Dante Alighieri was born in Florence around 1265. His great work The Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece not just of Italian, but of world literature.  Composed in three parts, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, it can be read on many different levels: the soul’s search for God, Dante’s own personal journey from despair to joy, and a narrative poem of great beauty in which Dante sets out to follow the poet he admires above all others, Virgil, taking the Latin poet’s great epic, The Aeneid, as the model for his own.

It may seem odd that a deeply religious work can be rooted so strongly in a pre-Christian world of classical myth. But Dante had no problem in combining the ancient Roman idea of the afterlife, as depicted by Virgil, with the medieval view of the soul’s journey after death, at least as far as the Inferno goes.

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Hades, with all its punishments, makes a good template for Hell. So Virgil guides Dante through the same Underworld that his hero, Aeneas, visits in The Aeneid: they have to cross the rivers Acheron and Styx, rowed by Charon, the ferryman, before dealing with Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog; they see Minos, legendary king of Crete, assigning wicked souls to their correct punishment, just as he does in the Classical Underworld, and they are defied at the gates of Dis by blood-soaked, snake-headed Furies.  Contemporary murderers, corrupt churchmen and traitors are punished alongside mythical characters such as the Giants who rebelled against Jupiter, and Sinon, betrayer of Troy.

Set as it is in a dark, menacing world of snarling monsters and peopled with the heroes and villains of classical literature, the Inferno struck me as having all the ingredients for an exciting adventure story for children.  Dante dates his journey in 1300, when, exiled from his home town on a false charge of corruption, he felt himself at his lowest ebb: ‘lost in a dark wood’, Virgil rescues him, leading him on the long path through Hell and out the other side.

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For my 12 year-old heroine, Ante, the ‘dark wood’ is the breaking-point that relentless bullying by her enemy, Florence, has brought her to.  Cue the appearance of Gil, a mysterious 13 year-old boy with a traditional classical education, and the scene is set for Ante’s own journey through the Underworld to the heart of Hell.