Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
“References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual as are their exact locations. They can still be seen today.” Readers are welcomed by this preamble as they open the book for the first time.
Drama and mystery-infused historical fiction certainly catches the interest of generations young and old, in this day and age. Unfortunately, the authors in this field are good enough at their jobs to fool readers into believing what is actually written to be – as the genre explicitly states – fiction. But do these sly writers take things too far? I would leave it to readers to determine this, but these are the same readers that praise novels before even second guessing their validity. So, allow me to walk you through an intensive look at a section of one of the most well known of these thrillers, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. I assure you I will not ruin the book (unless you cannot handle the truth) and to that effect, we will only discuss our hero’s first stop on a dramatic, action-packed quest across Rome.
For this short preview, we arrive at the Roman Pantheon, drawn here by the wording of a poem hidden in Galileo’s Diagramma:
From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole,
‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.
The path of light is laid, the secret test,
Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.
We meet our characters in modern days, when our world is on the brink of a public discovery that in some opinions, may bridge the gap between science and religion. In light of this world-changing finding, breached security and a gruesome murder have set into motion one of the world’s most devastating terrorist agendas. Coincidentally taking place at the time of the pope’s death in Rome, there is no doubt a connection. This horrible situation is proven true at the disappearance of four of the most able cardinals at the most important time of the conclave, and a phone call from the terrorist himself explains his horrific plans for the evening – the death of each of the kidnapped at every hour, followed by the explosion of St. Peter’s itself, using by no coincidence the stolen technology. The only way to stop this disaster from happening is to find the murder sites before each hour and use clues to follow the Illuminati’s rumored Path of Illumination. Our antagonist comes from the Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society struggling for world control, bent on destroying organizations as strong as the Catholic Church, and condemning the church for its disconnection from science.
So perhaps to get you into the mood, imagine: it is quarter ‘til eight, and you and an undercover accomplice are walking into the Pantheon, amongst the waning number of tourists. This seems to be the obvious location of the first cardinal murder, as it is the home to Raphael Santi’s own tomb, a reference from the poem. I could also mention your doubt as you enter about how the murder could possibly take place in such a confined public space, but that would surely be wasted breath, as you will soon understand that the novel thrives on what is impossible in actuality. After ten minutes of this doubt, it is soon realized that the tomb had been moved to your location after the time of Galileo and the supposed Path of Illumination, and a nearby tour guide sends you off in the direction of another “earthly tomb.” Your misunderstandings corrected, you run out into Piazza del Rotunda to head to the Chigi Chapel, a mausoleum designed by Raphael.
With less than five minutes to spare, you hail a taxi and direct him north towards Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria del Popolo, making it there in just over a minute. At this timing, you arrive amidst the quiet and shadowy square with still some three minutes to stop the Illuminati horror. Wasting no time, you head in the direction of the “misplaced battleship askew on the southeast corner of the piazza.” However, you might have been able to prevent the cardinal’s death if you had walked the correct direction towards the correct church.
Santa Maria del Popolo lies instead in the northeast direction of the elliptical piazza, but don’t get too upset, because if we’re being this picky, we would not have made it to the piazza at all before the murder at eight o’clock, even if our taxi had actually chosen a traversable route. Despite the one way streets and traffic barriers that would have stood in your way, Piazza del Popolo lies much farther than a minute’s drive from the Pantheon.
Even before hitting any major plot twists, Dan Brown bombards readers from all sides with misinformation. It would have been hard to have walked into the Pantheon among tourists after its daily closing at 7:30pm – almost as hard as it would have been to find an inconspicuous parking spot in the shadows for a BBC van in the lively, parking-less, and well lit Piazza del Popolo.
But perhaps I am focusing too much on minor details, possibly even typos. Surely this type of breakdown would be just as inaccurate for any other piece of historical fiction. After all, writers need a certain level of artistic license to build a riveting story. It is just unfortunate that for readers visiting the Eternal City and trying to follow the hero’s path, things run somewhat less smoothly. Luckily, I have not heard of any readers intently concerned about these details, so we’ll let it slide for now. I can settle with the fact that the author just gives the story a few kicks to move it along without readers losing the adrenaline. I will however, continue to point out these errors to keep readers informed, and you may notice the misinformation increase in intensity.
