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Home > Inferno (Robert Langdon #4)(20)

Inferno (Robert Langdon #4)(20)
Author: Dan Brown

Dante’s vision of hell, Langdon thought, rendered here in living color.

Exalted as one of the preeminent works of world literature, the Inferno was the first of three books that made up Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—a 14,233-line epic poem describing Dante’s brutal descent into the underworld, journey through purgatory, and eventual arrival in paradise. Of the Comedy’s three sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—Inferno was by far the most widely read and memorable.

Composed by Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s, Inferno had quite literally redefined medieval perceptions of damnation. Never before had the concept of hell captivated the masses in such an entertaining way. Overnight, Dante’s work solidified the abstract concept of hell into a clear and terrifying vision—visceral, palpable, and unforgettable. Not surprisingly, following the poem’s release, the Catholic Church enjoyed an enormous uptick in attendance from terrified sinners looking to avoid Dante’s updated version of the underworld.

Depicted here by Botticelli, Dante’s horrific vision of hell was constructed as a subterranean funnel of suffering—a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters, and Satan himself waiting at its core. The pit was constructed in nine distinct levels, the Nine Rings of Hell, into which sinners were cast in accordance with the depth of their sin. Near the top, the lustful or “carnal malefactors” were blown about by an eternal windstorm, a symbol of their inability to control their desire. Beneath them the gluttons were forced to lie facedown in a vile slush of sewage, their mouths filled with the product of their excess. Deeper still, the heretics were trapped in flaming coffins, damned to eternal fire. And so it went … getting worse and worse the deeper one descended.

In the seven centuries since its publication, Dante’s enduring vision of hell had inspired tributes, translations, and variations by some of history’s greatest creative minds. Longfellow, Chaucer, Marx, Milton, Balzac, Borges, and even several popes had all written pieces based on Dante’s Inferno. Monteverdi, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini composed pieces based on Dante’s work, as had one of Langdon’s favorite living recording artists—Loreena McKennitt. Even the modern world of video games and iPad apps had no shortage of Dante-related offerings.

Langdon, eager to share with his students the vibrant symbolic richness of Dante’s vision, sometimes taught a course on the recurring imagery found in both Dante and the works he had inspired over the centuries.

“Robert,” Sienna said, shifting closer to the image on the wall. “Look at that!” She pointed to an area near the bottom of the funnel-shaped hell.

The area she was pointing to was known as the Malebolge—meaning “evil ditches.” It was the eighth and penultimate ring of hell and was divided into ten separate ditches, each for a specific type of fraud.

Sienna pointed more excitedly now. “Look! Didn’t you say, in your vision, you saw this?!”

Langdon squinted at where Sienna was pointing, but he saw nothing. The tiny projector was losing power, and the image had begun to fade. He quickly shook the device again until it was glowing brightly. Then he carefully set it farther back from the wall, on the edge of the counter across the small kitchen, letting it cast an even larger image from there. Langdon approached Sienna, stepping to the side to study the glowing map.

Again Sienna pointed down toward the eighth ring of hell. “Look. Didn’t you say your hallucinations included a pair of legs sticking out of the earth upside down with the letter R?” She touched a precise spot on the wall. “There they are!”

As Langdon had seen many times in this painting, the tenth ditch of the Malebolge was packed with sinners half buried upside down, their legs sticking out of the earth. But strangely, in this version, one pair of legs bore the letter R, written in mud, exactly as Langdon had seen in his vision.

My God! Langdon peered more intently at the tiny detail. “That letter R … that is definitely not in Botticelli’s original!”

“There’s another letter,” Sienna said, pointing.

Langdon followed her outstretched finger to another of the ten ditches in the Malebolge, where the letter E was scrawled on a false prophet whose head had been put on backward.

What in the world? This painting has been modified.

Other letters now appeared to him, scrawled on sinners throughout all ten ditches of the Malebolge. He saw a C on a seducer being whipped by demons … another R on a thief perpetually bitten by snakes … an A on a corrupt politician submerged in a boiling lake of tar.

“These letters,” Langdon said with certainty, “are definitely not part of Botticelli’s original. This image has been digitally edited.”

He returned his gaze to the uppermost ditch of the Malebolge and began reading the letters downward, through each of the ten ditches, from top to bottom.

C … A … T … R … O … V … A … C … E … R

“Catrovacer?” Langdon said. “Is this Italian?”

Sienna shook her head. “Not Latin either. I don’t recognize it.”

“A … signature, maybe?”

“Catrovacer?” She looked doubtful. “Doesn’t sound like a name to me. But look over there.” She pointed to one of the many characters in the third ditch of the Malebolge.

When Langdon’s eyes found the figure, he instantly felt a chill. Among the crowd of sinners in the third ditch was an iconic image from the Middle Ages—a cloaked man in a mask with a long, birdlike beak and dead eyes.

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