The Site: In the year 590, as he prayed for Rome’s deliverance from a plague,
St. Gregory the Great had a encouraging vision of an angel sheathing its
sword above this massive brick castle built atop the drum of Hadrian’s
first-century mausoleum. The plague ended, and the castle got a new
name (and, in 1752, a spiffy bronze statue of the angel).
The Plot: Langdon comes face to face with the assassin in a
secret chamber inside the castle.
The Scandal: Castel Sant’Angelo is connected to the Vatican by the passetto, a long wall topped by covered passage allowing the pope to scurry to his stronghold in time of need—as did Pope Clement VII did during the sack of Rome in 1527. It was the only known time a Pope used the Swiss Guard as a human shield, leaving the bulk of them to die covering his escape.
Clearview / Alamy
The Site: Today a busy traffic circle, the piazza centers on Bernini’s masterpiece fountain of a Triton (merman) spouting water into the air from a shell held to his lips.
The Plot: Since Dan Brown needed a church associated with Bernini on a square that once held an obelisk, he used artistic license to move Santa Maria della Vittoria several blocks down here to Piazza Barberini.
The Secret: Dan Brown missed a golden opportunity to work into the plot the Capuchin Crypt, a grisly set of chapels decorated with the bones of dead monks—wall of skulls here, scapula chandelier there—a few doors up Via Veneto, beneath Santa Maria Immacolata Concezione church.
PjrFoto / Phil Robinson / Alamy
The Site: This 15th century church—replacing an 11th century shrine built to exorcize Nero’s evil ghost—was decorated by some of the titans of Renaissance and Baroque art, including Caravaggio, Pinturricchio, Sansovino, Raphael, and Bernini.
The Plot: Hot on the trail, Langdon descends into the terrible crypt beneath the Chigi Chapel.
The Secret: The Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael and completed by Bernini, commemorates Agostino Chigi, a Renaissance banker famous for throwing lavish feasts at his riverside villa. Like a debauched emperor of old, he had servants fling the soiled silver plates into the Tiber after each course. (No fool, he also had nets and a recovery squad downstream.)
AP Photo/Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano, HO
The Site: Contrary to what the book says, you can tour the spooky 1,900-year-old necropolis deep beneath the Vatican vatican.va, a buried cemetery of narrow lanes threading pagan and Christian mausoleums. To visit, you must apply in writing (preferably months in advance) to the Ufficio Scavi, stating the number and names of your party, tour language, and when you’ll be in Rome (firstname.lastname@example.org; fax +39-06/6987-3017).
The Plot: Our heroes dash through the darkened St. Peter’s and descend into the Vatican Necropolis in an attempt to foil a nefarious plot and save thousands of lives...
The Miracle: The tradition that St. Peter was reburied in the necropolis in the 4th century behind a “Red Wall” was dismissed as a medieval myth—until the wall was discovered in 1941, covered in ancient pilgrim graffiti.
The Site: This riotously baroque 17th-century church is most famous for Bernini’s lavish Cornaro Chapel.
The Plot: Langdon gets chased through the burning church.
The Secret: Bernini transformed the Cornaro Chapel into a theater stage. Members of the Cornaro family, which bankrolled the chapel, peek out from ingenious high- and low-relief “box seats” on the walls (accompanied by Bernini, last guy on the left), and what they’re watching is infamously scandalous. St. Teresa of Avila—draped in a flowing mass of folded robes, head thrown back, mouth half-open in a moan—writhes beneath a smiling, spear-wielding angel. It’s meant to portray a moment of religious ecstasy, but few who see it can help wonder whether Bernini was inspired by something more earthly.
The Site: This lovely piazza—which was often flooded in the 19th century for mock naval battles—is one of Rome’s most popular and pretty squares, with café tables and street artists surrounding Bernini’s extravagant Four Rivers fountain. It owes its long, oval shape to the ancient Stadium of Domitian, the ruins of which serve as a foundation for the surrounding buildings.
The Plot: Langdon engages in a frantic underwater fight to rescue a cardinal.
The Miracle: Few of the piazza’s thousands of daily visitors venture into the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, preserving the miraculous skull of St. Agnes, patroness of virgins and girls. In AD 304, a 13-year-old Christian named Agnes was sentenced to death for refusing to marry a powerful pagan. Roman law wouldn’t allow the murder of a virgin, so she was dragged to a brothel on this site and stripped. She prayed, and her hair grew to cover her nakedness. Soldiers hacked off the hair, but every lecherous man who looked upon her was blinded. They tried burning her at the stake, but the fire wouldn’t light. Beheading, sadly, did the trick.
The Site: St. Peter’s was built to impress: 198 feet wide, 145 tall, and 614 long (brass floor plaques show how much shorter other famous churches are), with cherubs the size of linebackers and enough great art to fill two museums.
The Plot: A key clue is uncovered in the warren of papal tombs called Vatican Grottoes, sandwiched between the current church floor and that of Constantine’s basilica, which it replaced.
The Scandal: Michelangelo’s Pietà (it’s the only work Michelangelo ever signed—look on the sash across Mary’s chest) has been behind bulletproof glass since 1972, when a crazed geologist attacked it with a hammer, hacking off Mary’s nose and fingers while screaming, “I am Jesus Christ!”
The Site: The only island in the Tiber River within Rome is connected to the shores by the Ponte Fabricio, built in AD 62 and still in use by pedestrians today.
The Plot: In the book, Langdon is lucky to splash down in the river right by this island, famed since antiquity as a site of healing.
The Miracle: In 293 BC, with Rome in the grips of a terrible plague, the Senate voted to appease Aesculapius, god of healing. As a ship bearing the appropriate statue of Aesculapius sailed up the Tiber, a huge serpent—a symbol of the god—slithered off the boat and onto the city’s only island. Good omen. A temple was built there, the plague lifted, and pilgrims came from the farthest provinces to spend the night. The island remains home to a major hospital, the Fatebenefratelli, founded in 1548.
The Site: This ancient rotunda, today a church dedicated to Mary and “all the martyrs,” was built as a pagan temple (dedicated to “all the gods”) nearly two millennia ago.
The Plot: Langdon’s hunch that the secret Illuminati trail begins at Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon turns out to be a red herring.
The Scandal: Pope Urban VIII—who went from championing the theories of Galileo to ordering his imprisonment for heresy—was responsible for several insults to the Pantheon. In addition to melting down the portico’s bronze revetments to make cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo (and the altar canopy in St. Peter’s—designed by, who else?Bernini), he also commissioned Bernini to graft onto the Pantheon’s façade a squat pair of towers so ugly they were rounded derided as “Bernini’s Ass Ears,” until they were finally removed in the 1880s.