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“But I thought—”
“As does everyone. The guidebooks label this as St. Peter’s tomb, but his true grave is two stories beneath us, buried in the earth. The Vatican excavated it in the forties. Nobody is allowed down there.”
Vittoria was shocked. As they moved away from the glowing recession into the darkness again, she thought of the stories she’d heard of pilgrims traveling thousands of miles to look at that golden box, thinking they were in the presence of St. Peter. “Shouldn’t the Vatican tell people?”
“We all benefit from a sense of contact with divinity… even if it is only imagined.”
Vittoria, as a scientist, could not argue the logic. She had read countless studies of the placebo effect—aspirins curing cancer in people who believed they were using a miracle drug. What was faith, after all?
“Change,” the camerlegno said, “is not something we do well within Vatican City. Admitting our past faults, modernization, are things we historically eschew. His Holiness was trying to change that.” He paused. “Reaching to the modern world. Searching for new paths to God.”
Vittoria nodded in the dark. “Like science?”
“To be honest, science seems irrelevant.”
“Irrelevant?” Vittoria could think of a lot of words to describe science, but in the modern world “irrelevant” did not seem like one of them.
“Science can heal, or science can kill. It depends on the soul of the man using the science. It is the soul that interests me.”
“When did you hear your call?”
“Before I was born.”
Vittoria looked at him.
“I’m sorry, that always seems like a strange question. What I mean is that I’ve always known I would serve God. From the moment I could first think. It wasn’t until I was a young man, though, in the military, that I truly understood my purpose.”
Vittoria was surprised. “You were in the military?”
“Two years. I refused to fire a weapon, so they made me fly instead. Medevac helicopters. In fact, I still fly from time to time.”
Vittoria tried to picture the young priest flying a helicopter. Oddly, she could see him perfectly behind the controls. Camerlegno Ventresca possessed a grit that seemed to accentuate his conviction rather than cloud it. “Did you ever fly the Pope?”
“Heavens no. We left that precious cargo to the professionals. His Holiness let me take the helicopter to our retreat in Gandolfo sometimes.” He paused, looking at her. “Ms. Vetra, thank you for your help here today. I am very sorry about your father. Truly.”
“I never knew my father. He died before I was born. I lost my mother when I was ten.”
Vittoria looked up. “You were orphaned?” She felt a sudden kinship.
“I survived an accident. An accident that took my mother.”
“Who took care of you?”
“God,” the camerlegno said. “He quite literally sent me another father. A bishop from Palermo appeared at my hospital bed and took me in. At the time I was not surprised. I had sensed God’s watchful hand over me even as a boy. The bishop’s appearance simply confirmed what I had already suspected, that God had somehow chosen me to serve him.”
“You believed God chose you?”
“I did. And I do.” There was no trace of conceit in the camerlegno’s voice, only gratitude. “I worked under the bishop’s tutelage for many years. He eventually became a cardinal. Still, he never forgot me. He is the father I remember.” A beam of a flashlight caught the camerlegno’s face, and Vittoria sensed a loneliness in his eyes.
The group arrived beneath a towering pillar, and their lights converged on an opening in the floor. Vittoria looked down at the staircase descending into the void and suddenly wanted to turn back. The guards were already helping the camerlegno onto the stairs. They helped her next.
“What became of him?” she asked, descending, trying to keep her voice steady. “The cardinal who took you in?”
“He left the College of Cardinals for another position.”
Vittoria was surprised.
“And then, I’m sorry to say, he passed on.”
“Le mie condoglianze,” Vittoria said. “Recently?”
The camerlegno turned, shadows accentuating the pain on his face. “Exactly fifteen days ago. We are going to see him right now.”
The dark lights glowed hot inside the archival vault. This vault was much smaller than the previous one Langdon had been in. Less air. Less time. He wished he’d asked Olivetti to turn on the recirculating fans.
Langdon quickly located the section of assets containing the ledgers cataloging Belle Arti. The section was impossible to miss. It occupied almost eight full stacks. The Catholic church owned millions of individual pieces worldwide.
Langdon scanned the shelves searching for Gianlorenzo Bernini. He began his search about midway down the first stack, at about the spot he thought the B’s would begin. After a moment of panic fearing the ledger was missing, he realized, to his greater dismay, that the ledgers were not arranged alphabetically. Why am I not surprised?
It was not until Langdon circled back to the beginning of the collection and climbed a rolling ladder to the top shelf that he understood the vault’s organization. Perched precariously on the upper stacks he found the fattest ledgers of all—those belonging to the masters of the Renaissance—Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, Botticelli. Langdon now realized, appropriate to a vault called “Vatican Assets,” the ledgers were arranged by the overall monetary value of each artist’s collection. Sandwiched between Raphael and Michelangelo, Langdon found the ledger marked Bernini. It was over five inches thick.
Already short of breath and struggling with the cumbersome volume, Langdon descended the ladder. Then, like a kid with a comic book, he spread himself out on the floor and opened the cover.
