Even though the poet Dante Alighieri lived and wrote at least a century before the time that most scholars would designate as the beginning of the Renaissance, it is easy today to look back at Dante’s Divine Comedy and see the origins of Renaissance thinking. But how cognizant were the actual Renaissance geniuses of their debt to Dante? Dan Brown helps answer that question in his Inferno by having the fictional Professor Robert Langdon call our attention to one of Michelangelo’s lesser known roles: In addition to his better known roles as a painter, sculptor, and architect, Michelangelo was also a poet. He wrote a poem dedicated to Dante, which says in part, “Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.”
Dan Brown’s Langdon character calls this poem a virtual “blurb” from Michelangelo encouraging Renaissance Italians to read Dante. Langdon goes on to discuss ways that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings drew from Dante’s vision of hell, even when that vision was at odds with certain details in the Bible.
A small but interesting footnote to Brown’s use of Michelangelo: Michelangelo’s ode to Dante, as translated by the leading American nineteenth century poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, refers to Florence, which had exiled Dante, as an “ungrateful land.” Longfellow was a great champion of Dante and spent several years creating the first American translation of Divine Comedy, which he published in 1867.
But Dante himself, while bitter about his exile from Florence, never called his native city-state an “ungrateful land.” That particular phraseology is derived purely from Michelangelo via Longfellow. Yet Dan Brown uses it on the first page of Inferno, putting that very phrase into the stream of consciousness rant narrated by Zobrist, the mad biotechnology genius, as he climbs Florence’s Badia tower to jump to his death. The reader may assume it is a quote from Dante but it is actually drawn from the partnership of Michelangelo and Longfellow as mixed and matched by Dan Brown.