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To Hell and Back: U.Va. Professor’s New Book Explores Cultural Map of Dante’s ‘Inferno’

Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” remains one of those rare artistic achievements that has become an enduring cultural touchstone. In fact, the “Inferno” section of Dante’s great poetic trilogy has essentially defined the Christian vision of hell.

On May 14, “Inferno,” a thriller by the popular American author Dan Brown, was published, the fourth book in his Robert Langdon series. It rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list.

Brown’s novels are treasure hunts that feature the recurring themes of cryptography, codes, symbols and conspiracy theories usually fusing history and art. His books have been translated into 52 languages, and he is one of the highest-selling authors of all time.

Published last week, “Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown,” a companion book to Brown’s bestseller, was co-written by Deborah Parker, a professor of Italian at the University of Virginia, and her husband, Mark Parker, professor and head of the Department of English at James Madison University.

Deborah Parker has published a monograph and several articles on Dante, and is the general editor of “The World of Dante,” an interactive media website that she created for the study and teaching of Dante’s work through a fellowship sponsored by U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities. She has taught the “Divine Comedy” for more than 25 years. Mark Parker has also published numerous essays on Dante.

“Inferno Revealed” provides readers of Brown’s “Inferno” with an engaging introduction to Dante and his world. Specifically, the book explores how Dante made himself the protagonist of the “Divine Comedy” and deals with the mysteries that arise from Dante’s choice to personalize his epic.

The Parkers’ book charts Dante’s affinity for his local surroundings and how that affects his depiction of the places, church and politics in the poem – along with what this reveals about Brown’s own usage of Dante’s work. The Parkers focus on and analyze how Brown has repurposed “Inferno” in his newest bestseller.

In addition, the Parkers examine the many adaptations of Dante’s epic poem, from major canonical writers such as Milton and Keats to popular adaptations like David Fincher’s “Se7en” and Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”

“Deborah and Mark Parker bridge the gap between hardcore Dante scholars and the pop cultural world,” writes Sandow Birk, artist, filmmaker and author of an illustrated Dante’s “Inferno,” in a blurb for the book. “‘Inferno Revealed’ is a cultural leap as well as a leap through time and across the planet. The Parkers have made the leap less daunting and treacherous.”

Written in just seven months, the husband-and-wife team worked on the book before they had seen Brown’s “Inferno.” A literary agent in search of a book idea to accompany Brown’s soon-to-be bestseller had approached Deborah Parker after coming across her interactive Dante site.

“We didn’t guess what Dan Brown was writing about because that was useless,” Parker said. “But we thought about what we could write on Dante that would appeal to the general public, and at the same time, serve as a complement to anything that Brown might have written.”

The Parkers’ first five chapters are on Dante specifically – his character, his politics, the church in Dante’s time and his treatment of places.

Chapter six is about high cultural adaptations of Dante. “Dante lends himself very well to adaptation, parody and imitation, and that’s Mark’s strength because he has written a lot and taught about such things,” Parker said.

Chapter seven is all about popular adaptations of Dante’s “Inferno” – from graphic art to cinematic versions – and in prose that is lucid and clear, their assessment of Brown’s bestseller serves as a climax to their book.

Parker said the experience of writing “Inferno Revealed” will change the way she teaches Dante. She now plans to spend more time than usual on adaptations of Dante by other writers and on illustrations and art related to his epic poem. She knows that Brown’s book has been a huge boon to Dante studies and appreciates the author’s pointing his readers in the direction of the great poet and his era.

More than ever, Parker wants to emphasize to her students the fact that Dante makes himself the hero of his own great story unlike other classical epics such as Homer’s “Odyssey” or Virgil’s “Aeneid,” in which the teller of the tale or the author is not prominent in the action.

“This fact changes everything,” she said. “It localizes everything. Dante is interested in his own world – the church and politics of his own time. He talks to the people of his own time. Here he is, a presence in his own poem, actually going through hell and describing the experience – and along the way, he spends that time interviewing and talking to people.”

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