ROME — On the stone steps of the 500-year-old Santa Maria del Popolo church, our tour group huddled around our guide in a tight circle.
“Come closer,” the guide said. We leaned in even more.
“Be really quiet inside,” he advised. He was holding a tattered, hardcover copy of Dan Brown’s “Angels &Demons,” and as he spoke, he slipped it into a messenger bag slung around his shoulder. “The priest here doesn’t like us. Oh, and don’t flash your Path of Illumination maps.”
I felt a tingle of the forbidden as I put the yellowed map copied from the book in my pocket and quietly stepped through the doors. A glance to my left startled me: Behind a black iron gate covering a small nook was a shroud-draped skeleton. Its head was cocked to one side and its hands crossed over the chest.
I’m not a Dan Brown fanatic; I read the book on the flight to Rome, a perfect diversion for a boring plane ride. But I was intrigued. I wanted to see what the sites in the novel looked like.
Here’s a five-second recap of the book: Harvard symbiologist Robert Langdon (the main character in “The Da Vinci Code,” played in the movie by Tom Hanks) teams up with foxy sidekick Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), and unravels the mystery behind who is mutilating and killing Catholic cardinals. Centuries-old conspiracy theories abound. Oh, and Langdon saves the Vatican from destruction.
I wasn’t so much taken with the plot as I was with the setting, Rome. The locations in the novel were like main characters, not just backdrops to a tantalizing treasure hunt through the Eternal City. The tour re-creates that treasure hunt and provides some real-life history.
At the first stop, Santa Maria del Popolo, the site of the first murder, we were given our instructions and all quietly entered, gathering near the Chigi Chapel, which was designed by Raphael and filled with works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a 17th century sculptor, including the sculpture of a pyramid, a shape that plays a huge role in the novel.
But we couldn’t see any of it. The entire chapel was covered in white plastic and scaffolding. I snapped a quick photo of the creepy skeleton on the way out, but it turned out the skeleton had nothing to do with “Angels &Demons”; it was an exquisite marble sculpture by Bernini.
From there, a bus whisked us to St. Peter’s Square. We stood outside as the guide explained Bernini’s work (the tour is banned from entering the Vatican) and read passages from the book.
Then we hustled to the rest of the stops: Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Castel Sant’Angelo. True to the book, Bernini’s statues of angels were everywhere.
My favorite spot came midway through the tour, at Santa Maria della Vittoria, where Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” sculpture sits.
The interior of the church looks like it is dipped in gold, with dazzling murals, sculptures and paintings.
In the novel, this church was the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. Yet there was something even more macabre inside than Dan Brown’s imagination: the church’s namesake, Santa Vittoria herself.
Her centuries-old martyred body is encased in wax in a glass case, but the wax has cracked at the tips of her fingers and her bones are visible. Her lips are slightly parted so you can see her real teeth.
No need for fiction here — reality was thrilling enough.
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