journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso) and is dedicated to Beatrice, the object of his amorous obsession.

Influential churches

At the Piazza di San Giovanni, I come upon a building Dante would recognize: the octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni. Inside the basilica, I can see the outline of the raised octagonal baptismal font where he was christened (pieces of the font are in the nearby cathedral museum). And as I gaze up at the figure of Satan chewing on a sinner on the spectacular mosaic ceiling, I know instantly where Dante got his inspiration for the three-headed devil in his Inferno.

Across the way is the Duomo (completed in 1436) and the Tower of Giotto (built after Dante left Florence). I stop to tour the crypt beneath the Duomo to see parts of the walls and traces of mosaic floor of the church it replaced (and that Dante attended), which itself was built on Roman ruins.

Dante Museum

The nearby Casa di Dante also turns out to be a red herring. The restored medieval building most certainly never was Dante’s home – although it is in Dante’s neighborhood. But Casa di Dante, which houses the Dante Museum, is a great way to get the feel of how a typical nobleman lived in the 1200s. The museum doesn’t have any Dante artifacts, but there’s a fascinating painting showing the city as it would have looked in Dante’s day, with its forest of towers and the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno. There’s also a replica of a nobleman’s bedroom. The gift shop’s best-selling item? “Copies of ‘The Divine Comedy’ – in English,” the museum’s Tullia Carlino tells me.

Leaving the museum, I spot a sign to “Dante’s Church.” The tiny church – its real name is Santa Margherita dei Cerchi – has become a pilgrimage site for, well, it’s hard to say for what. Unrequited love? Cheesy paintings? (One illustrates Dante meeting Pinocchio.) Legend says that this is where the poet first saw Beatrice Portinari, his poetic inspiration. Tragically, she died at 24 and may (or may not) be buried in the church. The uncertainty doesn’t stop tormented lovers from putting notes to her in a basket set out in front of her presumed grave site. The day I’m there, the basket overflows as sappy music plays softly in the background.

I can’t help thinking that Dante would prefer the more majestic Badia Fiorentina, which he mentions in “The Divine Comedy,” commenting on the Gregorian chant wafting from behind its cloistered walls. You can still go to 6 p.m. vespers there and hear the monks chant.

Another church Dante frequented that seems more in keeping with his soaring poetry is San Miniato al Monte, perched on a hillside overlooking the city. To reach the church, whose marble facade of geometric patterns has changed little since Dante came to admire its mosaics, I get there in time to make 6 p.m. vespers and enjoy the stunning view.

Massive, scowling statue

I visit Santa Croce on my last day in Florence. The square’s scowling Dante, a massive 19th-century statue of the poet, stands guard to the left of the church. Inside, Dante’s “tomb” is still empty. For centuries, the city of Ravenna, where Dante died in 1321, has refused to give up his bones – even resorting to hiding them when Pope Leo X, at the suggestion of Michelangelo, ordered their return to Florence in 1519. Florence, after all, only got around to lifting that death sentence against Dante in 2008. No wonder he looks so grumpy.

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