FLORENCE, Italy - US author Dan Brown revealed the human tendency for conspiracy was the secret behind his bestsellers at a talk on Thursday in Florence, where tourists are flocking in the footsteps of his mystery-cracking hero.
Brown paid tribute to the city and its most famous son, mediaeval poet Dante Alighieri, whose work "The Divine Comedy" inspired the author's latest novel "Inferno" -- already top of the US bestseller list.
"In some ways I think Dante invented hell," Brown said in a lecture entitled "The Need for Mystery" before an audience of hundreds of mainly youthful Italian fans.
"Our minds create connections between disparate events and that often leads to conspiracy theories," he said, adding: "I let the reader decide which way to go".
Tour guides in the streets outside have lost no time in coming up with "Dan Brown Tours" -- less than a month after the novel's release -- and at least one hotel is offering guests a "Dan Brown Package".
"There's definitely interest. I've already had questions from various tourists. A lot of people have read the book," said Elisabetta Franchetti, a guide with ArtViva walking tours, which launched its own Brown-inspired route through the city on Thursday.
The three-hour itinerary winds its way through the heart of Florence from the Boboli Gardens to the nooks and crannies of Palazzo Vecchio, tracking a gripping chase of Brown's Harvard professor Robert Langdon as he races to stop an act of bio-terrorism.
Franchetti said the novel could be a way for mass-market tourists to access Florence's priceless heritage more readily, particularly the off-the-beaten track curiosities that are mentioned in the book.
"The idea is to enrich everything," Franchetti said as she led a tour group across the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River -- along the Vasari Corridor used by Langdon in the book to elude his enemies.
"The idea is to allow people who do not know Florence, who do not know who Dante was, who Boccaccio was, who Petrarch was, who Machiavelli was, to go deeper, be more curious," Franchetti said.
The novel has already sold nine million copies in 13 countries and the French edition came out on Thursday.
Brown's "Da Vinci Code" -- Langdon's art detective debut -- sold a total of 81 million copies worldwide.
While there is no shortage of tourists in Florence, officials want to encourage visitors to stay for longer to appreciate the city and spend more money.
The number of Italian overnight tourists to Florence fell by 5.0 percent last year, while foreigners were down 0.9 percent with sharper drops for those coming from other European countries, according to city data.
Eugenio Giani, president of the Italian Dante Society and head of the city council, said he hoped that Brown's novel could also inspire more young people to appreciate Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).
"The book is important because it renews an interest in Dante," said Giani, speaking in a room in the Palazzo Vecchio where Langdon again escapes his pursuers through a secret door behind a map of Armenia.
Giani said his 14-year-old son who is reading the book has been asking him about some of the artifacts mentioned in the novel like the Dante mask kept in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the city council.
The city official and Dante fanatic said the book also helped Florence because it placed Dante at the heart of the city from which he was famously exiled.
Giani said he had met with Brown and asked him to visit again "once this hubbub is over" for new ideas.
"There is no shortage of secrets here," he told AFP.
But there was more scepticism over at Palazzo Strozzi -- a prestigious museum that this month launched a "Dante Passport" that allow tourists to visit all the Dante-related monuments dotted around Tuscany.
"No matter how good Dan Brown is, the history is always better, the reality is far more juicy," said James Bradburne, president of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation.
"I can only wish that every visitor who comes to Florence with a reignited love of Dante also leaves the book in the hotel and goes to find the real Florence," he said.
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