Let Angels Be Your Guide: The Angels & Demons Tour of Rome

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005 issue of Dream of Italy Updated 2018.

Think that best-selling novels are only for commuter train and poolside reading? Well think again! If you’re planning to travel to Rome, Dan Brown’s best-selling book, Angels & Demons can be much more than an exciting read. If you use it as your city guide, it will lead you to some of Rome’s most fascinating sights. The plot of the novel takes readers from one fantastic Roman artwork to another, and for the past year visitors to Rome have been seeking out the sites detailed in the book. With a copy of Angels & Demons in hand, many a tourist has been seen standing with mouth agape as they gaze upon some of the finest architecture and sculpture in the Eterna.

Although the plot of Angels & Demons is complex, many readers find it even more compelling than Brown’s wildly successful The Da Vinci Code. The story begins with the murder of a theophysicist in a remote, scientific research center in Switzerland, and a fax summons sent to Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist charged with solving the murder. Langdon leaves his Boston home and makes a supersonic, transatlantic flight, arriving in Switzerland in just under four hours — about the same amount of time it would take you to read Angels & Demons.

And from there the story speeds up! From Switzerland, Langdon follows clues to Rome, where he discovers that the current Pope has died — or been murdered. On the eve of the Conclave, a BBC news reporter receives a call from the Hassassin, a hit-man working for a secret society called the Illuminati. The Illuminati have a three-centuries long grudge against the Catholic Church and the Hassassin claims that he’s planted an already-ticking, antimatter bomb in the Vatican that is powerful enough to destroy all of the Vatican City AND that his team has kidnapped and intend to kill the four cardinals most likely to be elected Pope.

Landgon’s monumental task is to stop the murders and find the anti-matter bomb, all before midnight. He works alongside Vittoria Vetra, daughter of the slain theophysicist, and the clue that sends them racing around Rome comes in the form of a 17th century poem composed by John Milton and inscribed in the margins of a document written by Galileo.

From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole/’Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold. The path of light is laid, the sacred test/Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.

You, too, can undertake the “lofty quest” and follow the path taken by Robert and Vittoria. Without a doubt, you’ll have more time to make a leisurely examination of the splendid monuments featured in Brown’s book, and your efforts will be well-rewarded, for you’ll discover some splendid Roman masterpieces that are a bit off the beaten track.

Your first stop will be the Pantheon, ancient Rome’s temple to all the pagan gods. Robert and Vittoria are led there by a phrase in Milton’s poem and they believe that the Hassassin intends to kill one of the Cardinals in the ancient building. They’re wrong — they’ve been misled — but that shouldn’t stop you from admiring this spectacular structure.

The Pantheon provides evidence of the genius of ancient Roman construction and engineering, as well as of the architectural vision of the Emperor Hadrian. Built in just seven years in the early second century A.D., the building’s massive concrete dome creates an interior space unmatched in the architectural world. While Robert and Vittoria spent a tense few minutes here searching for the Hassassin, you should linger long enough to admire the tomb of Raphael, Rome’s premier Renaissance artist, to wonder at the dome and to gaze through the oculus, a 30-foot diameter hole in the dome that lights the interior. This hole became the subject of a local legend when in 610 A.D. the ancient pagan temple was transformed into a Christian church. Local lore claimed that the oculus in the dome of the Pantheon served as an ‘escape route’ for the pagan spirits that had formerly inhabited the building and were now officially ousted.

Unfortunately for Robert and Vittoria, the Hassassin had no need of an escape route from the Pantheon because he wasn’t there at all. The intrepid investigators had misinterpreted their poem-clue and there was no Hassassin or quivering Cardinal to be found. To ease your disappointment at not yet having entered into the dangerous world of ecclesiastical executions, you might want to sit for a bit in a café in Piazza della Rotunda, outside the Pantheon, having a cappuccino and cornetto in one of the best peoplewatching sites in Rome.

After a respite, you can rejoin Robert and Vittoria who, by now, have refined their poetic interpretation and are moving at top speed towards the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in the majestic Piazza del Popolo, just up the Via del Corso. (If you need a map you can look in the front pages of Angels & Demons.) This small church houses two masterpieces by Caravaggio and is home to the Chigi Chapel, the funerary chapel of the richest man in the Renaissance, Agostino Chigi. The Chigi Chapel is the next stop in Robert and Vittoria’s nonstop chase across Rome, and you, unlike them, may want to spend some time examining its complexities. Raphael designed the chapel for Agostino Chigi, and incorporated into it a wealth of iconographic symbols alluding to the soul’s journey to salvation. A century later, Bernini modified the design, adding sculptures of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Habakkuk and the Angel.

Unfortunately, Robert and Vittoria arrive at Santa Maria del Popolo a bit too late to catch the Hassassin and to prevent the murder of a Cardinal. Bernini’s sculpture of Habakkuk and the Angel points them to their next stop in Piazza San Pietro, in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The investigators have unmarked Alfa Romeos at their disposal, but you’ll want to take a taxi.

Arriving in Piazza San Pietro, enclosed by colonnades designed by Bernini, you’ve entered Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world. The Vatican has its own taxes, its own (efficient) post office and even its own police force, the Swiss Guards. In 1505, Pope Julius II, the powerful and fierce Renaissance pontiff, assembled an army of two hundred Swiss guards dedicated to protecting his safety. This is still their task.

