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“Partially correct,” Marta replied. “In his poem, Dante eventually escapes hell, continues through purgatory, and finally arrives in paradise. If you ever read The Divine Comedy, you’ll see his journey is divided into three parts—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.” Marta motioned for them to follow her along the balcony toward the museum entrance. “The reason the mask resides here in the Palazzo Vecchio has nothing to do with The Divine Comedy, though. It has to do with real history. Dante lived in Florence, and he loved this city as much as anyone could ever love a city. He was a very prominent and powerful Florentine, but there was a shift in political power, and Dante supported the wrong side, so he was exiled—thrown outside the city walls and told he could never come back.”
Marta paused to catch her breath as they approached the museum entrance. Hands again on her hips, she leaned back and continued talking. “Some people claim that Dante’s exile is the reason why his death mask looks so sad, but I have another theory. I’m a bit of a romantic, and I think the sad face has more to do with a woman named Beatrice. You see, Dante spent his entire life desperately in love with a young woman named Beatrice Portinari. But sadly, Beatrice married another man, which meant Dante had to live not only without his beloved Florence, but also without the woman he so deeply loved. His love for Beatrice became a central theme in The Divine Comedy.”
“Interesting,” Sienna said in a tone that suggested she had not heard a word. “And yet I’m still not clear on why the death mask is kept here inside the palazzo?”
Marta found the young woman’s insistence both unusual and bordering on impolite. “Well,” she continued, walking again, “when Dante died, he was still forbidden to enter Florence, and his body was buried in Ravenna. But because his true love, Beatrice, was buried in Florence, and because Dante so loved Florence, bringing his death mask here seemed like a kindhearted tribute to the man.”
“I see,” Sienna said. “And the choice of this building in particular?”
“The Palazzo Vecchio is the oldest symbol of Florence and, in Dante’s time, was the heart of the city. In fact, there is a famous painting in the cathedral that shows Dante standing outside the walled city, banished, while visible in the background is his cherished palazzo tower. In many ways, by keeping his death mask here, we feel like Dante has finally been allowed to come home.”
“That’s nice,” Sienna said, finally seeming satisfied. “Thank you.”
Marta arrived at the door of the museum and rapped three times. “Sono io, Marta! Buongiorno!”
Some keys rattled inside and the door opened. An elderly guard smiled tiredly at her and checked his watch. “È un po’ presto,” he said with a smile. A little early.
By way of explanation, Marta motioned to Langdon, and the guard immediately brightened. “Signore! Bentornato!” Welcome back!
“Grazie,” Langdon replied amiably as the guard motioned them all inside.
They moved through a small foyer, where the guard disarmed a security system and then unlocked a second, heavier door. As the door swung open, he stepped aside, sweeping his arm out with a flourish. “Ecco il museo!”
Marta smiled her thanks and led her guests inside.
The space that made up this museum had originally been designed as government offices, which meant that rather than a sprawling, wide-open gallery space, it was a labyrinth of moderate-size rooms and hallways, which encircled half of the building.
“The Dante death mask is around the corner,” Marta told Sienna. “It’s displayed in a narrow space called l’andito, which is essentially just a walkway between two larger rooms. An antique cabinet against the sidewall holds the mask, which keeps it invisible until you draw even with it. For this reason, many visitors walk right past the mask without even noticing it!”
Langdon was striding faster now, eyes straight ahead, as if the mask held some kind of strange power over him. Marta nudged Sienna and whispered, “Obviously, your brother is not interested in any of our other pieces, but as long as you’re here, you shouldn’t miss our bust of Machiavelli or the Mappa Mundi globe in the Hall of Maps.”
Sienna nodded politely and kept moving, her eyes also straight ahead. Marta was barely able to keep pace. As they reached the third room, she had fallen behind a bit and finally stopped short.
“Professor?” she called out, panting. “Perhaps you … want to show your sister … some of the gallery … before we see his mask?”
Langdon turned, seeming distracted, as if returning to the present from some far-off thought. “Excuse me?”
Marta breathlessly pointed to a nearby display case. “One of the earliest … printed copies of The Divine Comedy?”
When Langdon finally saw Marta dabbing her forehead and trying to catch her breath, he looked mortified. “Marta, forgive me! Of course, yes, a quick glance at the text would be wonderful.”
Langdon hurried back, permitting Marta to guide them over to the antique case. Inside was a well-worn, leather-bound book, propped open to an ornate title page: La Divina Commedia: Dante Alighieri.
“Incredible,” Langdon said, sounding surprised. “I recognize the frontispiece. I didn’t know you had one of the original Numeister editions.”
Of course you knew, Marta thought, puzzled. I showed this to you last night!
