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For a long moment Langdon and Sienna stood in silence, leaning against the door and catching their breath. Compared to the noises of the piazza outside, the interior of the baptistry felt as peaceful as heaven itself.
Outside the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the man in the Plume Paris spectacles and a paisley necktie moved through the crowd, ignoring the uneasy stares of those who noticed his bloody rash.
He had just reached the bronze doors through which Robert Langdon and his blond companion had cleverly disappeared; even from outside, he had heard the heavy thud of the doors being barred from within.
No entry this way.
Slowly, the ambience in the piazza was returning to normal. The tourists who had been staring upward in anticipation were now losing interest. No jumper. Everyone moved on.
The man was itchy again, his rash getting worse. Now his fingertips were swollen and cracking as well. He slid his hands into his pockets to keep himself from scratching. His chest continued to throb as he began circling the octagon in search of another entrance.
He had barely made it around the corner when he felt a sharp pain on his Adam’s apple and realized he was scratching again.
Legend proclaims that it is physically impossible, upon entering the Baptistry of San Giovanni, not to look up. Langdon, despite having been in this room many times, now felt the mystical pull of the space, and let his gaze climb skyward to the ceiling.
High, high overhead, the surface of the baptistry’s octagonal vault spanned more than eighty feet from side to side. It glistened and shimmered as if it were made of smoldering coals. Its burnished amber-gold surface reflected the ambient light unevenly from more than a million smalti tiles—tiny ungrouted mosaic pieces hand-cut from a glassy silica glaze—which were arranged in six concentric rings in which scenes from the Bible were depicted.
Adding stark drama to the lustrous upper portion of the room, natural light pierced the dark space through a central oculus—much like the one in Rome’s Pantheon—assisted by a series of high, small, deeply recessed windows that threw shafts of illumination that were so focused and tight that they seemed almost solid, like structural beams propped at ever-changing angles.
As Langdon walked with Sienna deeper into the room, he took in the legendary ceiling mosaic—a multitiered representation of heaven and hell, very much like the depiction in The Divine Comedy.
Dante Alighieri saw this as a child, Langdon thought. Inspiration from above.
Langdon fixed his gaze now on the centerpiece of the mosaic. Hovering directly above the main altar rose a twenty-seven-foot-tall Jesus Christ, seated in judgment over the saved and the damned.
At Jesus’ right hand, the righteous received the reward of everlasting life.
On His left hand, however, the sinful were stoned, roasted on spikes, and eaten by all manner of creatures.
Overseeing the torture was a colossal mosaic of Satan portrayed as an infernal, man-eating beast. Langdon always flinched when he saw this figure, which more than seven hundred years ago had stared down at the young Dante Alighieri, terrifying him and eventually inspiring his vivid portrayal of what lurked in the final ring of hell.
The frightening mosaic overhead depicted a horned devil that was in the process of consuming a human being headfirst. The victim’s legs dangled from Satan’s mouth in a way that resembled the flailing legs of the half-buried sinners in Dante’s Malebolge.
Lo ’mperador del doloroso regno, Langdon thought, recalling Dante’s text. The emperor of the despondent kingdom.
Slithering from the ears of Satan were two massive, writhing snakes, also in the process of consuming sinners, giving the impression that Satan had three heads, exactly as Dante described him in the final canto of his Inferno. Langdon searched his memory and recalled fragments of Dante’s imagery.
On his head he had three faces … his three chins gushing a bloody froth … his three mouths used as grinders … gnashing sinners three at once.
That Satan’s evil was threefold, Langdon knew, was fraught with symbolic meaning: it placed him in perfect balance with the threefold glory of the Holy Trinity.
As Langdon stared up at the horrific sight, he tried to imagine the effect the mosaic had on the youthful Dante, who had attended services at this church year after year, and seen Satan staring down at him each time he prayed. This morning, however, Langdon had the uneasy feeling that the devil was staring directly at him.
He quickly lowered his gaze to the baptistry’s second-story balcony and standing gallery—the lone area from which women were permitted to view baptisms—and then down to the suspended tomb of Antipope John XXIII, his body lying in repose high on the wall like a cave dweller or a subject in a magician’s levitation trick.
