Fact-Checking Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

The Secret History of Art published a short article on Fact-Checking Dan Brown’s latest thriller, Inferno, highlighting 10 mistakes, oversimplifications, and misinterpretations in the art, history, and thinking of what is otherwise a fun, pacy book.  The Daily Beast article in question is a much-slimmed-down version of the original “long read” article I wrote on the subject, which also brought in the problems in The Da Vinci Code.  Below you’ll find the extended version.  Let it be known up front that I thoroughly enjoy Brown’s books, and take notes for my own fiction on his use of pace and infectious methods that force you to read on.  My objections, as a professor of art history, are to the research and the misleading way it is presented and, often, interpreted.

Fact-Checking Dan Brown’s Inferno

By Noah Charney

Fact: Dan Brown likes to present conspiracy theories as historical fact, revealed like great secrets to his unknowing readers.  Fact: it is not always clear whether Dan Brown knows that these “facts” are actually just conspiracy theories, or if he believes them to be true.  Fact: many of Dan Brown’s readers assume that these conspiracy theories are true, because of the way Dan Brown presents them.  Fact: Dan Brown writes books that are like cotton candy—easy to consume, but less than nutritious.

Brown’s novels do something clever to their readers: they make us feel smart.  When Brown presents us with one of his over-egged “reveals” (for instance, that the beardless figure to Jesus’ right in Leonardo’s Last Supper is actually a woman, Mary Magdalene!), those of his readers who are unfamiliar with the subject believe him—they feel that they are being let in on a great, hidden secret, one that only the 200 million readers of his books share.  On the other hand, his readers who do know better (the beardless figure in the painting is St John the Evangelist, who is almost always shown as beardless and effeminate of feature) also feel smart—they get the adrenaline kick of knowing more than the author appears to.  Either way, the reader feels good, and the novelist comes out ahead.  His research techniques might not be held in much esteem by those in the know, but everyone still seems to enjoy reading his books—at the very least, everyone seems to buy them.  Though you can’t please everyone, it seems that you can sell books to almost everyone.  Making people feel smart is a very smart thing to do.  But there is a fine line that Brown rides between making people feel smarter, and insulting his readers’ intelligence.  He has also stated that informing his readers while they are entertained is one of his goals.  It is an admirable one, but when his books brim with over-simplified, misunderstood, or downright incorrect “facts,” it is a goal that his books fail to achieve.

After the wildfire success of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and the afterthought success of The Lost Symbol, Brown’s latest book featuring his tweed-wearing, art historian Harvard professor protagonist is Inferno.  In a 2007 article in The New York Times, Janet Maslin may have given Brown the idea for his new novel, Inferno.  “Take a sacred treasure.  Add a secret conspiracy.  Attach a name well known to scholars—Dante…”  That’s the plot of his new potboiler.  Hero Robert Langdon is drawn into an adventure involving the writing of Dante Alighieri, foremost his Divine Comedy, and the intrigue revolves around 14th century Florence.

Before Inferno even begins, there are a few flags thrown down that acknowledge the kerfuffles of his past books.  In the front matter before the novel begins, there is that common caveat “This book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”  Now this appears in just about every book and film, but here it is extremely prominent.  In the eBook edition, it is the first thing we see after the cover.  It is swiftly followed by an Acknowledgments section.  This usually comes at the end of a book, but there is an obvious reason why it comes before the text here.  Brown name-checks several dozen people, presumably authorities, whom he thanks for their research assistance, including some scientists and scholars at the Uffizi Gallery and Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, and the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.  Such thank-yous are nice, but they also serve a purpose, especially when they come before the body text.  “If there’s anything I got wrong,” they say, “it’s only because I got it from these people, who are experts, by the way.”  We should expect, therefore, little or nothing in the way of scientific or historical mistakes.

As a writer of thrillers and a professor of art history, I am of two minds about Brown’s books.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, inhaling it in one day though, along the way, I was dismayed and infuriated at the numerous mistakes in the so-called history and facts reported within it.  What most perturbed me about The Da Vinci Code, was that the majority of its readers believed the conspiracy theory “facts” that he used as plot devices.  This belief was accentuated by the fact that The Da Vinci Code begins with a statement:

The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization.  In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as “corporal mortification.” Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million World Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.

All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

This is really the core problem that most in-the-know readers and critics had with The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s other books.  Kicking off a novel with this statement means that readers who do not know better will believe all that appears within it as facts, stated by characters.  But there is little in The Da Vinci Code that is correct, historically accurate, or well-researched.

