“Renaissance art fans will note that this sketch evokes Botticelli’s famous 1495 portrait of Dante Alighieri, the medieval author of the Divine Comedy. In this cornerstone of Italian literature, Dante describes his mythical journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, guided first by the shade of the Roman poet Virgil and later by the ghost of Beatrice Portinari, the girl Dante loved in childhood but never married. Among other things, the Divine Comedy is an allegory of Christian suffering and redemption, a romantic love story, a veiled account of Dante’s political exile from his beloved Florence, and a cultural manifesto that established the Italian language as a legitimate literary alternative to Latin. There are no obvious references to Iceland in the Divine Comedy, an epic poem of more than 14,000 lines whose original manuscript has never been found, or in any of Dante’s other works. Nowhere in the various accounts of Dante’s life is it mentioned that he ever visited Iceland. So why are we here?
We’re here because Gianazza has spent the past decade trying to prove his theory that the Divine Comedy is not a mythical story about the afterlife but rather a factual, albeit coded, account of a secret journey to Iceland Dante made in the early 1300s. Why would Dante shlep all the way from exile in sunny Ravenna to a cold, foggy island populated by Scandinavian farmers and their livestock, and not tell anyone? Gianazza believes that Dante was following in the footsteps of medieval Christian warriors called the Knights Templar. He hypothesizes that these knights had visited Iceland a century earlier carrying a secret trove that they concealed in an underground chamber in the Jökulfall Gorge.
The Templars picked Iceland for their hiding place, Gianazza believes, because it was one of the most distant and obscure places known to medieval Europeans, who sometimes identified it with the frozen, semimythical Ultima Thule of classical geography. The Templars calculated the exact coordinates of the chamber and identified landmarks to orient future visitors. Years later Dante acquired the secret knowledge, made a pilgrimage to the site, and then coded the directions into his great epic so that future generations might follow in his footsteps. Like Dante before him, Gianazza is searching for what some might call the Holy Grail, a term that he avoids. Having cracked Dante’s code, he expects to find early Christian texts and perhaps even the lost original manuscript of the Divine Comedy, all sealed in lead to guard them from the damp Icelandic weather. Gianazza launched his quest several years before Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, but in some ways he’s a more cautious, real-life version of symbologist Robert Langdon, the hero of Brown’s best-selling thriller.” –Richard McGill Murphy, Town & Country, January 18, 2013