Finally, his gaze reached the ornately tiled floor, which many believed contained references to medieval astronomy. He let his eyes move across the intricate black-and-white patterns until they reached the very center of the room.
And there it is, he thought, knowing he was staring at the exact spot where Dante Alighieri had been baptized in the latter half of the thirteenth century. “ ‘I shall return as poet … at my baptismal font,’ ” Langdon declared, his voice echoing through the empty space. “This is it.”
Sienna looked troubled as she eyed the center of the floor, where Langdon was now pointing. “But … there’s nothing here.”
“Not anymore,” Langdon replied.
All that remained was a large reddish-brown octagon of pavement. This unusually plain, eight-sided area clearly interrupted the pattern of the more ornately designed floor and resembled nothing so much as a large, patched-up hole, which, in fact, was precisely what it was.
Langdon quickly explained that the baptistry’s original baptismal font had been a large octagonal pool located at the very center of this room. While modern fonts were usually raised basins, earlier fonts were more akin to the literal meaning of the word font—“springs” or “fountains”—in this case a deep pool of water into which participants could be more deeply immersed. Langdon wondered what this stone chamber had sounded like as children screamed in fear while being literally submerged in the large pool of icy water that once stood in the middle of the floor.
“Baptisms here were cold and scary,” Langdon said. “True rites of passage. Dangerous even. Allegedly Dante once jumped into the font to save a drowning child. In any case, the original font was covered over at some point in the sixteenth century.”
Sienna’s eyes now began darting around the building with obvious concern. “But if Dante’s baptismal font is gone … where did Ignazio hide the mask?!”
Langdon understood her alarm. There was no shortage of hiding places in this massive chamber—behind columns, statues, tombs, inside niches, at the altar, even upstairs.
Nonetheless, Langdon felt remarkably confident as he turned and faced the door through which they’d just entered. “We should start over there,” he said, pointing to an area against the wall just to the right of the Gates of Paradise.
On a raised platform, behind a decorative gate, there sat a tall hexagonal plinth of carved marble, which resembled a small altar or service table. The exterior was so intricately carved that it resembled a mother-of-pearl cameo. Atop the marble base sat a polished wooden top with a diameter of about three feet.
Sienna looked uncertain as she followed Langdon over to it. As they ascended the steps and moved inside the protective gate, Sienna looked more closely and drew a startled breath, realizing what she was looking at.
Langdon smiled. Exactly, it’s not an altar or table. The polished wooden top was in fact a lid—a covering for the hollow structure.
“A baptismal font?” she asked.
Langdon nodded. “If Dante were baptized today, it would be in this basin right here.” Wasting no time, he took a deep, purposeful breath and placed his palms on the wooden cover, feeling a tingle of anticipation as he prepared to remove it.
Langdon tightly gripped the edges of the cover and heaved it to one side, carefully sliding the top off the marble base and placing it on the floor beside the font. Then he peered down into the two-foot-wide, dark, hollow space within.
The eerie sight made Langdon swallow hard.
From out of the shadows, the dead face of Dante Alighieri was looking back at him.
Seek and ye shall find.
Langdon stood at the rim of the baptismal font and stared down at the pale yellow death mask, whose wrinkled countenance gazed blankly upward. The hooked nose and protruding chin were unmistakable.
The lifeless face was disturbing enough, and yet something about its position in the font seemed almost supernatural. For a moment Langdon was unsure what he was seeing.
Is the mask … hovering?
Langdon crouched lower, peering more closely at the scene before him. The font was several feet deep—more of a vertical well than a shallow basin—its steep walls dropping down to a hexagonal repository that was filled with water. Strangely, the mask seemed to be suspended partway down the font … perched just above the surface of the water as if by magic.
It took a moment for Langdon to realize what was causing the illusion. The font had a vertical central spindle that rose halfway up and flattened into a kind of small metal platter just above the water. The platter appeared to be a decorative fountainhead and perhaps a place to rest a baby’s bottom, but it was currently serving as a pedestal on which the mask of Dante rested, elevated safely above the water.
