Execrable as literature and malevolent as propaganda, Dan Brown's Inferno cannot help but be merely the latest in a long line of books to pay homage to the original Inferno of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The millions who immerse themselves in the sick fantasies of the New Hampshire schlockmeister may never have heard of the Florentine poet, still less have read the Divine Comedy, but we all inhabit the mental world Dante foreshadowed and did so much to make possible — the world in which free individuals pursue their own happiness as they see fit. Dante stands for suffering humanity, created in the image of God. It is no accident that he is the first writer in history whose features — austere, aquiline and cadaverous — are instantly recognisable. Just as his face is a literary gestalt, his life is the archetype of literary biography. It emerges in his Vita Nuova, the "new life" in prose and poetry that marks his ecstatic discovery of love, the force "that moves the sun and the other stars". His paean there to "benedetta Beatrice" is the source from which every later lover has unconsciously drawn inspiration when praising his or her beloved.
In Dante, the medieval mind encountered modernity. He had studied in Paris, the leading university of the 13th century, and he was abreast of the most advanced science and philosophy of his day. But Dante's determination to think for himself landed him in trouble with the Church. His life coincided with the high tide of papal megalomania, when Boniface VIII declared in his bull Unam Sanctam of 1302 that "it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff".
Dante, who belonged to the pro-imperial Ghibelline party, wrote a Latin treatise, De Monarchia, which proved to his satisfaction that "the temporal Monarch derives his authority directly, and without intermediary, from the Source of all authority", namely God, not the Pope. In his polemic, however, Dante speaks of universalis civilitas humani generis, "the whole process of human society", which the French medievalist Etienne Gilson regards as the invention of the idea of humanity.
The Florentines did not take kindly to Dante's idealistic interventions in politics, and he was banished for life. His De Monarchia attracted the attention of the inquisitorial Dominicans, and it was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. (Dante's revenge was to damn Boniface for his corruption.)