To bring you back to the story, you approach Santa Maria del Popolo, notably not a cathedral, as written, but a church. Walking up the stairs which are by no means a welcoming fan, you find the doors locked for renovation inside. Perhaps the wrong location once again? But no! Looming over the church, you find the symbolic source of illumination over a pyramid largely engraved upon the Porta del Popolo. This must be the place!
Alas, upon viewing the symbolism, it oddly resembles the Chigi coat of arms, with aspects hardly representative of masons, the Illuminati, or anything of the sort. As was the case for many ruling families in Rome, the family crest was often pasted upon everything and anything they touched during their tenure, to signify their power and effect on the city. For this one in particular, Pope Alexander VII put it up on the grand city entrance on the north end, for any foreigners on the pilgrimage to St. Peter’s or just to the city in general, but especially for visitors as important as the Queen of Sweden. But mention of this would not advance the story, now would it?
Time is running out – only seconds to spare before the horrific plot is set into motion, so in desperation to find an entrance into the church, you head down the side alley, the one that doesn’t exist. The church is crammed between the piazza and the old Roman city wall, so the situation is impossible. But worse than this little fib is Dan Brown’s use of the religious history term ‘porta sacra,’ meaning not simply a side door for the clergy, but in fact a special door plastered shut until the jubilee year for the Catholic Church, and is something that is only found in each of the four great basilicas of Rome. It holds much more significance than the author lets on, as religious pilgrims who passed through all four are rewarded with an indulgence. But alley or not, we somehow find ourselves inside.
Before approaching the chapel itself, though, it would be interesting to hear more about its history, among other things omitted from Dan Brown’s “factual” selections. In 1507, over 400 years after the creation of its church, Santa Maria del Popolo, the chapel was purchased by the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi from his friend, Pope Julius II. The pope allowed him to buy this structure and use it as a mausoleum for him and his heirs. Raphael was commissioned to redesign the room for this purpose, but in 1520, long before its completion, both Raphael and Agostino died. It wasn’t until more than a century later in the Holy Year of 1650 that the chapel was picked up again in restoration; Fabio Chigi, the great great nephew of Agostino and soon to be Pope Alexander VII, did this and commissioned Bernini to complete the project.
But returning to the story, upon your entrance to the church, your symbologist eye finds an embedded tile with pyramid and illumination along with the inscription, “Coat of Arms of Alexander Chigi Whose Tomb is Located in the Secondary Left Apse of this Cathedral.” But there is a large problem aside from the apparent English inscription in an Italian church. Understanding now the history of the chapel, we know that the patron for this room would have been Agostino, and the tomb of Alexander VII sits instead in St. Peter’s – though also a Bernini work with some comparable features. Upon learning about the coat of arms – of which we already know – Brown has the main character wondering if Alexander Chigi was himself an Illuminatus. That is quite an accusation against a former pope.
As you step into the fictional crime scene, you may experience less “earthy” observations as Brown makes us think, and you may observe a space much smaller than expected. But he is just as contradictory as he references the chapel as an “out of the way alcove, a literal hole in the wall.” Perhaps you can be the judge of that. Regardless, somehow you manage to miss all other aspects of the chapel as your eyes are drawn to the ceiling. Looking up, you see a domed cupola with stars, astronomical planets, and zodiac signs, though the trained symbologist eye should recognize 16th century designs by Raphael, instead of Bernini or Galileo in the 17th century. Unfortunately, the author did not elaborate on the limited truths that would have added to the plot. For example, eight mosaics surround the Chigi Chapel’s “oculus,” each personifying a planet as an Olympic deity. In all of them, the Olympian is accompanied by the sphere of their planet, along with its zodiac sign. The angel that guides each Olympian is meant to show that God controls everything, even Olympic deities. But unfortunately, this information was omitted from your adventure. Despite this however, it should still be known to readers that it was not uncommon for ancient pagan symbols to be readapted or reused in the Christian religion to reinforce Christian themes.