Neither Langdon nor Sienna said a word as they stood side by side gazing down at the craggy face of Dante Alighieri, still sealed in his Ziploc bag, as if he’d been suffocated. For a moment the image of a face staring up out of a water-filled basin conjured for Langdon his own terrifying experience as a child, stuck at the bottom of a well, staring skyward in desperation.
Pushing the thought from his mind, he carefully reached down and gripped the mask on either side, where Dante’s ears would have been. Although the face was small by modern standards, the ancient plaster was heavier than he’d expected. He slowly lifted the mask out of the font and held it up so that he and Sienna could examine it more closely.
Even viewed through the plastic bag, the mask was remarkably lifelike. Every wrinkle and blemish of the old poet’s face had been captured by the wet plaster. With the exception of an old crack down the center of the mask, it was in perfect condition.
“Turn it over,” Sienna whispered. “Let’s see the back.”
Langdon was already doing just that. The security video from the Palazzo Vecchio had clearly shown Langdon and Ignazio discovering something on the reverse side of the mask—something of such startling interest that the two men had essentially walked out of the palace with the artifact.
Taking exceptional care not to drop the fragile plaster, Langdon flipped the mask over and laid it facedown in his right palm so they could examine the back. Unlike the weathered, textured face of Dante, the inside of the mask was smooth and bare. Because the mask was never meant to be worn, its back side had been filled in with plaster to give some solidity to the delicate piece, resulting in a featureless, concave surface, like a shallow soup bowl.
Langdon didn’t know what he had expected to find on the back of the mask, but it most certainly was not this.
Nothing at all.
Just a smooth, empty surface.
Sienna seemed equally confused. “It’s blank plaster,” she whispered. “If there’s nothing here, what did you and Ignazio see?”
I have no idea, Langdon thought, pulling the plastic bag taut across the plaster for a clearer view. There’s nothing here! With mounting distress, Langdon raised the mask into a shaft of light and studied it closely. As he tipped the object over for a better view, he thought for an instant that he might have glimpsed a faint discoloration near the top—a line of markings running horizontally across the inside of Dante’s forehead.
A natural blemish? Or maybe … something else. Langdon immediately spun and pointed to a hinged panel of marble on the wall behind them. “Look in there,” he told Sienna. “See if there are towels.”
Sienna looked skeptical, but obeyed, opening the discreetly hidden cupboard, which contained three items—a valve for controlling the water level in the font, a light switch for controlling the spotlight above the font, and … a stack of linen towels.
Sienna gave Langdon a surprised look, but Langdon had toured enough churches worldwide to know that baptismal fonts almost always afforded their priests easy access to emergency swaddling cloths—the unpredictability of infants’ bladders a universal risk of christenings.
“Good,” he said, eyeing the towels. “Hold the mask a second?” He gently transferred the mask to Sienna’s hands and then set to work.
First, Langdon retrieved the hexagonal lid and heaved it back up onto the font to restore the small, altarlike table they had first seen. Then he grabbed several of the linen towels from the cupboard and spread them out like a tablecloth. Finally, he flipped the font’s light switch, and the spotlight directly overhead sprang to life, illuminating the baptismal area and shining brightly down on the covered surface.
Sienna gently laid the mask on the font while Langdon retrieved more towels, which he used like oven mitts to slide the mask from the Ziploc bag, careful not to touch it with his bare hands. Moments later, Dante’s death mask lay unsheathed and naked, faceup beneath the bright light, like the head of an anesthetized patient on an operating table.
The mask’s dramatic texturing appeared even more unsettling in the light, the creases and wrinkles of old age accentuated by the discolored plaster. Langdon wasted no time using his makeshift mitts to flip the mask over and lay it facedown.
The back side of the mask looked markedly less aged than the front—clean and white rather than dingy and yellow.
Sienna cocked her head, looking puzzled. “Does this side look newer to you?”
Admittedly, the color difference was more emphatic than Langdon would have imagined, but this side was most certainly the same age as the front. “Uneven aging,” he said. “The back of the mask has been shielded by the display case so has never suffered the aging effects of sunlight.” Langdon made a mental note to double the SPF of his sunscreen.
“Hold on,” Sienna said, leaning in close to the mask. “Look! On the forehead! That must be what you and Ignazio saw.”
