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Angels & Demons: History vs. Dan Brown’s other thriller

by John-Peter Pham

Spurred on no doubt by The Da Vinci Code hoopla, Dan Brown’s fans continue to push his less intricately crafted Angels & Demons to the top of the bestseller lists. A “prequel” to The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons chronicles Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon’s first foray into the world of the Vatican one year before he is caught in the war between its Opus Dei proxies and the “Priory of Sion.” Like The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons opens with the murder of a scholar, this time Leonardo Vetra, a priest and physicist at Switzerland’s CERN, “the world’s largest scientific research facility,” who has discovered the secret of creating and bottling antimatter. Langdon is called in to investigate because the death crime scene carries—literally—the mark of the Illuminati, an age-old secret society whose members have sworn vengeance on the Church of Rome for its persecution of scholars and other freethinkers during the Counter-Reformation. Like the sequel, Langdon is joined in his inquest by a sensuous but cerebral survivor of the victim, in this case a “bio entanglement physicist,” Vittoria Vetra, the dead priest’s adopted daughter.

Together, Langdon and Vetra set off for the Eternal City where the murderers of the elder Vetra have absconded with his antimatter device and threaten to use it to blow the Vatican and its denizens sky high. Their chase is complicated by the fact that the Church is in the midst of the sede vacante—the old pope has died and the College of Cardinals has gathered to elect his successor. Brown’s protagonists quickly prove their worth to suspicious papal bureaucrats by discovering evidence that the late pontiff’s death was anything but natural. Meanwhile, the devious Illuminati have not only hidden their WMD somewhere in the sacred precincts of Vatican, but have hired a scion of the ancient Assassin sect to kidnap the four cardinals whom Brown calls the preferiti (“preferred”) contenders for the papal succession (the actual Italian term is papabile, literally, “pope-able”). This Middle Eastern interloper is killing the would-be pontiffs in a grisly manner of at regular intervals, leaving their corpses in Roman churches, while Langdon and Vetra fille comb through the Secret Vatican Archives for clues for the whereabouts of the long-forgotten Illuminati lair in order to stop the murderous spree and save the assembled cardinals (and the Church’s priceless art collection) from a premature encounter with the Almighty.

Like its sequel, Angels & Demons is filled with historical and other factual inaccuracies, even if one forgives the author his ignorance of the workings of the Roman Curia (e.g., the Camerlengo, or “chamberlain,” of the Roman Church is the cardinal who assumes the regency upon the death of a pope, not lowly priest who labored as the deceased’s personal domestic assistant). No doubt, some eminently qualified art historian will, if he or she has not yet done so, publish a devastating catalog of the woeful inadequacies of Brown’s knowledge of Raphael, the encrypting artist of this novel, just as Bruce Boucher of the Chicago Art Institute did with respect to the author’s use of Leonardo da Vinci. The novel’s narrative, as well as its front maps, wreaks havoc on Roman and Vatican City geography. Just from the confused description of the scavi under the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, one is left wondering if, in his pre-Code days, Brown was too penurious to spring the five dollars for English-language tours of the archaeological excavations given by seminarians from the nearby North American College.

Despite its limitations, Angels & Demons is great fun. The subject matter is fascinating. As the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code attests, there is a huge reservoir of modern fascination with ancient Christian esoterica, a social and cultural phenomenon that Philip Jenkins has exhaustively documented in his Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way. And it becomes even more enthralling since it feeds both a voyeuristic urge to peer into the mysteriously ritualistic world of the Vatican and the conspiracy mindset about the global political intrigues surrounding the election of a new pope and allegedly still orchestrated from the papal court.

Ironically, while many readers of Angels & Demons will wonder whether Brown’s tale is the bearer of at least some long-hidden secrets about papal succession politics, the truth of the matter is that looking at the historical record actually reveals a lode of scintillating nuggets. Truth, indeed, can be stranger than fiction.

Looking for a murdered pope? No need to invent one. Excluding those martyred for their beliefs during various persecutions, seven pontiffs have met violent ends: Sabinian, John VIII, Stephen VI, John XIV, Lucius II, Alexander VI, and Leo X. The last of this unfortunate series, Leo X (pope 1513-1521), being the younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici, had personal ties to almost all the great Renaissance artists. Tonsured at seven, a cardinal at thirteen, he was pope by the time he was thirty-seven. Leo survived one assassination attempt, in 1517, when at least five members of the Sacred College, led by Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, plotted to have him killed by the papal physician, only to succumb four years later to a poison administered by the papal cupbearer, Bernabò Malaspina.