To begin with, the Priory of Sion is not a real organization, but the product of an infamous forgery.  Between 1961 and 1984, a Frenchman, Pierre Plantard, hatched the bizarre plan to create forged medieval documents and plant them in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, waiting for a gullible scholar to stumble across them.  He hired forgers to create documents that purported to reveal an ancient secret society linked to the Templar knights, with “grand masters” like Leonardo da Vinci.  Plantard’s goal was to reinstate the French monarchy, and plant information suggesting that he was heir to the throne.  A few historians were fooled for awhile—after all, finding a long-lost manuscript in an archive is the dream of many a scholar—but the discovery was quickly shown up as a fraud.  Plantard went on trial in 1993 and confessed to the whole charade.  Plantard had succeeded in fooling a handful of over-enthusiasts, who took what he fed them and ran with it.  The Da Vinci Code resuscitated the myth of the Priory of Sion, its millions of readers thinking it was fact.  It is not the author’s fault if his readers are unable to understand that fiction is fiction, but the author had his characters state, as if it were fact, the story of the Priory, as well as other conspiracy theories that have no basis in reality and which, in fact, distort the general understanding of historical truths.  He begins his book with “FACT,” then immediately goes on to state a falsehood.

Like The Da Vinci Code, Inferno begins with a page labeled “FACT: All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real.  The Consortium is a private organization with offices in seven countries.  Its name has been changed for considerations of security and privacy.  Inferno is the underworld as described in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which portrays hell as an elaborately structured realm populated by entities known as ‘shades’—bodiless souls trapped between life and death.”  This too is carefully written.  The villainous “Consortium” is not named—read as: please don’t sue me, as Opus Dei did after The Da Vinci Code.  The rest of this “FACT” section tells us really nothing at all, aside from the assurance that folks like Dante really existed, the Uffizi is a real museum, and Divine Comedy is a real poem.  It implies, however, that much of the following novel is also “fact,” and that’s where it can get misleading.

In Inferno, some opportunities for error, where errors might well have crept in back in Brown’s Da Vinci Code days, were avoided.  “Florence…the city on whose streets Michelangelo played as a child” requires a bit of research.  Michelangelo was born in Caprese, near Arezzo, but moved with his family to Florence when he was a few months old.  Not a bad start, but it’s also listed on Wikipedia.  Some other statements are almost enlightening.  In his David, Michelangelo “had employed the classical tradition of contrapposto to create the illusion that David was leaning to his right, his left leg bearing almost no weight…”  Contrapposto uses the illusion that weight is more heavily on one leg than the other, but its goal is to suggest the potential for movement, and to accentuate naturalism, because when people stand, they don’t stand rigid like soldiers at attention, but almost always with their weight largely on one leg.  But this is being nit-picky.  Such picking of nits is only encouraged, however, by Brown’s continued use of an I-have-great-secrets-to-reveal-to-you tone.  Do we really need such a tone when the great revelation of Chapter 7 is that it was in the studios of Florence that “the Italian Renaissance was ignited?”  This statement is both obvious and wildly over-simplified, akin to saying that the American Civil War was fought over slavery.

There are also some insertions that are not strictly incorrect, but are sure to make the eyes of professors roll.  Brown refers to Michelangelo’s David as “the David.”  This is a common Americanism, but never one an art historian (and lest we forget that Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, describes himself as a Harvard art historian) would make.  Michelangelo’s David is not the only sculpture of David that is important, nor the only one in Florence, and therefore is not “the David.”  Verrocchio made a wonderful David, and Donatello produced a pair of them, to name a few other sculptures by heavy hitters.  To call Michelangelo’s sculpture The David dismisses all other statues of the subject, and is a short-hand that indicates a lack of serious knowledge on the part of the author, who is (theoretically) trying to construct a realistic character.

