'Angels & Demons' tour illuminates the charms of Rome

The faithful stream into St. Peter's Square on Christianity's holiest day, engulfing the Egyptian obelisk that centers the piazza so carefully planned by 17th-century sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Stern despite their colorful striped uniforms, members of the Swiss Guards direct those in the Easter crowd fortunate enough to procure free tickets to chairs, while others stand, waiting for a glimpse of papal pomp.

It's a scene that could be taken straight out of Angels & Demons, author Dan Brown's best-selling prequel to the hugely successful — and highly controversial — novel The Da Vinci Code. Just like that book, Angels & Demons has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon, which opens today around the world.

Set in Vatican City and Rome, Angels & Demons pits Langdon (paired with an intelligent and attractive female sidekick, Vittoria Vetra) against a modern incarnation of an ancient foe of the Roman Catholic Church, the Illuminati. In the book, Catholics fill St. Peter's Square, awaiting the announcement of Il Conclave, the assembly of cardinals charged with selecting a new pope. Little do they know they are sitting atop a time bomb — and that four cardinals in line for the job are being murdered at sites around Rome.

It's not a tale you'd expect the Catholic Church to embrace. And indeed, several prominent religious leaders — including Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue— have come out against the film (although the church itself has not issued a boycott call).

No matter. Catholic indignation did nothing to stop The Da Vinci Code movie from grossing more than $758 million in 2006.

And it did nothing to stop Sony Pictures from shooting key scenes of the movie in Rome, which will only enhance the city's allure for Angels & Demons fans. Among the sites from the book that will be seen on film: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant'Angelo and its Pasetto di Borga, the secret passageway that connects the fortress with the Vatican.

The Vatican itself is not on film, nor are the interiors of two churches prominently featured in the book, Santa Maria del Popolo or Santa Maria della Vittoria; the Rome diocese said last summer that it had banned filming there because of the movie's themes. Reggia di Caserta, an 18th-century royal palace outside Naples and south of Rome, stood in for the Vatican in some scenes (and an elaborate replica was built on a Los Angeles studio lot).

Executive producer Todd Hallowell says the production didn't bother asking permission to film at the Vatican, as the church never grants it. He promises that viewers will feel as if they are within the Vatican, even if the church itself wasn't crazy about the filming.

Says Hallowell: "Given the fact that The Da Vinci Code was perhaps not their favorite movie, the concept of a sequel being shot in their backyard was not the best news they had all week."

Mapping out the book

On the steps outside Santa Maria del Popolo — the site of the book's first element-themed murder, Earth— about 30 people gather for Angels & Demons guided tours. While the operating company, Angelsanddemons.it, bills it as "the official Angels & Demons tour," several tour operators in Rome offer a similar version.

The group is split, and guide Graham Hannaford, 26, passes out a map of Rome, a replica of the one from Angels & Demons. Fewer than half the people on Hannaford's tour have read the book, but he carries it with him for reference (and occasionally, to debunk the poetic license that Brown sometimes took with Roman geography).

The first stop on the "Path of Illumination" that Brown has devised through Rome is the Chigi Chapel inside the church. Designed by Renaissance master Raphael and filled with sculptures by Bernini — the baroque wunderkind whom Brown cheekily portrays as a secret Illuminati mastermind — the Chapel is an artistic masterpiece, albeit one that might fall lower on a typical tourist itinerary.

Subsequent stops in the four-hour tour call at Roman sites both familiar and off-the-beaten-track: St. Peter's Square, the gloriously elaborate Santa Maria della Vittoria and the always-hopping Piazza Navona, sites of the book's Air, Fire and Water murders, respectively. It concludes at the imposing Castel Sant'Angelo, where the Hassassin in Brown's book keeps Vittoria captive in an alleged ancient Illuminati lair.

Jennifer Carroll, 32, of French Settlement, La., takes pictures at nearly every stop.

"My book club will kill me if I don't," she says.

Carroll and her husband, Basil, attended the papal Easter Mass and bought rosaries for family at the Vatican, including one for their daughter to use at her First Communion. Carroll had some friends who felt The Da Vinci Code was anti-Catholic and others who felt the murders in Angels & Demons were too violent. But the controversy has been overblown, she says.

"It's fiction, it's OK," she says. "You could get offended by just about anything if you wanted to."

Hannaford calls for a coffee break next to the Pantheon. With Roman tourism down, the Napa, Calif., native had questioned returning after Christmas, but he figured the release of Angels & Demons could trigger the same bump in visitors that Paris received from The Da Vinci Code.

The tour is not the company's best seller — visitors tend to hire guides to the immense Vatican Museum more often, Hannaford says. But he thinks that Angels & Demons provides a good road map to Rome's charms.

"The book does capture the spirit of Rome," he says. "There are a lot of chaotic things going on, but it all pulls together."

Seeing the story

Of course, visitors don't have to take a guided tour to see the parts of Rome explored in Angels & Demons. But some sites do require planning ahead.

Such is the case with the Vatican Scavi, the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica said to contain the grave of Peter, the founder of the Christian church. In the book, Langdon chases the camerlengo (played by Ewan McGregor in the film) through the subterranean passages to find the hidden canister of dangerous antimatter.

In real life, the Vatican Excavations Office carefully controls the number of people allowed to walk through the Scavi. Only 12 people are allowed through at a time, with a limit of 250 visitors a day. Travel agents and tour guides are not allowed to buy tickets; visitors must petition through e-mail or fax months ahead of time to secure a spot.

The machinations are well worth it. Undertaken in 1939 through 1950, the excavations unearthed pagan and early Christian tombs from a cemetery that existed on the site before Constantine built the original St. Peter's Basilica around 322. The corridors between the tombs are narrow and uneven, and the air is slightly dank. But what you'll see are remarkably well-preserved frescoes and mosaics that provide a glimpse into the time when Christianity was a religious newcomer.

Back above ground, a Vatican trip is not complete without visiting the Sistine Chapel, although doing so requires negotiating the crowded Vatican Museums. With the masses of people snapping photos of Michelangelo's famed ceiling, it's hard to imagine the Sistine Chapel as a quiet place of deliberation. But this is where Il Conclave chooses papal succession, broadcasting their results through smoke from a chimney brought in for the occasion.

A better job of crowd control takes place at the Galleria Borghese, where visitors are limited to two-hour time blocks. While the museum — set amid leafy Villa Borghese, Rome's version of Central Park— is not referenced in Angels & Demons, it's a must-stop for readers who are curious about Bernini's other works. Some of his most famous pieces are here, including The Rape of Proserpina, his determined David and Truth Unveiled by Time, created for himself.

The latter sculpture was composed when Bernini — a papal darling who not only designed the colonnades of St. Peter's Square but also came up with the idea for the 10 angels guarding Ponte Sant'Angelo, the bridge between Rome and Vatican City — was out of favor. Could it be that during this time, as Brown suggests, Bernini joined disgruntled intellectuals such as Galileo in the Illuminati ranks?

Vatican tour guide Joseph Mancinelli dismisses such speculation. "It is just a story, it has nothing to do with Christianity," he says of Angels & Demons. "You must believe what is true, not what people say in a story."

Follow Chris Gray Faust at twitter.com/CAroundTheWorld.