“In the mid–fourteen hundreds,” Langdon said hurriedly to Sienna, “Johann Numeister created the first printed edition of this work. Several hundred copies were printed, but only about a dozen survived. They’re very rare.”
It now seemed to Marta that Langdon had been playing dumb so he could show off for his younger sibling. It seemed a rather unbecoming immodesty for a professor whose reputation was one of academic humility.
“This copy is on loan from the Laurentian Library,” Marta offered. “If you and Robert have not visited there, you should. They have a spectacular staircase designed by Michelangelo, which leads up to the world’s first public reading room. The books there were actually chained to the seats so nobody could take them out. Of course, many of the books were the only copies in the world.”
“Amazing,” Sienna said, glancing deeper into the museum. “And the mask is this way?”
What’s the hurry? Marta needed another minute to regain her breath. “Yes, but you might be interested to hear about this.” She pointed across an alcove toward a small staircase that disappeared into the ceiling. “That goes up to a viewing platform in the rafters where you can actually look down on Vasari’s famous hanging ceiling. I’d be happy to wait here if you’d like to—”
“Please, Marta,” Sienna interjected. “I’d love to see the mask. We’re a little short on time.”
Marta stared at the pretty, young woman, perplexed. She very much disliked the new fashion of strangers calling each other by their first names. I’m Signora Alvarez, she silently chided. And I’m doing you a favor.
“Okay, Sienna,” Marta said curtly. “The mask is right this way.”
Marta wasted no more time offering Langdon and his sister informed commentary as they made their way through the winding suite of gallery rooms toward the mask. Last night, Langdon and il Duomino had spent nearly a half hour in the narrow andito, viewing the mask. Marta, intrigued by the men’s curiosity for the piece, had asked if their fascination was related somehow to the unusual series of events surrounding the mask over this past year. Langdon and il Duomino had been coy, offering no real answer.
Now, as they approached the andito, Langdon began explaining to his sister the simple process used to create a death mask. His description, Marta was pleased to hear, was perfectly accurate, unlike his bogus claim that he had not previously seen the museum’s rare copy of The Divine Comedy.
“Shortly after death,” Langdon described, “the deceased is laid out, and his face is coated with olive oil. Then a layer of wet plaster is caked onto the skin, covering everything—mouth, nose, eyelids—from the hairline down to the neck. Once hardened, the plaster is easily lifted off and used as a mold into which fresh plaster is poured. This plaster hardens into a perfectly detailed replica of the deceased’s face. The practice was particularly widespread in commemorating eminent persons and men of genius—Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tasso, Keats—they all had death masks made.”
“And here we are at last,” Marta announced as the trio arrived outside the andito. She stepped aside and motioned for Langdon’s sister to enter first. “The mask is in the display case against the wall on your left. We ask that you please stay outside the stanchions.”
“Thank you.” Sienna entered the narrow corridor, walked toward the display case, and peered inside. Her eyes instantly went wide, and she glanced back at her brother with an expression of dread.
Marta had seen the reaction a thousand times; visitors were often jolted and repulsed by their first glimpse of the mask—Dante’s eerily crinkled visage, hooked nose, and closed eyes.
Langdon strode in right behind Sienna, arriving beside her and looking into the display case. He immediately stepped back, his face also registering surprise.
Marta groaned. Che esagerato. She followed them in. But when she gazed into the cabinet, she, too, gasped out loud. Oh mio Dio!
Marta Alvarez had expected to see Dante’s familiar dead face staring back at her, but instead, all she saw was the red satin interior of the cabinet and the peg on which the mask normally hung.
Marta covered her mouth and stared in horror at the empty display case. Her breathing accelerated and she grabbed one of the stanchions for support. Finally, she tore her eyes from the bare cabinet and wheeled in the direction of the night guards at the main entrance.
“La maschera di Dante!” she shouted like a madwoman. “La maschera di Dante è sparita!”
Marta Alvarez trembled before the empty display cabinet. She hoped the tightness spreading through her abdomen was panic and not labor pains.
The Dante death mask is gone!
The two security guards were now on full alert, having arrived in the andito, seen the empty case, and sprung into action. One had rushed to the nearby video control room to access security-camera footage from last night, while the other had just finished phoning in the robbery to the police.
“La polizia arriverà tra venti minuti!” the guard told Marta as he hung up with the police.
“Venti minuti?!” she demanded. Twenty minutes?! “We’ve had a major art theft!”
The guard explained that he had been told most of the city police were currently handling a far more serious crisis and they were trying to find an available agent to come and take a statement.
“Che cosa potrebbe esserci di più grave?!” she ranted. What can be more serious?!