After hyping up the brains of heroine Dr Sienna Brooks, with her enormous IQ of 208 (Stephen Hawking only scored 200) and her various degrees, he then presents her as unfamiliar with Venetian Carnevale plague doctor masks.  It makes no sense that someone as smart as Brown wants his heroine to be should not have heard of these masks—anyone who has been to Venice, or even seen a Travel Channel documentary about Venice, will have seen them.  It’s a short-hand way to crowbar in another factoid.  Dr Sienna is the vehicle for many a chance for Brown to show just what he’s looked up online.  Langdon’s “body tensed” when he saw a tube marked with a biohazard symbol, as if it might suddenly explode.  Dr Sienna helpfully tells him “We see these occasionally in the medical field.”  Occasionally?  The biohazard symbol is in every doctor’s office and hospital room, on the garbage bins for biological material and the boxes for the disposal of used needles.  For a famous doctor, Sienna is a master of understatement.  And Langdon must be a very nervous type, if the sight of a biohazard symbol makes his body go rigid.

The evil Shade, in a moment of wanton exposition, informs us that “Culling is God’s Natural Order.  Ask yourself, What followed the Black Death?  We all know the answer.  The Renaissance.  Rebirth…  Death is followed by birth.”  This statement may sound harmless, but it seems to imply that there was only one bout of Black Death (bubonic plague) and that it ended abruptly and its end sparked the Renaissance.  It also implies that the Renaissance is something that happened all of a sudden, in one place (Florence), like a siege and the rebuilding of a damaged castle.  Brown, or is it the Shade, neglects the fact that the Black Death was a sadly recurring event.  Bouts of plague wracked Europe for centuries.  Venice, which features as well in Inferno, is adorned by many plague churches, built in celebration of the break of a plague, that were built during or just after the Renaissance, from Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health, finished in 1681 after the end of a 1630 plague) to San Sebastiano (1562, named after Saint Sebastian, a saint to whose arrow-riddled body was associated with plague).  You can even do a tour of five so-called “plague churches” in Venice, each built after a round of plague abated.  The most infamous outbreak of plague was indeed 1348-1350, but alas it was but the most devastating of many.  Incidentally, the Renaissance had already begun by then.  Most art history books cite the first artist of the Renaissance as Giotto, who lived from 1267-1337.  He didn’t even live to see the 14th century round of plague.  So to say that the Black Death ended and the Renaissance began is not only a simplification, but incorrect.

Langdon suggests that the collective sins of mankind, as enumerated in the Seven Sins, was “according to medieval religious indoctrination…the reason God punished the world with the Black Death.”  Here we’ve got two boo-boos, one in terms of word choice, and one in rationale.  Unfortunately the main medieval scapegoat for the Black Death was not the Seven Sins, but the Jews.  Likewise, what Brown means to write is “according to medieval religious doctrine.”  Religious doctrine is the common phrase for rules, “ideas taught as truth,” set out by religious authorities, in this case the papacy.  Indoctrination is the “something caused to be believed:” almost the same word, but not quite, and rarely used in this context, with religious policies.

Botticelli’s unusual Chart of Hell (1480-1495) makes an appearance, but is described as if Brown has not actually seen it.  “Dark, grim, and terrifying…Botticelli had crafter his Map of Hell with a depressing palate of reds, sepias, and browns.”  I would hardly know the painting based on this description.  The inverted spiral (which Langdon should surely describe as “heliocoidal,” recalling the ramp inside Castel Sant’Angelo in which he raced in Angels & Demons) is mostly a vellum, bone-colored affair, as the background overwhelms the torque of the levels of Hell.  The actual figures in the painting are tiny, quite difficult to see, even with the aid of a high-quality online version into which you can zoom.  There is almost no red in the painting.  The browns and sepia tones are from the abundance of earth that Botticelli has painted, a choice not of mood but of practicality—dirt looks brown.  This quick and odd description of the painting is quickly followed by an error in understanding the concept for pre-Modern paintings.  Langdon reasons that the concept for Hell, as depicted by Botticelli, had “originated not in the mind of Botticelli himself…but rather in the mind of someone who had lived two hundred years before him.”  That someone is Dante, who’s poem Inferno is revealed to the reader as if they surely have never heard of it—who but an ingenious Harvard professor could link a painting of the circles of Hell with Dante’s Inferno?  As a professor of art history, Langdon would surely know that very few painters ever came up with the themes of their paintings.  Paintings were almost exclusively commissioned, until the 17th century, and what appeared in them was often prescribed in the contract.  Elaborate iconographic schemes were usually designed by scholars (as in The Ghent Altarpiece, painted by van Eyck but likely theoretically designed, as a paean to Catholic Mysticism, by a theologian—come to think of it, one of Brown’s future books should feature this painting).  Most of the works painted were commissioned as illustrations of a scene from literature: the Bible, The Golden Legend, Ovid, or Dante.  Yet Langdon seems surprised that a painting should not have “originated…in the mind of Botticelli himself.”  Professor Langdon might need to have his degrees re-examined.

