A virus projected to kill off half the world’s population is set to be released within 24 hours. A demoniacal billionaire geneticist created the pathogen in order to solve the world’s overpopulation problem. Dante’s apocalyptic vision of the underworld swirls around the race to find the virus, a crucial clue to the evil plan hidden in the poet’s death mask at the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence. Will Dante be able to save humanity from beyond the grave? This is the plot of Dan Brown’s 2013 thriller, Inferno. In fiction and in fact, Dante Alighieri has been influencing the world order for centuries. Just how he’s achieved global-icon stature is the subject of Guy P. Raffa’s fascinating, comprehensive new book.
The fate of Dante’s physical remains since his death from malaria in 1321 is itself thriller-worthy. His bones, which almost immediately acquired “the aura of holy relics,” have been stolen, hidden, exhumed, re-buried, lost, fought over, and written about by the likes of Boccaccio, Vittorio Alfieri, Giacomo Leopardi, Lord Byron, Giuseppe Verdi, Ugo Foscolo, Dora d’Istria, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Over the centuries, Dante’s relics, image, and words have been used by Popes and politicians to try to sway the people’s sympathies in their favor. Tracing the harrowing afterlife of Dante’s bones, Raffa tells the story of the great poet’s “evolution from Italy’s ancestral father and political prophet to the nation’s secular saint.”