The book was cloth-bound and very solid. The ledger was handwritten in Italian. Each page cataloged a single work, including a short description, date, location, cost of materials, and sometimes a rough sketch of the piece. Langdon fanned through the pages… over eight hundred in all. Bernini had been a busy man.
As a young student of art, Langdon had wondered how single artists could create so much work in their lifetimes. Later he learned, much to his disappointment, that famous artists actually created very little of their own work. They ran studios where they trained young artists to carry out their designs. Sculptors like Bernini created miniatures in clay and hired others to enlarge them into marble. Langdon knew that if Bernini had been required to personally complete all of his commissions, he would still be working today.
“Index,” he said aloud, trying to ward off the mental cobwebs. He flipped to the back of the book, intending to look under the letter F for titles containing the word fuòco–fire—but the F’s were not together. Langdon swore under his breath. What the hell do these people have against alphabetizing?
The entries had apparently been logged chronologically, one by one, as Bernini created each new work. Everything was listed by date. No help at all.
As Langdon stared at the list, another disheartening thought occurred to him. The title of the sculpture he was looking for might not even contain the word Fire. The previous two works—Habakkuk and the Angel and West Ponente–had not contained specific references to Earth or Air.
He spent a minute or two flipping randomly through the ledger in hopes that an illustration might jump out at him. Nothing did. He saw dozens of obscure works he had never heard of, but he also saw plenty he recognized… Daniel and the Lion, Apollo and Daphne, as well as a half dozen fountains. When he saw the fountains, his thoughts skipped momentarily ahead. Water. He wondered if the fourth altar of science was a fountain. A fountain seemed a perfect tribute to water. Langdon hoped they could catch the killer before he had to consider Water–Bernini had carved dozens of fountains in Rome, most of them in front of churches.
Langdon turned back to the matter at hand. Fire. As he looked through the book, Vittoria’s words encouraged him. You were familiar with the first two sculptures… you probably know this one too. As he turned to the index again, he scanned for titles he knew. Some were familiar, but none jumped out. Langdon now realized he would never complete his search before passing out, so he decided, against his better judgment, that he would have to take the book outside the vault. It’s only a ledger, he told himself. It’s not like I’m removing an original Galilean folio. Langdon recalled the folio in his breast pocket and reminded himself to return it before leaving.
Hurrying now, he reached down to lift the volume, but as he did, he saw something that gave him pause. Although there were numerous notations throughout the index, the one that had just caught his eye seemed odd.
The note indicated that the famous Bernini sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, shortly after its unveiling, had been moved from its original location inside the Vatican. This in itself was not what had caught Langdon’s eye. He was already familiar with the sculpture’s checkered past. Though some thought it a masterpiece, Pope Urban VIII had rejected The Ecstasy of St. Teresa as too sexually explicit for the Vatican. He had banished it to some obscure chapel across town. What had caught Langdon’s eye was that the work had apparently been placed in one of the five churches on his list. What was more, the note indicated it had been moved there per suggerimento del artista.
By suggestion of the artist? Langdon was confused. It made no sense that Bernini had suggested his masterpiece be hidden in some obscure location. All artists wanted their work displayed prominently, not in some remote—
Langdon hesitated. Unless…
He was fearful even to entertain the notion. Was it possible? Had Bernini intentionally created a work so explicit that it forced the Vatican to hide it in some out-of-the-way spot? A location perhaps that Bernini himself could suggest? Maybe a remote church on a direct line with West Ponente’s breath?
As Langdon’s excitement mounted, his vague familiarity with the statue intervened, insisting the work had nothing to do with fire. The sculpture, as anyone who had seen it could attest, was anything but scientific—pornographic maybe, but certainly not scientific. An English critic had once condemned The Ecstasy of St. Teresa as “the most unfit ornament ever to be placed in a Christian Church.” Langdon certainly understood the controversy. Though brilliantly rendered, the statue depicted St. Teresa on her back in the throes of a toe-curling orgasm. Hardly Vatican fare.
Langdon hurriedly flipped to the ledger’s description of the work. When he saw the sketch, he felt an instantaneous and unexpected tingle of hope. In the sketch, St. Teresa did indeed appear to be enjoying herself, but there was another figure in the statue who Langdon had forgotten was there.
The sordid legend suddenly came back…
St. Teresa was a nun sainted after she claimed an angel had paid her a blissful visit in her sleep. Critics later decided her encounter had probably been more sexual than spiritual. Scrawled at the bottom of the ledger, Langdon saw a familiar excerpt. St. Teresa’s own words left little to the imagination:
… his great golden spear… filled with fire… plunged into me several times… penetrated to my entrails… a sweetness so extreme that one could not possibly wish it to stop.
