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Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: Castle Sant’Angelo

May 20, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

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Castle Sant'Angelo on the banks of the Tiber

Day 6–Castle Sant’Angelo

Our virtual tour continues to follow the path of the Illuminati. We find Professor Langdon charging down narrow passageways in Castle Sant’Angelo, searching for Vittoria. The timeless structure and bridge leading to its doors have rested on the banks of the Tiber River since 139 AD.

The ancient cement exterior, a round shape surrounded by high walls, stands stark and imposing, hardly a castle in the traditional sense. Compared to an Italian villa or luxuriant St. Peter’s Basilica, Castle Sant’Angelo looks primitive and unfinished.

Originally constructed as Emperor Hadrian ‘s tomb, the mausoleum’s intended function changed almost as often as the popes. Over two millennia the site served as a fortress, prison, papal refuge and palace, military barracks, museum and …in Angels & Demons–the Church of Illumination and secret lair of the evil Hassassin.

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Statue of Archangel Michael atop Castle Sant'Angelo

When the plague struck Rome in 590 AD, Pope Gregory the Great is said to have seen an apparition of an angel, Michael, sheathing his sword above the castle. He believed this meant the end of the disease for his city. In remembrance, a statue of Archangel St. Michael was erected high up on the terrace and the name Hadrian’s Tomb was changed to “Castle of the Holy Angel- Castle Sant’Angelo.”

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The passetto or passageway connecting to the Vatican

In 1277 Pope Nicholas II ordered the building of massive circular walls and the famous 2,000 foot-long corridor connecting to the Vatican. The first floor includes a winding ramp about 400 feet long. Between the 10th and 14th centuries this defensive stronghold remained the only fortress in Rome. Powerful families fought to control it.

Many rooms within the fortress were turned into small cells for political prisoners, some more like torture chambers. The courtyards were used for executions by decapitation and the heads of the condemned then hung along the bridge.

The popes demanded ownership of the castle as one of the conditions for their return from Avignon. They left France for Rome and regained the strategic property, which they hold to this day.

During the Renaissance, Popes Nicolas V and Alexander VI modernized the defensive position with four iron bastions. A moat was added and the corridor or “passetto” was fortified. These timely improvements provided a refuge during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

Papal apartment in Castle Sant'Angelo

Papal apartment in Castle Sant'Angelo

Plush Papal apartments were built during the mid 1500’s, seen from afar as the brick rectangular addition on top. The lavish rooms were frescoed and furnished with priceless collections. A treasury room in the centre was created to store the Vatican’s wealth. Space was provided for enormous reserves of food, in the event of an attack. There were wineskins set in the walls, huge water tanks, granaries and even a mill.

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Castle Sant'Angelo at first light

A fifth bastion was added in 1560, but is now a garden. During the 17th century Bernini’s workshop was commissioned to sculpt angels for the bridge, thus the crossing became known as the Bridge of Angels.

In 1752 a bronze statue of Archangel Michael, added to the summit, replaced a former one. His sword points downward toward the main entrance, which Dan Brown uses to mean the hidden Church of Illumination.

The castle’s exterior then remained unchanged until restraining walls were added along the Tiber and external arches were evened with the three central ones.

In 1870 when Rome became the capital of the new state of Italy, alterations were made for military barracks. Today the icon stands open to the public as the National Museum of Castle Sant’Angelo. Restoration and preservation of the historic structure is ongoing.

If you’re in Rome and want to fully appreciate the famous site, first stroll along the opposite side of the river. The best photo op is sunset, but I found sunrise very dramatic. And, best of all, the view of the bridge without tourists creates a mystical scene.

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Detail of the angel statue on the Bridge of Angels in Rome

Cross the Bridge of Angels admiring the detail and uniqueness of each statue. Then, enter the castle to tour and climb up five levels. You’ll find courtyards, cannonballs, corridors and cells. The panoramic view from the highest terrace is worth the price of admission.

And don’t forget to look up to see beloved Archangel Michael guarding the Eternal City, as well as leading the way to the next chapter in Angels & Demons…

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Lander Family overlooks Rome from the open courtyard atop Castle Sant'Angelo

Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: The Sistine Chapel

May 9, 2009 by · Comments Off on Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: The Sistine Chapel 

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

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

May 6, 2009 by · Comments Off on 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.

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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.)

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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.

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