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Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: St. Peter’s Square

Creation of Adam
Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Day 3- The Sistine Chapel

Follow the path of the Illuminati in this Virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown’s book, Angels & Demons.

Today’s post will concern the Sistine Chapel, a site not included on the official Angels & Demons tour in Rome. To visit this famous church you must get a ticket for the Vatican Museums, then wait in a long line. However, much of the book takes place in and around the chapel, so we will add it to the blog tour.

“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea
of what one man is capable of achieving.”
–Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787

Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome

I own a book listing 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and goodness knows I live to travel… but truly, there are only a few locations that sustain unquenchable fascination and bring deep personal meaning. Such is the case for me and the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps the film, The Agony and the Ecstasy starring Charlton Heston made an early impression on my psyche? My curiosity peaked by a man who excelled in art, sculpture, architecture and was also an inventor and poet. Whatever reasons…I retain a love affair with the Renaissance, Michelangelo and his work.

I understand not all are interested in art, but I doubt anyone could enter the sacred shine and not be awed by Michelangelo‘s achievement. The Sistine Chapel is simply one of those places that must be seen firsthand.

Surprisingly, the space is rather small. Built between 1475 and 1483 for Pope Sixtus IV, the structure was to match the size of the biblical Temple of Solomon, 40.93 meters long by 13.41 meters wide. The floor is covered in multi-colored inlaid marble. However, the vaulted ceiling covers 5000 square feet, a measurement to which I relate.

The ceiling was originally painted as a blue starry sky. Great artists were called in to decorate the walls: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, and Signorelli. They painted scenes from the life of Moses and Jesus and portraits of popes.

Twenty-five years later, Michelangelo was commissioned to redecorate the ceiling. He didn’t want the project, tried to refuse, and who can blame him? He considered himself a sculptor, but Pope Julius II commanded him to paint. So, for four years, 1508-1512, he climbed the scaffolding to fresco scenes from the Old Testament, sometimes working sixty feet above the floor. What he created became one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.

Ceiling close up
Sistine Chapel ceiling close-up

Michelangelo worked in fresco, the application of paint to wet plaster, requiring rapid skill. He used the technique of trompe l’oeil to create beams and architectural structures that fool the eye, they don’t exist. The upper ceiling tells nine stories from Genesis. Surrounding these large scenes, he added images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones. In all, 336 figures are featured on the ceiling.

When a visitor finally enters from a side door, time is limited. People strain their necks to see high overhead, do backbends or lie on the floor. (Lying is frowned upon by the guards.) Find a spot on a bench, if possible, to lean backward with head support.

To attempt to describe the overwhelming aura of the room is impossible. The energy, the detail and three dimensional feeling is incredible. The video at the end of this post may help but I repeat, you must just go and see for yourself.

At the age of sixty, with failing eyesight caused from painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned. Pope Clement VII commissioned ” The Last Judgment,” on the high altar wall.

This huge work, much more somber in tone, shows Christ on Judgment Day. The Savior lifts souls up to heaven and others are damned to hell. Michelangelo includes a self-portrait, his face on a limp body which Saint Bartholomew carries toward God. I personally prefer the ceiling art to The Last Judgment.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment
Michelangelo's Last Judgment

Recently, from 1980 to 1994, the Sistine Chapel’s art was meticulously cleaned and restored, a painstaking process using computer analysis. The restoration included removing several “modesty” drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures. Specialists worked on the frescos for about 30,000 hours, the entire process taking twice as long as it took Michelangelo to paint them.

Art historians protested and debates were heated, but the project continued, reviving the vivid colors that had dulled with time. The end result of the restoration continues to be controversial.

So now, let’s finally get back to the Angels & Demons story: In early chapters we learn the pope died and a conclave is called. Conclaves are held in the Sistine Chapel. The College of Cardinals, clergy from around the world, meets in secret for the purpose of electing a new head of the Catholic Church.

The cardinal’s ballots are burned after each voting session. If white smoke blows from the chimney on the roof, the world has a new pope. If the smoke is black, they reached no decision and the Cardinals remain locked in as the conclave continues.

Contrary to popular knowledge, conclaves were not always held in the Vatican. In fact, the cardinals were first sequestered during an election in Viterbo, Italy, about an hour from Rome. Following the death of a pope in 1268, they couldn’t agree on a candidate and were locked in to try to hasten the vote. (Mimi visited Viterbo in 2008 and will write about this tale in upcoming weeks.)

But, our heroes, Langdon and Vittoria, are in danger. A bomb-like canister of anti-matter is hidden within the Vatican . Should the conclave begin? The countdown is on; the race to locate clues leading to the lethal device continues…

A Tour of the Sistine Chapel

St. Peter's Square
Approaching St. Peter's Square, Rome, Italy

Day 2- A Visit to St. Peter’s Square

Follow the path of the Illuminati in this virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown’s book, Angels & Demons.

