In my last post (here) I almost challenged Dan Brown to write another book about weird symbolic stuff used by the Catholic Church. I am a fan of his. I decided a long time ago that “when in Rome” I would take the Dan Brown Angels and Demons tour. It was the third tour we took with Dark Rome Tours, and by far the best. In fact it was the best five hours I spent in Rome.
I knew this would be a quirky thing to do, I just did not know it was going to be so fun.
What made it so good was our guide, Roberto, or Robert . He is half American and half Italian. He is a military brat who traveled the world as a youth in his fathers duffle bag. His father met an Italian bella, and the rest is history. Robert decided he liked Rome and came back here to get a degree in Archaeology. I think he said he is trying to write a book, I know if I ever see a book written by Robert Miller I will buy it. This guy is smart, and witty. I like his style. He makes my irreverence pale in comparison.
We met on the steps of the St. Maria del Popolo Church which is where the plot starts in Angels and Demons. There is a tomb inside of it designed by Raphael for the Banker Agostini Chigi family.
The first thing Robert did was pull out a dogeared hard copy of A&D. He asked how many of us had read it, and course we all had. I raised both hands. How many of us had seen the movie? Unanimous again. The next thing he said was “of course you know A&D is a work of fiction. A good book, a fun read, but fiction. We are not here to celebrate the book, but to show you the art that Brown talks about.” He went on to say that in some translations the book is actually titled The Bernini Mystery. Cool by me, I am a fan of Bernini, and I am sure long after Dan Brown books turn to dust, Bernini marbles will still capture peoples attention. I consider this a full service blog, but folks, no way could I serve Bernini with a brief allocation. Google him, please.
For those of you who have deprived yourself of reading the novel, I’ll let you know that we were on a search for the four alters of science, earth, air, fire and water. At each, an angel would point us to the next, until we found the secret lair of the Illuminati. I wont spoil the plot anymore. If you have read it I do not need to anyway.
OK, here are on the steps of St. Maria del Popolo Church. We go inside to find the knave of the Cigi family. It is shut off from view by a heavy curtain. Robert says he has talked to the powers that be about when it will be opened again, and I gathered they always tell him “soon.” But in my conspiracy addled mind I think the church, which detests Dan Brown, has just said screw the A&D tour. Maybe they open it later in the day after this tour is gone, I don’t know. But Robert showed us photos of Raphael’s design and and pointed out the Bernini angel that led us to the next location. The angel is titled Habakkuk and the Angel. The tomb is underground, in what is called a demon hole. Generations of Chigis are tossed in here. In fact there are demon holes in old churches all over Rome where wealthy families commissioned artists to design knaves for family plots.
With the angel guiding our way we were off to St. Peters square. Dark Tours did this first class, we were on the best bus I have ever ridden in. All the way Robert did a great job of narrating our trip with very interesting historical facts that certainly educated us, while entertaining us.
At St. Peters square he challenged us to find the next clue.
Of course I had read the novel, plus I had been there the day before so I knew exactly where this clue was. So instead I looked for the centro del colonnatos. These are two spots in the square that show an optical illusion which Bernini created in his design of the square. The columns that outline the square are four deep, and from everywhere else within the square you see this. But if you stand right on these spots, you see only one. Bernini was a friggen genius.
The cherub pointed us west, towards St. Maria della Vittoria Church. Inside this church is Bernini’s personal favorite sculpture titled Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Somehow this statue represents fire. I think Robert told us that St. Teresa had the same dream almost every night where she was consumed by the fires of hell. Again, I’ll refer you to the book, or you should go explore why St. Teresa is in ecstasy. She certainly looks like she is having an experience a nun is not supposed to have, that is all I’l say.
The angel confronting Teresa is pointing us to Piazza Navona. In this plaza is yet another Bernini fountain, the fountain of the four rivers. Obviously this is the 4th alter of science, water. This is a very popular spot with tourists. We were staying a short walk from here and visited it a few times. Even in the evening it was crawling with people. In the movie of course it is abandoned.
So now the 4 alters have been covered and we have been directed to Castel Sant’Angelo. This is supposedly the secret lair of the Illuminati.
In reality, this is two buildings, one atop the other. The first was built to be Roman Emperor Hadrian‘s mausoleum. Which it was for a while until the barbarians and then the church decided it needed all the marble off the walls (again). It fell into disrepair until the 14th century when Pope Nicholas III connected the castle to St. Peter’s Basilica by a covered fortified corridor called the Passetto di Borgo.
The church then built on top of the mausoleum to make it into a fortress. It was the refuge of Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome (1527). The Passetto di Borgo is above ground and very visible, in contrast to the fictional account of Dan Brown which portrays it as a secret underground passageway.
The Castel Saint Angelo is predominately set on the banks of the Tiber and sort of looms over Rome.
These three angels are all Bernini works on the bridge over the Tiber to Castel St. Angelo. It is a very beautiful walk. You forget there is a river underneath you as you try to take in the beauty of these sculptures.
Our tour ended here. I tend to over-tip my guides anyway, but Robert had earned a huge tip. I handed it to him, and a few minutes later has asked me if I really meant to tip him that much. He told me it was the second biggest tip he had ever received. Only Ron Howard tipped him more, and that was for an 8 hour tour Howard took before they filmed A&D. Made me proud.
Thanks for reading. Share with a friend. For a while you will need find your own path to illumination for I am off on another set of adventures to write about, including a trek to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda!
Tags: Angels & Demons, Bernini, Castel Sant’Angelo, centro del colonnatos, Dan Brown, Dan Brown tour, demon hole, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gianlorenzo Bernini, habakuk and the angel, Illuminati, Piazza Navona, Raphael, Rome, Sack of Rome, St Peter's basilica, St. Maria del Popolo Church