Similarly, though you may be surprised to see pyramids in art as your eyes fall to these previously unseen objects, the designs were actually derived from old Roman tombs. While they certainly aren’t as true of pyramids as the text would imply, their use was for imperial rather than mystical connotations, and was not any more unusual than the use of obelisks across Rome. In fact, in ancient Egypt, pyramids signified burial and a happy afterlife. The structures were borrowed by ancient Romans and later in the Renaissance to represent Christian themes of death and salvation.
Somehow missing a giant hole in the floor until now, your attention falls to the marble manhole cover and its intriguing skeleton carrying a tablet, labeled “death in flight.” You know now that the tablet is actually the family crest, and the inscription actually reads “death opens the way to heaven” – within this wording, Roman numerals stick out for the Jubilee year of 1650. As this was Bernini’s work, he used the piece, like others, to relate to Raphael’s work thus far in the chapel; the apparent rising from the crypt was to be in response to the zodiac and Raphael’s depiction of God above.
Seeing this removed crypt covering, you are sure this is the place of the murder – unfortunately you are four minutes late. Upon climbing down to the horrific scene, there should likely be some mention of the third pyramid in the crypt, but there is not. And why not? The pyramids, like the structural components of the chapel, were Raphael’s design, not Bernini’s. Bernini’s only contribution to them was the medallion on each, which – important to note – are white marble, not gold.
Of course, for this misunderstanding you can blame the plaque that reads: “Art of the Chigi Chapel: While the architecture is Raphael’s, all interior adornments are those of Gianlorenzo Bernini.” On the contrary, this mere suggestion by the author is far from true, as he fails to mention any of the other frescoes that cover the ceiling and upper wall. Specifically, the drum of the dome contains a series of frescoes by Francesco Salviati depicting Creation and Original Sin. He also has four more below these, frescoes of the Allegories of the Seasons. Above the altar is the Nativity of the Virgin, by Sebastiano del Piombo, and below that a bronze relief of Christ and the Woman of Samaria, by Lorenzotto.
But even if this were included in the plot, or even mentioned as a side note, Bernini could still have not laid a Path of Illumination. In addition to his good terms with the church – being the Vatican’s go-to artist – Bernini, like most artists, never got to pick the location of his art, and devising a scheme as grand as this would be difficult and risky being commissioned by none other than the pope himself, the would-be enemy.
Upon returning to the chapel floor’s surface, you may find it difficult to believe that someone would have to point out the sculpture to you, but this is indeed how Brown plays the text. This idea seems ridiculous, given that there are four sculpture niches, though Brown conveniently omits mentioning three of them. As the author writes, your symbologist eyes focus on the depiction of Habakkuk, apparently the prophet who predicted the earth’s annihilation. Instead, art history would like you to know that the piece’s story comes from Bel and the Dragon. Bernini took cues from the Vatican librarian to keep the theme within the chapel, and the selection was a story from the Greek book of Daniel – a copy belonging to the Chigi family. Of course this is left out to save the story; after all, mentioning this would imply the pope’s own role in imagery in an antipapal chapel.
In Bel and the Dragon, Habakkuk sets out to deliver food to field laborers. He is stopped by an angel and redirected to Daniel, who is trapped in the lion’s den. While Habakkuk points towards famished laborers, the angel points towards a new target, where Daniel is kneeling in pleading prayer. The story’s end – the fulfillment of prayer – is shown by an unexpectedly tame lion licking at the feet of Daniel, in the sculpture niche directly across from Habakkuk and the angel. Daniel in the lion’s den signified the Christian soul in peril of death and in need of salvation, while Habakkuk’s angelic transport of bread in his basket followed early Christian interest in the miraculous meal delivered to Abraham in the desert. Sadly, the author’s hero oversimplifies the amazing work of art of Habakkuk, and fails to discuss its correct importance, let alone that of any of the other sculpted pieces. So even though the angel does seem to point in the exact direction to the next crime scene in the novel, the gesture is aimed at another piece of art distanced by only yards, not miles.
In addition to Habakkuk and Daniel, the chapel does enjoy the presence of two other pieces, though notably not created by Bernini, our brilliantly undercover Illuminati artist. Carved instead by Lorenzotto, Jonah and Elijah were created during the initial construction of the chapel and were chosen specifically for the purposes of maintaining a certain theme surrounding the family’s mausoleum. Specifically, Elijah represents Christ of the ascension, as he once ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire, and Jonah was known symbolically as a precursor to the resurrected Christ, as he spent a similar three days in the belly of the whale before being saved.