Our travels continue…Langdon and Vittoria head back to the Vatican after finding the demon’s hole, the clue representing “earth” in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Now they search of a clue for “air”–the second element of science.

To approach the Vatican complex is to instantly feel small, as if shrunk like a wool sweater in the dryer. You stand before the colossal church, St. Peter’s Basilica, and stare. The place looks ever so familiar, you’ve seen it on TV or in photos, but now you sense its force. “Come closer,” it whispers and you are pulled like a fish on a line.

The Colonade of St. Peter's Square

Stately white pillars placed in a semi-circle form the colonnade, which then turns a corner and connects to the sanctuary. They envelope you, their solid presence creating warmth and security, like arms reaching out for a hug. As I took a moment to stand and listen; I felt history, beauty and God.

Our virtual tour will not enter the Basilica today; the path of the Illuminati keeps us outdoors.

The area in front of the church swarms with people: tour leaders like mama ducks lead their customers in lines; school children hold hands to stay safely united; priests and nuns in clerical robes pass by; tourists queue up, some in ethnic dress giving a hint of their background. In 2005, an estimated one million crammed in and around the streets of this area for Pope Paul II’s funeral.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, the artist, architect, sculptor who was mentioned in the previous Santa Maria del Popolo blog, designed Piazza San Pierto. Although called St. Peter’s Square, it is elliptically shaped. Construction of the symbolically welcoming colonnade took place from 1656 to 1667. (FYI-The first Basilica on this site was built by Constantine around 320 AD, and the current one begun in 1506 and completed in 1615.)

Just like Piazza del Popolo, an Egyptian obelisk stands in the center of the public space. Made from red granite, the monolith was brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD. It originally stood in his (later Nero’s) circus, the turning post in the chariot races of ancient Rome.

Aerial view of St. Peter's Square

In order for the 350-ton column (81 feet high) to be centered, it was moved 275 feet by Pope Sixtus V in 1585. That’s a fascinating story, we’ll also leave for another day.

The obelisk acts as a sun dial, its shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the white marble disks in the paving of the square. The pedestal rests upon four bronze lions.

At the top is a “Chigi Star” in honor of Pope Alexander VII, a member of the Chigi family who oversaw the building of the piazza. Legend says the star contains a relic of the true cross.

Two huge granite fountains were placed in the square for symmetry, the south/left one by Carlo Maderno (1613) and the northern/right one by Bernini (1675). The splashing water sounds refreshing.

Bernini's Granite Fountain in St. Peter's Square

Between the obelisk and each fountain is a circular stone that marks the focal points of the ellipse. If you stand on one of these points, the two rows columns of the colonnade line up perfectly and appear to be just a single row. Oh, that clever Bernini.

West Wind
West Wind stone of St. Peter's Square

Around the circumference of Bernini‘s fountain lay oval shaped stones, marked with directional points. The stone labeled West Ponente is etched with a man’s face who appears to be blowing air. He is the West Wind, and the clue needed in our story.

Unfortunately Vittoria and Langdon are too late and they encounter a murder at this spot. Consequently, their hunt will have to proceed…

Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: Santa Maria del Popolo

Day 1- Santa Maria del Popolo and the Chigi Chapel

Piazza del Popolo
Porta del Popolo

Follow the path of the Illuminati in this virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown ‘s book, Angels & Demons.

In ancient times, travelers arrived to Rome on the Via Flaminia, a road dating back to 220 BC.  We will start there as well–at the northern gate, now called the Porta del Popolo.

Egyptian Obelisk

The Piazza, a large open public square, lies inside the gate, centered by an  Egyptian obelisk.  The obelisk is the second oldest and one of the tallest  in Rome (118 feet including its plinth). The column was brought to Rome in 10 BC by order of Augustus and originally set up in the Circus Maximus. Pope  Sixtus V had it re-erected  in the Piazza del Popolo in 1589, as part of his urban plan.  In 1818, fountains in the form of Egyptian-style lions were added around the base of the obelisk.

Now, imagine we are standing at the fountain and slowly turning around. We see twin churches to the south, another church near the gate, three roads fanning outward and a plethora of symbolism all around. Clues of Illuminati significance from the Dan Brown story can be seen on the gate.  Look for the pyramid of rocks with a star shining above (the light), and also at the top of the obelisk.

Twin Churches
Twin Churches in Piazza Popolo

The Twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679), were begun by Carlo Rainaldi and completed by Bernini and Carlo Fontana.  The churches are not true copies, but close enough to create symmetrical balance, something that was important to Bernini, whose works feature prominently in the book.

Lead characters Professor Langdon and Vittoria Vetra sneak into the ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo,the church near the gate.  While inside they make their the first major discovery.

