Of all the readers keenly awaiting Dan Brown's new blockbuster Inferno (Bantam), published on Tuesday, none could be more eager than the historian Michael Haag. Author of the Rough Guides to The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, he is already at work on Inferno Decoded: a guide to the myths and mysteries of Dan Brown's Inferno (Profile). "I'm writing a book about a book I haven't read yet. Nobody gets a peek in advance, so one's writing blind," he says wryly.
Haag and his publishers hope to ride on the back of the expected massive sales of Inferno, in line with Brown's earlier worldwide best-seller The Da Vinci Code. Not only was that novel widely bought and enjoyed (and derided), it prompted a new fascination with the Renaissance genius. Even the National Gallery's mammoth Leonardo exhibition probably owed its appeal to Brown's influence.
But where he touches, he trivialises and falsifies, some argue. Anyone who's tried to visit Temple Church, just off the Strand in London, which features in The Da Vinci Code, will discover that it has been sadly commercialised, robbed of its mystical atmosphere. Dantisti the world over must be dreading the cheapening effect on their beloved poet.
"I think he may be on to something," Haag says in Brown's defence. "People feel obliged to tell you how much they despise Dan Brown and I don't at all. I found The Da Vinci Code extremely interesting." One key element is likely to be the setting. "With Florence, we're back in a world that is very rich with associations. People think, 'Oh, Renaissance Florence, how pretty, museums and statues all over the place', but actually Florence at that time was a pretty shocking environment. There were street gangs, murders, kidnappings, torturers, battles, wars ..." Dante himself was sentenced to be burnt to death (he chose exile).
So, can the trick be repeated with a gloomy, embittered trecento Tuscan with a nice line in natty headgear? Has Dante and his vast, cosmic poem The Divine Comedy got anything like the same appeal for the masses as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper?
In a sense, we are all Dantisti. Aspects, images and phrases from the book are embedded in Western culture, turning up on everything from packaging to cartoons. Botticelli, Blake and Gustave Doré illustrated the Commedia; it influenced Chaucer and Milton, the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites, right down to T S Eliot, Pound and Seamus Heaney. A film version, Dante's Inferno, came out in 1911, another in 1924. There are comic strip versions, a brief A TV Dante film by Peter Greenaway, and there have been many satirical reworkings. Dante features as a detective in the novels of Giulio Leoni. Peter S Hawkins, author of Dante: A Brief History (Blackwell) sees allusions in the films Towering Inferno and, more obviously, Dante's Peak; meanwhile the crime thriller Se7en "feature[s] a work of Dante criticism in the plot".
Dante is the master of imagery, and his ability to sum up a character in a few lines rivals Shakespeare. Dante's love for Beatrice is world famous. The image of Paolo and Francesca, whirling in each other's arms, has inspired painters and poets; the Circles of Hell are proverbial. And everyone knows the inscription over Hell's gates that begins the third canto: "Lay down all hope, you that go in by me" (Dorothy L Sayers, Penguin 1949), "No room for hope, when you enter this place" (C H Sisson, Oxford 1980) and "Surrender as you enter every hope you have" (Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin 2006).
But even that turns out to be more complicated than the new reader might expect. The inscription on the gates of Hell turns out to be nine lines long (three verses of three lines each; numbers are terrifically important to Dante). "Per me si va tra la perduta gente", it says hauntingly ("Through me you go among the lost people"), and "Dinanze a me non fuor cose create/sed non eternal, e io eterno duro" ("Before me there was nothing that was created/Except eternal things. I am eternal": Sisson). The musicality, compression and force of the Italian are extraordinary.
James Burge, author of an amusing and accessible guide to the life and work, Dante's Invention (History Press) confesses to mixed feelings at the news of Brown's book. "I think there was a flash of 'Oh god!' and a rather venal 'Hooray' – If a 100th of one per cent of the people buying Dan Brown's book bought mine it would definitely be champagne time," he chortles. "Then there was a period of rationalisation when I said, this man makes up stories to entertain people and that's an element in Dante. He had to maintain the interest of an audience for each canto; he tries to make it a page-turner. So the shade of Dante has nothing to complain about. He knows all the tricks!"
Burge too is at work on a mini-guide to tie in with Brown's novel (Endeavour Press). For him, Dante is most striking as an innovator: "Dante really made up the idea of telling a story about himself which wasn't true." A pioneer fantasy author, Dante "plays fast and loose with Hell and just puts his favourite monsters in and things from classical antiquity. He has a really strong claim to be the person who, in the modern European tradition, invented first-person fiction."
If Dan Brown stimulates even a tiny proportion of his readership to investigate Dante – and not just the Inferno, but the dizzy heights of Purgatorio and Paradiso too – he will have performed an extraordinary service. As Hawkins warns: "No one remains unchanged by an encounter with the Commedia. It gets under the skin, into the blood, like few other texts. There are consequences to picking it up. Let the reader beware."
Inferno (Canto 13)
Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin £10.99
'And so I reached my hand a little forwards,
I plucked a shoot (no more) from one great hawthorn.
At which its trunk screamed out, "Why splinter me?"
Now darkened by a flow of blood the tree
spoke out a second time: "Why gash me so? Is there no living pity in your heart?
Once we were men ..."'