Every few pages finds a new insertion of a lesson in miniature for the reader.  Within about twenty pages, Langdon informs us about cylinder seals, bioluminescence, biohazard logos, Faraday pointers, agitator balls, the Seven Sins, plague doctor masks, Black Death, and Botticelli.  It gets tiring very quickly, its over-simplification insults the reader’s intelligence, and it is often incorrect.  Quite a cocktail.

As a professor of art history myself, I tend to focus on these sort of issues, but other objections have nothing to do with research, and more to do with sounding out of touch with modernity.  At one point Langdon “googles” himself:

If my students could see me now, he thought as he began the search.  Langdon continually admonished his students for Googling themselves—a bizarre new pastime that reflected the obsession with personal celebrity that now seemed to possess American youth.

The idea that “googling” yourself is a “new pastime” makes one wonder where Langdon (or Brown) has been for the past two decades.  One of the terms earliest apparitions, written by Google executive Larry Page, came on 8 July 1998.  And if there was any doubt that it was so universal as to have entered the popular vernacular ages ago, a 2002 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer features the following sterling dialogue:

-Have you googled her yet?

-(Aghast) She’s 17!

-It’s a search engine.

Unless Inferno is a historical novel, set circa 2000, then googling oneself cannot be considered as a “new pastime.”

These are just a handful of examples that I found on my first pass through Inferno.  They come with alarming frequency, especially when, in a recent interview published in The Daily Beast, Brown made clear that teaching is one of his goals as a successful novelist, his readers learning as they are entertained.  This is indeed a noble principle, but it is frustrated at every turn by the inclusion of misunderstood, over-simplified, or incorrect information.

These are just a few among scores of examples from each of Brown’s books.  Are they, individually, important?  Not particularly.  They mostly annoy specialists who know better, the equivalent of an American insisting that the capital of Canada is Toronto.  Ottawans will grind their teeth, but perhaps no one is really harmed.  But Brown has the habit of beckoning his readers to lean closer, then stage-whispering a tale about the colossal, centuries-old cover-up that has led millions to believe that Toronto is the capitol of Canada.  But now, thanks to his ingenious research, he can finally reveal that the true, the only capital of Canada is…Ottawa! A little of this goes a long way.

When asked by the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, “How much of [The Da Vinci Code] is based on reality, in terms of things that actually occurred?” Brown replied, “Absolutely all of it.”  This means one of two things: either Brown does not know what he’s talking about and has researched very poorly, or he is willfully deceiving his readers (indeed lying to them) in order to sell books.  If it is the latter, then that could well induce the rage of readers, as it begins to tip in a James Frey direction.  If it is the former, and Brown is merely a sloppy researcher, then some measure of blame must fall on his editors.  Every book that I have published has been thoroughly fact-checked by the publisher, and one can only assume that Brown’s books have been, as well.  How, then, could the books be riddled with what can only be mistakes, since their inaccuracy does not advance the plot?  Even the occupation of Brown’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, is nonsensical.  He is called a “Harvard professor of symbology.”  Symbology is not a word—at least it was not in use before Brown made it famous.  What Brown really means is “iconography,” the study of symbols.

The first pass through Inferno offers its share of nit-picky mistakes, largely in the form of broad over-simplifications or out-of-touch statements, but there are fewer wincingly-obvious historical errors, a la Da Vinci Code—only wince-inducing clichéd writing.  By this time, I would hope that the errors would be ferreted out, if not by Brown then by his collaborators.  With an editorial team and a small army of thanked experts on hand to help with research, there should really be no booboos at all.  On the other hand, there is also no research that is any more revealing or in-depth than what may be found on Wikipedia.  Did Brown really need the assistance of staff from the Uffizi to come up with research gems like “the Black Death [was] a deadly plague that swept through Europe in the 1300s?”

Of course there needn’t be more than cursory-level research in a beach read thriller.  Brown’s novels are cotton candy, after all.  Perhaps the problem is two-sided: on the one hand, Brown has tried to encourage his readers to think that he is the revelator of hidden truths, when most of his truths were either well-known to scholars, or incorrectly presented; on the other hand, readers were too quick to believe what was said by fictional characters in a work of fiction.

Fact: you shouldn’t believe everything that you read, especially in a novel.

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