Langdon smiled. If that’s not a metaphor for some serious sex, I don’t know what is. He was smiling also because of the ledger’s description of the work. Although the paragraph was in Italian, the word fuòco appeared a half dozen times:
… angel’s spear tipped with point of fire…
… angel’s head emanating rays of fire…
… woman inflamed by passion’s fire…
Langdon was not entirely convinced until he glanced up at the sketch again. The angel’s fiery spear was raised like a beacon, pointing the way. Let angels guide you on your lofty quest. Even the type of angel Bernini had selected seemed significant. It’s a seraphim, Langdon realized. Seraphim literally means “the fiery one.”
Robert Langdon was not a man who had ever looked for confirmation from above, but when he read the name of the church where the sculpture now resided, he decided he might become a believer after all.
Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Vittoria, he thought, grinning. Perfect.
Staggering to his feet, Langdon felt a rush of dizziness. He glanced up the ladder, wondering if he should replace the book. The hell with it, he thought. Father Jaqui can do it. He closed the book and left it neatly at the bottom of the shelf.
As he made his way toward the glowing button on the vault’s electronic exit, he was breathing in shallow gasps. Nonetheless, he felt rejuvenated by his good fortune.
His good fortune, however, ran out before he reached the exit.
Without warning, the vault let out a pained sigh. The lights dimmed, and the exit button went dead. Then, like an enormous expiring beast, the archival complex went totally black. Someone had just killed power.
The Holy Vatican Grottoes are located beneath the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. They are the burial place of deceased Popes.
Vittoria reached the bottom of the spiral staircase and entered the grotto. The darkened tunnel reminded her of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—black and cold. Lit now only by the flashlights of the Swiss Guards, the tunnel carried a distinctly incorporeal feel. On both sides, hollow niches lined the walls. Recessed in the alcoves, as far as the lights let them see, the hulking shadows of sarcophagi loomed.
An iciness raked her flesh. It’s the cold, she told herself, knowing that was only partially true. She had the sense they were being watched, not by anyone in the flesh, but by specters in the dark. On top of each tomb, in full papal vestments, lay life-sized semblances of each Pope, shown in death, arms folded across their chests. The prostrate bodies seemed to emerge from within the tombs, pressing upward against the marble lids as if trying to escape their mortal restraints. The flashlight procession moved on, and the papal silhouettes rose and fell against the walls, stretching and vanishing in a macabre shadowbox dance.
A silence had fallen across the group, and Vittoria couldn’t tell whether it was one of respect or apprehension. She sensed both. The camerlegno moved with his eyes closed, as if he knew every step by heart. Vittoria suspected he had made this eerie promenade many times since the Pope’s death… perhaps to pray at his tomb for guidance.
I worked under the cardinal’s tutelage for many years, the camerlegno had said. He was like a father to me. Vittoria recalled the camerlegno speaking those words in reference to the cardinal who had “saved” him from the army. Now, however, Vittoria understood the rest of the story. That very cardinal who had taken the camerlegno under his wing had apparently later risen to the papacy and brought with him his young protégé to serve as chamberlain.
That explains a lot, Vittoria thought. She had always possessed a well-tuned perception for others’ inner emotions, and something about the camerlegno had been nagging her all day. Since meeting him, she had sensed an anguish more soulful and private than the overwhelming crisis he now faced. Behind his pious calm, she saw a man tormented by personal demons. Now she knew her instincts had been correct. Not only was he facing the most devastating threat in Vatican history, but he was doing it without his mentor and friend… flying solo.
The guards slowed now, as if unsure where exactly in the darkness the most recent Pope was buried. The camerlegno continued assuredly and stopped before a marble tomb that seemed to glisten brighter than the others. Lying atop was a carved figure of the late Pope. When Vittoria recognized his face from television, a shot of fear gripped her. What are we doing?
“I realize we do not have much time,” the camerlegno said. “I still ask we take a moment of prayer.”
The Swiss Guard all bowed their heads where they were standing. Vittoria followed suit, her heart pounding in the silence. The camerlegno knelt before the tomb and prayed in Italian. As Vittoria listened to his words, an unexpected grief surfaced as tears… tears for her own mentor… her own holy father. The camerlegno’s words seemed as appropriate for her father as they did for the Pope.
“Supreme father, counselor, friend.” The camerlegno’s voice echoed dully around the ring. “You told me when I was young that the voice in my heart was that of God. You told me I must follow it no matter what painful places it leads. I hear that voice now, asking of me impossible tasks. Give me strength. Bestow on me forgiveness. What I do… I do in the name of everything you believe. Amen.”
“Amen,” the guards whispered.
Amen, Father. Vittoria wiped her eyes.
The camerlegno stood slowly and stepped away from the tomb. “Push the covering aside.”
The Swiss Guards hesitated. “Signore,” one said, “by law we are at your command.” He paused. “We will do as you say…”
The camerlegno seemed to read the young man’s mind. “Someday I will ask your forgiveness for placing you in this position. Today I ask for your obedience. Vatican laws are established to protect this church. It is in that very spirit that I command you to break them now.”