Santa Maria del Popolo
Santa Maria del Popolo

Before we enter, take a moment to study the church exterior  which was modified by (guess who) Bernini. The stone and stucco facade is simple, with a small central door and one circular window on the upper level.  From the rather plain appearance on the outside, you would not expect to find the graceful, intricate splendor of the interior. Walk in and find pink marble columns, golden inlay, statues, bas reliefs and paintings filling every niche.

The church’s history dates back to 1099, beginning when  Pope Paschal II built a chapel over a tomb of the Domitia family. Tradition says the site was haunted by Nero’s ghost or demons in the form of black crows; therefore the pope chopped down the tree sheltering the crows and built a church in its place. The name del Popolo (“of the people”) probably derives from the source of the funds-the people of Rome, but some say it comes from the Latin word populus, meaning “poplar” and referring to a tree located nearby.  I prefer the tree story.

Either way, the chapel became a church in the 13th century and was given to the Augustinians, a monastic order, who still oversee it. When you enter your eyes are drawn up by the numerous arches and domes in the ceiling.  Angels seem to hover about the delicately embossed walls.  To me the church feels serene but also displays a sense of wealth and power.

Chigi Chapel
Interior of the Chigi Chapel

Recessed along each side of the magnificent nave are eight chapels. The Chigi Chapel, named after the prosperous banker Agostini Chigi who funded construction, was designed by Raphael, a famous artist commonly known by his first name.

In the novel, Langdon and Vittoria are searching for Santi’s earthly tomb.  They discover that Raphael was also an architect and the son of Giovanni Santi. Thus, Raphael Santi designed the space; so here is where they find what’s hidden in Santi’s earthly tomb.

Chigi Chapel PyramidBeyond the symbolic pyramids on the tombs of the Chigi brothers and astrological signs, the chapel radiates awesome beauty. Above, a cupola is decorated with a mosaic also designed by Raphael: Creation of the World. The inspiration came from Michelangelo‘s work in the Sistine Chapel. (Raphael and Michelangelo both lived and worked in Rome at the same time, sometimes competing against each other.)

The Demon's Hole

The chapel walls are chestnut marble and gradually curve to form the central altar.  On either side, two white marble statues dominate their alcoves.  The decorative marble floor includes the signs of the zodiac leading to the central “demon’s hole” covered by an ornate circular inlay. The design is of a collapsed, angular skeleton bearing a shield emblazoned with Illuminati symbols.  Below the skeleton rests a tomb, the demon’s hole. This centerpiece seems incongruous with the otherwise sedate surroundings.

Finally, but not to be missed within this fantastic building, but not mentioned in the book, is the Cerasi Chapel.  That sanctuary boasts two priceless paintings by Caravaggio.  Pause to study his Crucifixion of St Peter, as the art will become important as our Angels & Demons hunt continues… 93px-Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Peter

Below is an exquisite video of the church along with lovely vocals, thanks to rododoro15 on YouTube.

Tour of Santa Maria del Popolo (click this link to see video)

Mimi (Debi Lander) did not, nor is she now, receiving any compensation from Dan Brown, Sony Pictures or the Angels & Demons tour company.  She paid her own travels and tour expenses.

Images by Debi Lander or courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour

Visit the locations from Dan Brown’s book:  Angels & Demons

Vatican Swiss Guards
Colorfully dressed Vatican Swiss Guards

Mimi must confess; she’s a fan of Dan Brown books. His fictional bestsellers, The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons sparked serious religious debate. When an author can raise such widespread public discussion, he has written a powerful book.  And, a very profitable one as well.

If a book morphs into a movie, the book and author’s bankroll soars. Such is the case with Angels & Demons. May 15, 2009 marks the premiere of the feature film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.

Mimi remains fascinated by the book, and took the official Angels & Demons tour back in 2005.  The attractions, scattered around Rome, provide a quick glimpse of major landmarks and other  sites that used to be off the beaten track.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon in Rome, Italy

In 2008 Mimi returned to Rome and secured a ticket for the Vatican Scavi Tour. This time she ventured beneath the Papal Grottos, down into the Necropolis tombs.

She will share her Eternal City excitement and Illuminati intrigue through her upcoming blog posts, revisiting the following, one day at a time:

Santa Maria del Popolo and the Chigi Chapel

The piazza and fountains outside St Peter’s Basilica

The Sistine Chapel

Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria with the statue of St. Theresa in Ecstasy

Piazza Navona and the Fountain of Four Rivers

The Pantheon

Castle Sant’Angelo and bridge

Il Passetto

St Peter’s Basilica, interior and papal grottoes

The Necropolis under the Vatican- as viewed on the Scavi Tour

Please accept Thoroughly Modern Mimi’s invitation to follow the path of the Illuminati in this virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown’s book, Angels & Demons.

Mimi  (AKA Debi Lander)  did not, nor is not currently, receiving any compensation from Dan Brown, Sony Pictures  or the Angels & Demons Tour company.  Mimi financed her own travels in Italy.

Statue of St. Peter
A visitor touches the feet of St Peter's statue in the Vatican