Looking for something a little more salacious? Try about Pope John XI (931-935), arguably the most unfit occupant of the Throne of St. Peter. John was the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III (904-911) and Marozia, the female senator and all-powerful ruler of Rome, who imposed him upon the electors when he was in his early twenties. Unfortunately for the young pontiff, he did not get to enjoy his office for too long, succumbing, as the contemporary chronicler Luitprand of Cremona put it delicately, to the “excesses of table and bed.”

Want kidnapped cardinals during a conclave? Look no further than 1922, when Cardinal Lev de Skrbensky z Hriste of Olomouc (now in the Czech Republic) went missing in February and March during the conclave that elected Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). A former Imperial Dragoon in the Austrian army, Skrbensky z Hriste was only thirty-six years old when he was appointed prince-archbishop of Prague in 1899 by the Emperor Franz Josef II, who was reputed to have been his natural father. Barely a year later, Skrbensky z Hriste was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) at the Austro-Hungarian sovereign’s insistence, thus becoming the youngest member of the College in the twentieth century. In 1916, he was transferred to what was then the even richer see of Olomouc as prince-archbishop. It has long been speculated that after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, the Vatican found Skrbensky z Hriste to be an all-too-embarrassing reminder of its entanglements with the ancien régime and engineered his temporary disappearance to keep him out of the electoral conclave.

Want something more perfidious than a mere kidnapping, perhaps? Try the exhumation by Stephen VI (896-897) of the remains of his predecessor Pope Formosus (891-896). Stephen, long a nemesis of his predecessor, had the decaying corpse propped up on the papal throne in St. Peter’s, dressed in full pontifical vestments, so he could solemnly arraign it for a series of alleged crimes. When Formosus was found “guilty,” his first three fingers (those he used to bless) were hacked off and his body was dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber. The supporters of the outraged Formosus were so enraged that they rebelled, deposed Stephen, and threw him into a common jail, where he was strangled shortly afterward.

Want outside political interference in the choice of the religious head of the Catholicism? While there was plenty of it during the medieval and Renaissance papacy, it also took place well into the twentieth. During the conclave of 1903, the leading vote-getter among the cardinals was the progressive Sicilian aristocrat Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, architect of the late Leo XIII’s slow rapprochement with liberal democracy. However, as Rampolla’s candidacy neared the requisite two-thirds majority needed for election, the prince-bishop of Cracow (the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko, announced to the electors that “His Apostolic Majesty, Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary…pronounces the exclusionary veto against my Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro.” Rather than risk the wrath of the old emperor, the cardinals hastily proceeded to elect the reactionary Pius X (1903-1914).

When the cardinals gathered on the eve of the Second World War, both sides in the looming conflict sought to influence their deliberations. On the very day of Pius XI’s death, French foreign minister Georges Bonnet received the British ambassador in Paris, Sir Eric Phipps, and formally suggested that both countries cooperate to secure a pope favorably disposed to their cause. As a consequence, the British minister to the Holy See, Sir d’Arcy Osborne, later the last duke of Leeds, and his French colleague, François Charles-Roux, lobbied cardinals directly, canvassing on behalf of the candidacy of the incumbent secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, whom they thought would continue the deceased pontiff’s anti-fascist line. Ironically, unbeknownst to the Allied envoys, the Italian ambassador, Bonifacio Pignatti, and his German colleague, Diego von Bergen, had decided to back the same candidate, reasoning that Pacelli, who had served as nuncio (papal ambassador) in Germany for twelve years and who spoke perfect German and surrounded himself with German aides and housekeepers, would be likewise sympathetic to their interests. Not surprisingly, Pacelli emerged from one of the shortest conclaves in history as Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).

The papal succession of Pope Benedict XVI last year may not have been as fantastic as some of his historical predecessors, much less the frenetic conspiracy narrative created by Dan Brown, but somehow one suspects that history, with all its twists and turns, is not yet done with the drama staged against the backdrop of Michelangelo’s frescoes and Bernini’s dome. As Macaulay once wrote, “there never was on this earth a work of human polity as well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church.”


John-Peter Pham, a former papal diplomat, is the author of Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession, which is now out in an updated paperback version.

Recent Comments

  1. Judith Testa

    Bernini had nothing to do with the construction of the dome of St. Peter’s. It was designed by Michelangelo well before Bernini was born, and was executed with some modifications by Michelangelo’s associate, Giacomo della Porta.

  2. j.d.

    i liked angels & demons better.

  3. jon kon

    its a book, it is historical FICTION, no need to have any arguments over it

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