High-ranking Swiss guards accompany Robert and Vittoria in the quest to capture the Hassassin, but once again their arrival at the murder site is just moments too late. Another Cardinal has been killed and his body lies slumped against the obelisk in the center of the piazza. The Vatican obelisk where he was executed is one of 13 that populate the piazzas of Rome — originally monuments celebrating ancient Rome’s power over Egypt. By the Middle Ages the obelisk lay desolately on the ground alongside St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V began to re-erect the obelisks, placing them throughout the city as visual guides for pilgrims coming to Rome, and the one in Piazza San Pietro was his first such urban intervention.

An ambitious engineer and architect Domenico Fontana, had the arduous task of transporting this 350-ton monument from the ancient circus of Nero, near today’s St. Peter’s Basilica, and then hoisting it into a vertical position. Fontana was able to avert a near catastrophe in the process of lifting the obelisk, thanks to smalla Genovese sailor who broke a silence declared by the Pope to yell, “Water on the ropes!,” as the obelisk was levered into place.

Now standing in front of St. Peter’s, you’ll want to go inside and see the largest and most opulent church in the Christian world, which showcases further masterworks by Gianlorenzo Bernini, including the Baldacchino (or canopy) over the Papal Altar and the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII.

You’ll be overwhelmed. Spend some time. Enjoy yourself. But don’t forget, we’ve got murders to solve, and a bomb to find! Robert and Vittoria are a bit discouraged as they’ve failed to save the lives of two Cardinals, and uncertain of the next murder site, they visit the Vatican library in search of further clues that will aid them in their quest. By this time they’ve come to think that perhaps Bernini was involved with Illuminati society in the seventeenth century and they suspect that the next murder will take place in front of a work that he produced, like the two previous. Had they time to ponder the complexities of Bernini’s 82-year life, our investigators would certainly have admired the fact that Bernini was a very prolific and enormously talented architect who worked for five different popes during his extraordinarily long career. In that time he helped to shape the sumptuous Baroque style and he raised the standard of art to heights previously unfathomable.

Perhaps the work that best demonstrates the extraordinary range of Bernini’s prodigious talent is the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, conveniently (for tourists, not investigators) the site of the next Cardinal’s murder. This chapel, commissioned by the Cornaro family from Venice, showcases Bernini’s command of the bel composto, the harmonic synthesis of the three arts– painting, sculpture and architecture. The focal point of the chapel is the sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila, canonized in 1622, who in her autobiography described ecstatic visions in which she experienced the divine love of God. Bernini’s rendition of her ecstasy features Teresa, an angel, and a cloud, all sculpted from a single block of marble, and appearing as weightless entities floating in an ethereal moment of divine love.

A few facts about the sculpture in Brown’s Angels & Demons are fudged. Though the work is certainly provocative, and St. Teresa did describe her interactions with the divine in erotic terms, the sculpture was never intended for St. Peter’s Basilica as the book claims. This is not an error that concerns Robert and Vittoria, however, for they have other problems to solve. They’ve missed the murder again and another Cardinal is dead. And, it seems that the Hassassin has gotten the best of them, for Vittoria has been captured and hauled away and Robert is trapped under a marble sarcophagus. Only one Cardinal is still alive and the anti-matter bomb is ticking away.

Rescued by the Swiss Guards (and Mickey Mouse), Robert is heaved from beneath the marble tomb and he sets off in search of the murderer who has captured his lovely companion in anticrime. He heads to Piazza Navona, Rome’s most cosmopolitan pedestrian theater, built atop an ancient athletic stadium constructed by the Emperor Domitian in the first century A.D. If you follow him, you won’t have to perform the athletic feats undertaken by Robert as he wrestles the Hassassin in the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Instead, you may want to enjoy a glass of Prosecco or a chocolate tartufo in one of the many cafes that surrounds this spectacular urban space while you partake of the book’s not-quite-last act.

Robert has raced to the piazza in anticipation of the Hassassin’s next move.

He hides behind the Fountain of the Four Rivers, another of Bernini’s astonishing hybrid works of sculpture and architecture. The fountain is a commission that Bernini cleverly swipes from his archrival, Francesco Borromini. With this cunning move, Bernini created a fountain celebrating the worldwide powers of the Catholic Church that was unveiled in time for the 1650 Jubilee celebration. The four figures on the fountain represent four rivers on the four continents known in the seventeenth century, all of which were host to fervent missionary work undertaken by Catholic clergy.

Robert’s efforts are all in vain. The last of the four kidnapped cardinals is drowned in the Fountain of the Four Rivers, Vittoria is still a captive, and the anti-matter bomb has not been found. Since we’d never reveal the book’s spectacular ending, you’ll have to discover that for yourself&but rest assured, Angels & Demons provides an action packed, high art journey “‘Cross Rome as the mystic elements unfold.”

— Susan Sanders

Susan Sanders is the Executive Director of the Institute of Design & Culture in Rome. Her other musings on Angels & Demons are published in Secrets of Angels & Demons: The Unauthorized Guide to The Bestselling Novel (CDs Books, 2004).

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/philia17/11684645114