Langdon and Sienna shared an anxious glance, and Marta sensed that her two guests were suffering from sensory overload. Not surprising. Having simply stopped by for a quick look at the mask, they were now witnessing the aftermath of a major art theft. Last night, somehow, someone had gained access to the gallery and stolen Dante’s death mask.
Marta knew there were far more valuable pieces in the museum that could have been stolen, so she tried to count her blessings. Nonetheless, this was the first theft in this museum’s history. I don’t even know the protocol!
Marta felt suddenly weak, and she again reached out to one of the stanchions for support.
Both gallery guards appeared mystified as they had recounted to Marta their exact actions and the events of last night: At around ten o’clock, Marta had entered with il Duomino and Langdon. A short while later, the threesome had exited together. The guards had relocked the doors, reset the alarm, and as far as they knew, nobody had been in or out of the gallery since that moment.
“Impossible!” Marta had scolded in Italian. “The mask was in the cabinet when the three of us left last night, so obviously somebody has been inside the gallery since then!”
The guards showed their palms, looking bewildered. “Noi non abbiamo visto nessuno!”
Now, with the police on the way, Marta moved as rapidly as her pregnant body permitted in the direction of the security control room. Langdon and Sienna fell into step nervously behind her.
The security video, Marta thought. That will show us precisely who was in here last night!
Three blocks away, on the Ponte Vecchio, Vayentha moved into the shadows as a pair of police officers filtered through the crowd, canvassing the area with photos of Langdon.
As the officers neared Vayentha, one of their radios blared—a routine all-points bulletin from dispatch. The announcement was brief and in Italian, but Vayentha caught the gist: Any available officer in the area of the Palazzo Vecchio should report to take a statement at the palazzo museum.
The officers barely flinched, but Vayentha’s ears pricked up.
Il Museo di Palazzo Vecchio?
Last night’s debacle—the fiasco that had all but destroyed her career—had occurred in the alleyways just outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
The police bulletin continued, in static-filled Italian that was mostly unintelligible, except for two words that stood out clearly: the name Dante Alighieri.
Her body instantly tensed. Dante Alighieri?! Most certainly this was not coincidence. She spun in the direction of the Palazzo Vecchio and located its crenellated tower peeking over the rooftops of the nearby buildings.
What exactly happened at the museum? she wondered. And when?!
The specifics aside, Vayentha had been a field analyst long enough to know that coincidence was far less common than most people imagined. The Palazzo Vecchio museum … AND Dante? This had to relate to Langdon.
Vayentha had suspected all along that Langdon would return to the old city. It only made sense—the old city was where Langdon had been last night when everything had started to come undone.
Now, in the light of day, Vayentha wondered if Langdon had somehow returned to the area around the Palazzo Vecchio to find whatever it was he was seeking. She was certain Langdon had not crossed this bridge into the old city. There were plenty of other bridges, and yet they seemed to be impossibly far on foot from the Boboli Gardens.
Beneath her, she noticed a four-man crew shell skimming across the water and passing under the bridge. The hull read SOCIETÀ CANOTTIERI FIRENZE / FLORENCE ROWING CLUB. The shell’s distinctive red-and-white oars rose and fell in perfect unison.
Could Langdon have taken a boat across? It seemed unlikely, and yet something told her the police bulletin regarding the Palazzo Vecchio was a cue she should heed.
“All cameras out, per favore!” a woman called in accented English.
Vayentha turned to see a frilly orange pom-pom waving on a stick as a female tour guide attempted to herd her brood of duckling tourists across the Ponte Vecchio.
“Above you is Vasari’s largest masterpiece!” the guide exclaimed with practiced enthusiasm, lifting her pom-pom into the air and directing everyone’s gaze upward.
Vayentha hadn’t noticed it before, but there appeared to be a second-story structure that ran across the top of the shops like a narrow apartment.
“The Vasari Corridor,” the guide announced. “It’s nearly one kilometer long and provided the Medici family with a secure passageway between the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.”
Vayentha’s eyes widened as she took in the tunnel-like structure above her. She’d heard of the corridor, but knew very little about it.
It leads to the Palazzo Vecchio?
“For those rare few with VIP connections,” the guide continued, “they can access the corridor even today. It’s a spectacular art gallery that stretches all the way from the Palazzo Vecchio to the northeast corner of the Boboli Gardens.”
Whatever the guide said next, Vayentha did not hear.
She was already dashing for her motorcycle.
The stitches in Langdon’s scalp were throbbing again as he and Sienna squeezed inside the video control room with Marta and the two guards. The cramped space was nothing more than a converted vestment chamber with a bank of whirring hard drives and computer monitors. The air inside was stiflingly hot and smelled of stale cigarette smoke.