Perhaps you can take a break from saving the day and stop to truly look around the chapel. There are many intriguing details that slip the mind of the author, and our imagination upon reading the book certainly does not do justice to the artistic space. The interior of the chapel is often referred to as a hybrid of the Pantheon and St. Peter’s – ironically, two related places in the book. For example, the deep entrance arch with its double Corinthian pilasters seems to be an exact copy of the Pantheon entrance, which is not surprising considering Raphael’s intense interest in the structure. Similarly, the dome and its coffers are very much the same; the true oculus is replaced instead by Raphael’s mosaic of God, much like seeing into heaven, and in this way is somewhat of an oculus in itself. The main space in the room resembles the crossing of St. Peter’s, with the crypt entrance replacing its baldacchino. From this, we recognize the four wide arches, with four statue niches between each. It is only too bad that the book made no reference to the harmony of these shapes and allusions in Raphael’s architecture.
It is also unfortunate that Dan Brown’s historical fibs had his writing too backed into a corner to make a note of the clash of artistic disciplines. Had he mentioned this, you would have been able to see the straight Renaissance lines thrown askew by Baroque drama. For the Habakkuk-Daniel scene, the statue of Jonah was moved to incorporate a story with movement – a diagonal plot line drawn directly across the chapel space. Had Jonah remained in its original spot, it could be seen that despite the calmness of Renaissance art, Raphael and the other artists all had purposes behind their details. Originally, Jonah and Elijah would be looking towards the altar to remind viewers of their purpose. To this end, Bernini’s contributions did not fall short. In true Baroque style, the intensity in art and flowing cloth is normally seen directly upon entering with Habakkuk; the scene naturally follows the angel’s pointed finger to Daniel, whose pleading eyes draw us to the dome and Raphael’s God. Viewers turn to get the correct view of this mosaic, only to have their eyes fall upon the altar and Piombo’s fresco of the Virgin, similarly reminding visitors of the purpose of the space. As the Baroque sculptures face off and cut through the Renaissance space, they also respectfully emphasize a connection from the Bernini works to Raphael and other artists’ works. The hybrid creation in turn becomes the best religious function of space.
Contrary to our fictional literature, the themes in the Chigi Chapel are more around the family itself and the aspect of resurrection, rather than earth references or antipapal ideas. The Chigi family was by no means modest; the intense and expensive artistic patronage was primarily to demonstrate their endless wealth and cultured style. They hoped to have the artists’ renowned reputations reflect their own taste and heritage. Every detail was paid attention to in this sense; even marble choices were allusions to the family name and history.
Today there are just as many people visiting Santa Maria del Popolo to see the crime scene of a fictional murder as there are to see the truly amazing works of Caravaggio, among others. They walk in armed not only with a Rick Steves’ guide, but also a copy of the novel that infuses excitement into the history of which we are so terribly ignorant. Unfortunately, it is realized by many readers that the book imparts very little factual information about Rome’s history, art, or architecture, despite the book’s believable preamble.
But despite what could be considered as blatant lying for the purposes of a story, inquiring readers stumble upon pieces of history that were before unheard of, or at most lightly touched upon in high school history class. Certainly, works such as Angels & Demons have created a new type of tourist – one that does not settle for the typical top ten must-sees, but instead uses the text’s motivation to uncover the reality behind all that Rome has to offer. Authors such as this lightly introduce concepts never encountered before, leaving them wanting to learn more. Though not directly, Brown and others bring the real history to the attention of those interested enough in the subject – a history as intriguing as the story which sends readers on their own quest across Rome.
Next stop – the Vatican!
Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons. New York: Atria Books, 2003.
Burstein, Dan, and Arne de Keijzer, eds. Secrets of Angels & Demons: The Unauthorized Guide to the Bestselling Novel . New York: CDS Books, 2004.
Habel, Dorothy M. The Urban Development of Rome in the Age of Alexander VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
Magnusson, Cecilia. "The Antique Sources of the Chigi Chapel." Journal of Art History. 56.4 (1987): 136-139.
Murray, Peter. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.