I am writing this piece from a nice little restaurant in London, enjoying a Mexican burrito, guacamole and a delicious Cappuccino. I have in fact just came from Rome and the Vatican, after making a little dream that I had come true – following the path of illumination from the famous Angels and Demons masterpiece of Dan Brown, a book that I’ve read in the cold nights of a bicycle journey in Sweden.
The Path of Illumination
“From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole, ‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.
The path of light is laid, the sacred test, Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.”
I had tried to look for information over the specific spots of the trail, but couldn’t find any organized how-to, and hence this post. I managed to do it in one day, walking my feet from place to place. I recommend you to do the same, you’ll see a lot of places on the go, even though it’s not easy if you’re a couch potato.
* Spoiler Warning *
Fist Step: The Pantheon
The first stop in the storyline. Langdon comes to the Pantheon, mistakenly thinking it to be the first altar of science due to the first line of the poem “From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole”. Robert and Vittoria arrive and act as newlywed couple, trying to look for the assassin. Santi, of course, is Raphael Santi, the 16th-century renaissance painter buried inside the church.
Vittoria then notices a sign indicating that Raphael was not placed inside the Pantheon until the 17th century, way after the Path of Illumination was actually laid. They then find out that Raphael designed an “earthly tomb” inside the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which is the next spot we’re going to.
First Altar of Science: Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (EARTH)
“The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo stood out like a misplaced battleship, askew at the base of a hill on the southeast corner of the piazza.”
You’ll find this church inside the famous Piazza del Popolo. Inside the church, look for Chigi Chapel, which is the first altar of science, and where the first cardinal murder takes place in the book. The cardinal is found dead waist-buried, throat stuffed with earth, with the EARTH ambigram seared on his chest.
Inside the Chigi Chapel, there are the statues of Habakkuk and the angel, pointing the way and guiding Robert Langdon down the path of illumination. The statues were made by Bernini, but unfortunately I didn’t get to see them as the site was covered with nylon due to restoration stuff. Hope it’ll be finished soon.
Second Altar of Science: Saint Peter’s Square (AIR)
“Crossing the open expanse of St.Peter’s square he sensed Bernini’s sprawling piazza having the exact effect the artist had been commissioned to create – that of humbling all those who entered.”
Next altar of science is St. Peter’s Square, home to the largest Catholic church in the entire world, which you’ll visit later on. The second cardinal was found dead in the square itself, lying by a fountain with his ribs punctured (“air escaping his ribs”) with the “AIR” ambigram seared on his chest. Langdon thought the man to be a drunk homeless, noticing his mistake only when a girl screams and points to the cardinal.
Third Altar of Science: Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (FIRE)
“..a woman inflamed by passion’s fire..”
This place was very tough to find, and it seems to be well off the beaten path for Rome tourists. Even the vast majority of locals and tourist information officers didn’t know where the place is, and only Google Maps mixed with the help of a religious priest helped me found the church. However, excitement it was when I reached it.
Inside the church you’ll want to look for Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a tribute to the fundamental element ‘Fire’. It is located on the left side of the church, in “Cornaro Chapel”, and is considered by many to be an almost-pornographic statue and is probably the most unfit piece of art to be placed in a church ever.
Inside the church. the cardinal is found hung in mid-air, arms tied to the cables that usually hold lamps, with the church pews on fire beneath him, slowly burning him alive, with the ‘FIRE’ ambigram seared on his chest.
Fourth Altar of Science: Fountain of Four Rivers, Piazza Navona (WATER)
“A flawless tribute to water, Bernini’s fountain glorified the four major rivers, one of his most celebrated sculptures. Everyone who came to Rome went to see it”.
Piazza Navona is where the last cardinal murder takes place, right in the Fountain of Four Rivers. In the book, Langdon arrives early to the fountain and surprises the assassin that arrives with his van. The assassin then kicks the chains-bound cardinal from his truck into the fountain and goes to fight Langdon who fakes drowning after using a bubbles pump to breath inside the fountain. He is too late to save the cardinal, and starts crying.
Langdon then looks at the dove atop the obelisk, which points to the next spot – the Illuminati Lair, a place that Langdon finds unbelievable to exist. The movie storyline was a bit different, and the cardinal was actually saved, telling Langdon where he was being held hostage – Castel St. Angelo.
In the fountain you’ll see four male figures that symbolize the four important rivers of the old world, one of each continent – America (Rio della Plata), Africa (Nile), Asia (Ganges) and Europe (Danube).
The Illuminati Lair: Castel St. Angelo and Ill Passetto
Astonished, Robert Langdon then goes to Castel Saint’ Angelo, the last place he could have think of to be the mythical Illuminati Lair. This castle was the meeting spot of the Illuminati, and is connected to the Vatican through a secret passage – “Ill Passetto”.
Robert finds Vittoria inside the castle and fights the assassin for the third time, and with the help of Vittoria, manages to win the fight (finally). They then flee through the secret passage to the Vatican to stop the anti-matter canister from detonating.
Final Stop: Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Church
The Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) is absolutely stunning. I can’t recall if the place plays an actual step in the path itself (I think it is), but visit it anyway. It’s a must-see, and is right by the church of Saint peter (below).
St. Peter’s Church (We’ll call it the Church of Illumination) is absolutely breathtaking, even to a complete non-religious person like me. You’ll see the somewhat-clowny-looking Swiss Guards outside, and the majestic St. Peter tomb inside, the same place where the anti-matter canister was hidden in the storyline.
That’s it! If you’ll notice – the places form a cross in the map. It’s around 20km of a walk, so drink a lot (no need to carry bottles, there are plenty of public drinkable fountains on the way).
A,B,C and D indicates the first four altars of science. Castel St. Angelo is somewhere between B and D, and will lead you back all the way to B (St. Peter’s Square and Church) through the passage.