Langdon felt the walls closing in around him immediately.
Marta took a seat in front of the video monitor, which was already in playback mode and displayed a grainy black-and-white image of the andito, shot from above the door. The time stamp on-screen indicated that the footage had been cued to midmorning yesterday—precisely twenty-four hours ago—apparently just before the museum opened and long before the arrival of Langdon and the mysterious il Duomino that evening.
The guard fast-forwarded through the video, and Langdon watched as an influx of tourists flowed rapidly into the andito, moving in hurried jerky motions. The mask itself was not visible from this perspective, but clearly it was still in its display case as tourists repeatedly paused to peer inside or take photos before moving on.
Please hurry, Langdon thought, knowing the police were on their way. He wondered if he and Sienna should just excuse themselves and run, but they needed to see this video: whatever was on this recording would answer a lot of questions about what the hell was going on.
The video playback continued, faster now, and afternoon shadows began moving across the room. Tourists zipped in and out until finally the crowds began to thin, and then abruptly disappeared entirely. As the time stamp raced past 1700 hours, the museum lights went out, and all was quiet.
Five P.M. Closing time.
“Aumenti la velocità,” Marta commanded, leaning forward in her chair and staring at the screen.
The guard let the video race on, the time stamp advancing quickly, until suddenly, at around 10 P.M., the lights in the museum flickered back on.
The guard quickly slowed the tape back to regular speed.
A moment later, the familiar pregnant shape of Marta Alvarez came into view. She was followed closely by Langdon, who entered wearing his familiar Harris Tweed Camberley jacket, pressed khakis, and his own cordovan loafers. He even saw the glint of his Mickey Mouse watch peeking out from under his sleeve as he walked.
There I am … before I got shot.
Langdon found it deeply unsettling to watch himself doing things of which he had absolutely no recollection. I was here last night … looking at the death mask? Somehow, between then and now, he had managed to lose his clothing, his Mickey Mouse watch, and two days of his life.
As the video continued, he and Sienna crowded in close behind Marta and the guards for a better view. The silent footage continued, showing Langdon and Marta arriving at the display case and admiring the mask. As they were doing this, a broad shadow darkened the doorway behind him, and a morbidly obese man shuffled into the frame. He was dressed in a tan suit, carried a briefcase, and barely fit through the door. His bulging gut made even the pregnant Marta look slender.
Langdon recognized the man at once. Ignazio?!
“That’s Ignazio Busoni,” Langdon whispered in Sienna’s ear. “Director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. An acquaintance of mine for several years. I’d just never heard him called il Duomino.”
“A fitting epithet,” Sienna replied quietly.
In years past, Langdon had consulted Ignazio on artifacts and history relating to Il Duomo—the basilica for which he was responsible—but a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio seemed outside Ignazio’s domain. Then again, Ignazio Busoni, in addition to being an influential figure in the Florentine art world, was a Dante enthusiast and scholar.
A logical source of information on Dante’s death mask.
As Langdon returned his focus to the video, Marta could now be seen waiting patiently against the rear wall of the andito while Langdon and Ignazio leaned out over the stanchions to get the closest possible look at the mask. As the men continued their examination and discussion, the minutes wore on, and Marta could be seen discreetly checking her watch behind their backs.
Langdon wished the security tape included audio. What were Ignazio and I talking about? What are we looking for?!
Just then, on-screen, Langdon stepped over the stanchions and crouched down directly in front of the cabinet, his face only inches from the glass. Marta immediately intervened, apparently admonishing him, and Langdon apologetically stepped back.
“Sorry I was so strict,” Marta now said, glancing back at him over her shoulder. “But as I told you, the display case is an antique and extremely fragile. The mask’s owner insists we keep people behind the stanchions. He won’t even permit our staff to open the case without him present.”
Her words took a moment to register. The mask’s owner? Langdon had assumed the mask was the property of the museum.
Sienna looked equally surprised and chimed in immediately. “The museum doesn’t own the mask?”
Marta shook her head, her eyes now back on the screen. “A wealthy patron offered to buy Dante’s death mask from our collection and yet leave it on permanent display here. He offered a small fortune, and we happily accepted.”
“Hold on,” Sienna said. “He paid for the mask … and let you keep it?”
“Common arrangement,” Langdon said. “Philanthropic acquisition—a way for donors to make major grants to museums without registering the gift as charity.”
“The donor was an unusual man,” Marta said. “A genuine scholar of Dante, and yet a bit … how do you say … fanatico?”
“Who is he?” Sienna demanded, her casual tone laced with urgency.