During a day in Rome you can encounter more amazing art and architecture than in a year-long art history class. One interesting way to see the Eternal City is by spicing it up with intrigue and mystery. I am talking about the "Angels and Demons" tour where you visit sites featured in the Dan Brown novel, later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.
The story unravels in some of the most magnificent spots in Rome, including the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo, the Vatican and Castel Sant'Angelo. Hanks plays the role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of art history and religious symbols, who, along with the beautiful Vittoria, tries to stop a secret society called the Illuminati from destroying the Vatican by unleashing a doomsday weapon.
Langdon attempts to retrace the steps of the so-called "Path of Illumination", an ancient and elaborate process once used in the time of Galileo by the Illuminati as a means of inducting new members. If candidates followed the clues properly for the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, they would be able to locate the secret meeting place of the Illuminati and be granted membership in the order. Using his extensive knowledge of religious and occult history, Langdon and Vittoria set off on this path in hopes of uncovering clues as to the disappearance of four cardinals and the location of the weapon.
You too can follow the Path of Illumination, solving puzzles and enigmas along the way.
The first stop for our heroes is the Pantheon, which turns out to be a false lead. It's definitely not a false lead for anyone who wants to linger in this ancient Roman temple, perhaps one of the best preserved buildings of comparable age. The Pantheon, built by Hadrian in 127 C.E. as a temple to the 12 most important classical deities, stands in its original form including the original Roman bronze doors. The Pantheon's grandeur lies in its harmonious proportions, which follow the rules set down by the famous Roman architect Vitruvius. The diameter of the hemispherical dome is exactly equal to the height of the whole building. At the center of the dome is the oculus, a 30-foot hole, open to the sky and the only source of light. In the time of the Renaissance, the Pantheon was used for the tombs of famous people, including Raphael. His tomb was the false clue in the "Angels and Demons" story. Today the Pantheon is set in a charming square, the Piazza della Minerva where you can stop for coffee and a bite to eat while looking at the impressive building and an Egyptian obelisk from the 6th century B.C.E, supported on an elephant's back.
Santa Maria del Popolo
Langdon and Vittoria realize their mistaken interpretation of the clue, which did not refer to Raphael's actual tomb, but to a tomb designed by Raphael for someone else. They race across Rome to the wonderful Piazza del Popolo, the location of the Santa Maria del Popolo church. The church doesn't need Dan Brown to give it an aura of mystery. Tradition has it that the site was haunted by Nero's ghost in the form of black crows. So in 1099 the Pope had the walnut tree sheltering the crows chopped down and built the church in its place. The intriguing Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael as the private chapel of wealthy banker Agostino Chigi, is the location of the first clue. The dome of the chapel is decorated with Raphael's mosaics of God creating the sun and the seven planets plus Agostino's personal horoscope. Chigi died in 1520, as did Raphael, and the chapel was completed by Bernini decades later. In the movie, the pyramid in the chapel symbolizes the first element, earth. The Demon's Hole, which Langdon originally thought referred to the oculus in the Parthenon, is found beneath a floor mosaic of a kneeling skeleton. When Langdon lifts the mosaic, he finds one of the four missing Cardinals dead with his mouth stuffed with dirt.
Since you are not racing against time to stop a dastardly plot against the Vatican, take time to see the other beautiful art in this church. Visit the Cerasi Chapel with canvases by Caravaggio (Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus). See also the frescoes by Pinturicchio, the Borgias' favorite artist. A sculpture by Bernini, Habakkuk and the Angel, gives Langdon his next clue. The angel points the way.
St. Peter's Square
Langdon and Vittoria find their next clue in St. Peter's Square. They are desperately searching for a clue that has something to do with the next element, air. They find a circular marker created by Bernini, set in the ground of St. Peter's Square, which shows an angel breathing out a powerful gust of wind. This is the setting for the murder of the second missing Cardinal by means of punctured lungs.
Every tourist in Rome comes to St. Peter's Square and to the Vatican. The church is one of the world's largest, covering 5.7 acres and able to hold 60,000 people. Why not try the square in the evening hours when it is less crowded. Especially in the summer, the piazza is hot and congested with long lines for the free visit of the Basilica. By night, the cobblestones of Via della Conciliazione, stretching to Bernini's colonnade, Michelangelo's dome and the obelisk hauled to Rome by the emperor Caligula, are all quiet and empty. You can check if the Pope is awake by looking for lights in his bedroom, the two top right windows facing the square.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
The emblem of the angel breathing out the wind sends the pair racing to the small basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a Baroque church built in the early 17th century. Art lovers have been flocking to this church to view Bernini's sculpture, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, before Dan Brown was even born. The sculpture, considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces in sculpture from the high baroque period, shows the Spanish Carmelite nun floating on a cloud in a supposedly spiritual trance after an angel pierces her with a burning arrow. Light filters through a hidden window reflecting the gilded rays and bathing Teresa in a heavenly glow. In the movie, this is the scene of the third element, fire, and the professor and Vittoria find the third Cardinal being burnt alive.
Langdon manages to save the life of the fourth Cardinal who was thrown into the Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers to drown in the fourth element, water. The oval-shaped Piazza is one of Rome's most beautiful squares, containing a veritable showcase of baroque sculpture. (It owes its shape to an ancient Roman stadium, which stood at the same spot.) Of central interest for the story is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the fountain of the four rivers, which has an Egyptian obelisk at the center. The fountain, which was completed in 1651, is one of the most extravagant masterpieces designed by Bernini. Its four figures represent the longest rivers of the four continents known at the time, the Ganges, the Nile, and Danube and the Plata of the Americas surrounded by geographically appropriate flora and fauna.
Castel Sant' Angelo
Time is running out when Langdon and Vittoria rush to the Castel Sant' Angelo, originally a mausoleum built in 130 C.E. by Emperor Hadrian, who also built the bridge over the Tiber River leading to it. Over time, the building served as a fortress, a prison and a papal residence. It is from here that Puccini has Tosca fling herself to her death. There is much to see here. There are lavish Renaissance salons decorated with magnificent frescoes and a chapel decorated by Michelangelo. In summer, the passage linking the castle to the Vatican is occasionally open and is well worth a visit. Langdon and Vittoria follow this ancient passageway and arrive at the Vatican in time to save the building from being blown up.
So, when in Rome, in addition to your guidebook, bring a copy of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and follow the clues for a mystery tour through Rome.
You can sign up for the official Angels and Demons tour for the price of 59 Euros. They will take you from site to site in an air-conditioned bus and make sure you don't miss any of the clues: http://www.angelsanddemonstour.it/