"We're sitting in the Milton room by the way," Wayne Barlowe confides, with a twinkle in his eye. We've just been talking about Paradise Lost, the English writer's 17th-century epic poem, and the defining literary influence on Barlowe's artistic life.
"I read Paradise Lost a number of years ago - probably nearly 20 years ago now - and it got under my skin, and has provided me in my own personal work with the sensibility and underpinnings that appealed to me."
It's claimed that Milton conceived of the idea for his great work in this very building, the Hotel Astoria in central Florence, the Tuscan city that was also the birthplace of Italy's epic poet, Dante Alighieri.
He's the real reason we're here, his home city chosen by EA for the unveling of the game based on the first canto of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Which Barlowe, the Milton-obsessed Hell-sketcher, is now helping to realise in digital form: the renowned fantasy artist is working on character creation for the game. Neat.
"Dante I read in college; that had a completely different feel to it, and I loved it for what it was, but something about Milton's anti-heroics and all of that was very appealing," he reveals.
But as a student, he turned directly to the Italian for inspiration. "I thought that Dante was so provocative I ended up doing a series of paintings on it. I had this vision of doing this vertical sequence of paintings taking you all the way down to Hell. I only did three; I left college early. I've spent about 20 years doing my own vision of hell - it's never going to go away."
Beyond its literary history, Florence is most celebrated as the cradle of the European Renaissance, where the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci made waves with impeccably carved male buttocks and paintings of sour-faced women. Barlowe's visual cues, however, come from further afield.
"I would look backwards to the late 19th century, to Orientalists and symbolist painters in particular," he says. "For me it was the apotheosis of the ability to put paint on board, people rendered beautifully, but they also had just the right degree of narrative influence in their work. And so that area is very dear to my heart."
His most notable collection of Hell art is the 1998 book Barlowe's Inferno, and it was this work that eventually led EA to get Barlowe on the blower.
"I first saw Barlowe's Guide To Extra-Terrestrials when I was a kid," says Jonathan Knight, the project lead on the Dante's Inferno game. Realising what he's just implied, he turns to his colleague and adds: "You were practically a kid drawing them; I don't want to age you too much!" (Barlowe was 21 when the book was published in 1979. He's now 51.)
"Years later, thinking about this game, we came upon Barlowe's Inferno - a series of paintings, really his own unique take on hell. The visual style of them is just so amazing, bold. Exactly what we were looking for. I kept going home every night to my wife saying, 'I can't get any drawings that are as good as this guy Wayne Barlowe'. She said, 'Why don't you just call him and have him do the game for you?'."
His wife hadn't accounted for pride. Knight thought the team could do it themselves, but she knew best. "Sure enough, four weeks later, she's right," Knight confesses with a chastened grin. "I picked up the phone and there was a friendly voice on the other end. To my good fortune he said, 'I can start Monday' and we jumped right in. Listen to your wife."
It proved a timely no-brainer for Barlowe: "There are moments when you have breaks between work, and that happened to be one of them. And I'm always eager to put my own work aside to work on a show or a project like this. It became really clear to me that [Knight] had a very fresh, unique vision for this story that would bring it to the public in a way the old text perhaps couldn't."
Barlowe brings a wealth of Hollywood experience to the table, having designed for a wide range of movies and TV shows, including Hellboy, Galaxy Quest, Harry Potter and Babylon 5 ("that was an incredible kick because it was my favourite show at the time," he reminisces with glee). But the creative process is no different.
"Not in my head," he insists. "Whether there is a budgetary difference or a stylistic difference in directors, in my head they're one and the same. My drawing table doesn't change its shape or size depending on the director or what the project is, so I apply myself in exactly the same way with the same sort of ferocity to try and get things done right."
The creative process between artist and EA is fluid, and to illustrate this Barlowe talks us through the evolution of Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, who appears as a huge boss character in the playable level we've already detailed. You can see each of the key steps in this process in our exclusive gallery of concept art.
Barlowe: "The best way to get the most mileage would be to do separate, distinctly unique drawings so elements could be pulled from one to the next and brought forward in the evolution of the characters.
"The initial idea for Charon was that it would be a bipedal character, maybe twice the height of Dante himself, using the flotilla in a way that would be like a weapon. I tried to integrate nautical elements, dessicated flesh - work in part of my own vocabulary in my Hell work.
"It's an ongoing discussion and evolution, back and forth, doing some more abstract approaches, trying to get a good form that would work. Eventually the scale of Dante became smaller, and Charon became a more horizontal, boat-like figure. I decided to peel it apart, making bones out of the planks.
"Then I did research on ancient vessels. This evolved in such a way that Dante himself would be on the boat with souls, so the scale got even larger. We arrived at this, created by the team pulling in some of the elements. It was a week to a week and a half to get to that point. I generally try to do a complete concept per day and a drawing per day."
The artist is also keen for it to be known that he's a hardcore gamer, which undoubtedly played its part in his coming on board. "My gaming passion goes in every direction imaginable. Slap a gun in my hand and I'm all happy; put me in an RPG and I'm really happy. I've got too many games to list, on every console and PC."
In thrall to his paymasters, he cites his all-time favourite game as Dante's Inferno. Then admits he hasn't played it yet. "But it does look really fun."
"I think games are as viable an art form as anything else," he adds. "But like everything else, like Sturgeon's law, 90 per cent of everything is not good, to paraphrase him. And the same applies to books and film and music and everything else. So if I'm lucky enough to be involved in a really great project like this or a really great movie then I just pat myself on the back."
As a final tease, Barlowe hints that he's also been scribbling away on his own game idea in the background. "I have somebody interested in something I'm coming up with as well," he whispers. "I can't talk about that but it is something that I would be more than excited in the future to talk about."
Bet it's about Hell. He cracks up. "Could be! Maybe!"
Dante's Inferno is coming to PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.