Friday, May 15, 2009

The Path Of Illumination

WARNING: This post contains significant spoilers for the book and movie Angels and Demons.

When in Italy last month, I deliberately read Dan Brown's conspiracy theory thriller Angels and Demons knowing that there was a big budget movie adaptation coming out starring Tom Hanks. As I read the book, I mapped out in my Rick Steve's guide the locations of the major story set pieces and decided that visiting these locations would be a cool way to organize my free time touring. While the book on the whole is too preposterous to even merit deconstructing, I found some plot holes about the locations in the story worthy of picking on. So below are pictures of the actual places mentioned in the book with commentary on the plausibility of the action taking place.


The story takes place on the night of a papal conclave where all the cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel (For the record, Good Friday is absolutely the worst day of the year to visit this, although the elbow-to-elbow crowds make taking illicit pictures of the ceiling rather easy) except that four of the leading papal contenders are missing. Robert Langdon, the self-avowed expert in a made-up academic discipline finds himself trying to save Rome from some sort of substance just slightly less dangerous than the Red Stuff from Star Trek.


His first red herring takes him to the tourist-must-see Pantheon which is an ancient Roman domed temple converted to a church. There he meets Mr. Exposition who sets him on the right path. The only problem is that the Pantheon is closed at night so the entire scene including throngs of tourists at that hour is impossible.


From there he crosses town to Piazza del Populo which is only a short walk from the Pantheon to the church Santa Maria del Populo, but for plot purposes he takes a taxi despite the Pantheon being off the main roads. This church is home to the Chigi Chapel which is famous for its pyramids and other secular symbols that play a prominent role in the pseudo-conspiracy theory of the story.


Most of the chapel was hidden behind plastic sheeting undergoing restoration. I found the coincidence that they would be doing that just as a movie featuring this landmark critical of The Church was coming out a little conspiracy theory inducing in my own mind. But then nearly everything in Rome is behind scaffolding at one point or another, so it's probably just coincidence.


Langdon is unable to stop the heinous crime being committed, but he does get the clue to the next location. A more accurate title for the book would have been Angels And Obelisks. While not one of the titular items, obelisks figure prominently in the plot and the presence nearby is always shown as an 'aha!' moment of clarity that Langdon is on the right path. There are dozens and dozens of obelisks all over Rome, so from a plotting stand point Brown had his choices pretty easy. Nearly anywhere he wanted to set his story would be near an obelisk. They are rather hard to avoid. I passed several just to get to the ones in the book. Nonetheless, the one in the middle of St. Peters Square is one of the more prominent ones.


Langdon's clue solving him takes him to a small inset near the base of the obelisk marking the West Wind. He does this with a map and a ruler. Never mind that there are three other insets marking the North, South, and East winds as well. But our hero manages to pick the exact right one to be standing on when the next event occurs.


Langdon again fails to make the book and/or movie half the length it could have been, so we move on to the next obelisk. Perhaps the second most famous fountain in Rome is the Fountain of Four Rivers in the Plaza Navona. This large plaza is an extremely popular area at night since it is ringed with famous restaurants and serves as an open air art gallery. It was thronged with hundreds of people as we came by it close to midnight. So the odds of a major fight between the hero and the preternaturally strong villain taking place in the fountain going unnoticed is close to zilch.


In the book, Langdon saves himself by using a bubbler tube in the bottom of the fountain. There are spot lights and the open mouths of the fish serve as drains, but there are no bubblers. So much for Brown's claim that although his story is fictional, his descriptions of the architectural locations are accurate.


A little off the beaten path (and inconveniently not near any obelisks) is the very small church called Santa Maria della Vittoria which contains an absolutely gorgeous statue named the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.


While historically said ecstasy was induced by an angel with a spear driving the spirit of The Lord into Theresa, Dan Brown makes the most of the more modern Freudian interpretations of the rapturous look on her face, perhaps justifiably.


The first four locations do conveniently make a cross shaped pattern (at least they do on my Rick Steve's hand sketched map, I don't know how precise the shape would be to a surveyor), but then Langdon makes the mental leap to find the villain in the Castel Sant' Angelo (literally Castle of Angels, duh) which has no cartographic relationship to the previous clues.


The bridge to the tomb cum fortress cum museum is the Bridge of Angels which is lined with wonderful statues of angels (double duh).


All this chasing leads Langdon right back to the Vatican and in particular, the Throne of St. Peter. DOUBLE SPECIAL SPOILER ALERT: From here the story literally nukes the fridge. {/end spoiler}

All the events of Angels and Demons take place in a single night, but visiting all these locations took me several hours and a couple of taxi rides over two days. And I didn't even have to fight off any offensively stereotypical Muslim assassins. While Dan Brown is a complete hack when it comes to perplexingly popular pot-boilers, he makes a pretty decent tour guide. You could do a lot worse in Rome than following the Path of Illumination. It took me to some extremely famous places and a few that, while not quite as famous, were well worth the detour.

As always, all the pictures are clickable and more are in the special composite Angels and Demons Flickr set.


Flyboy said...

Thank for the guided tour. I enjoyed it.

Ed & Jeanne said...

I visited Rome for 3 extremely fast paced full days once. It was before these were written. I liked Rome. Great place with lots to see and do. This would have been fun doing it that way but would have spoiled the book. I liked the book...but I have low expectations.

Anonymous said...

I didnt read Angels and Demons, but I did see the movie, and I thought Ron Howard and Tom Hanks did an incredible job. They portrayed the Vatican and its treasures with the utmost dignity and respect. Im sure to skeptics that is was lame, but Dan Brown is a very talented author and I have no doubt in my mind that he knows more than you think he does. Everyone loves a good mystery and a good hero. I myself think that there is more to Rome than just a tourist attraction.

Anonymous said...

i don't know how practical it is to visit all these places in one night. But the ancient history about this is true. The genii Galileo and Bernini had done a marvelous job. We must appreciate their brilliance and Dan Brown who brought this forward to the world. All these things just can't be pure coincidental. When talking about the west ponente, an illuminated guy must choose west where he finds more and more places as a guess for next marker, not east which leads to the St Peter's Basilica which is not a work by Bernini.