Langdon’s eyes moved quickly across the smooth white surface to the same discoloration he had spied earlier through the plastic—a faint line of markings that ran horizontally across the inside of Dante’s forehead. Now, however, in the stark light, Langdon saw clearly that these markings were not a natural blemish … they were man-made.
“It’s … writing,” Sienna whispered, the words catching in her throat. “But …”
Langdon studied the inscription on the plaster. It was a single row of letters—handwritten in a florid script of faint brownish yellow.
“That’s all it says?” Sienna said, sounding almost angry.
Langdon barely heard her. Who wrote this? he wondered. Someone in Dante’s era? It seemed unlikely. If so, some art historian would have spotted it long ago during regular cleaning or restoration, and the writing would have become part of the lore of the mask. Langdon had never heard of it.
A far more likely source quickly materialized in his mind.
Zobrist was the mask’s owner and therefore could easily have requested private access to it whenever he wanted. He could have written the text on the back of the mask fairly recently and then replaced it in the antique case without anyone ever knowing. The mask’s owner, Marta had told them, won’t even permit our staff to open the case without him present.
Langdon quickly explained his theory.
Sienna seemed to accept his logic, and yet the prospect clearly troubled her. “It makes no sense,” she said, looking restless. “If we believe Zobrist secretly wrote something on the back of the Dante death mask, and he also went to the trouble to create that little projector to point to the mask … then why didn’t he write something more meaningful? I mean, it’s senseless! You and I have been looking all day for the mask, and this is all we find?”
Langdon redirected his focus to the text on the back of the mask. The handwritten message was very brief—only seven letters long—and admittedly looked entirely purposeless.
Sienna’s frustration is certainly understandable.
Langdon, however, felt the familiar thrill of imminent revelation, having realized almost instantly that these seven letters would tell him everything he needed to know about what he and Sienna were to do next.
Furthermore, he had detected a faint odor to the mask—a familiar scent that divulged why the plaster on the back was so much whiter than the front … and the difference had nothing to do with aging or sunlight.
“I don’t understand,” Sienna said. “The letters are all the same.”
Langdon nodded calmly as he studied the line of text—seven identical letters carefully inscribed in calligraphy across the inside of Dante’s forehead.
“Seven Ps,” Sienna said. “What are we supposed to do with this?”
Langdon smiled calmly and raised his eyes to hers. “I suggest we do precisely what this message tells us to do.”
Sienna stared. “Seven Ps is … a message?”
“It is,” he said with a grin. “And if you’ve studied Dante, it’s a very clear one.”
Outside the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the man with the necktie wiped his fingernails on his handkerchief and dabbed at the pustules on his neck. He tried to ignore the burning in his eyes as he squinted at his destination.
The tourist entrance.
Outside the door, a wearied docent in a blazer smoked a cigarette and redirected tourists who apparently couldn’t decipher the building’s schedule, which was written in international time.
The man with the rash checked his watch. It was 10:02 A.M. The baptistry was closed for another few hours. He watched the docent for a while and then made up his mind. He removed the gold stud from his ear and pocketed it. Then he pulled out his wallet and checked its contents. In addition to assorted credit cards and a wad of euros, he was carrying over three thousand U.S. dollars in cash.
Thankfully, avarice was an international sin.
Peccatum … Peccatum … Peccatum …
The seven Ps written on the back of Dante’s death mask immediately pulled Langdon’s thoughts back into the text of The Divine Comedy. For a moment he was back onstage in Vienna, presenting his lecture “Divine Dante: Symbols of Hell.”
“We have now descended,” his voice resounded over the speakers, “passing down through the nine rings of hell to the center of the earth, coming face-to-face with Satan himself.”
Langdon moved from slide to slide through a series of three-headed Satans from various works of art—Botticelli’s Mappa, the Florence baptistry’s mosaic, and Andrea di Cione’s terrifying black demon, its fur soiled with the crimson blood of its victims.
“Together,” Langdon continued, “we have climbed down the shaggy chest of Satan, reversed direction as gravity shifted, and emerged from the gloomy underworld … once again to see the stars.”
Langdon advanced slides until he reached an image he had shown earlier—the iconic Domenico di Michelino painting from inside the duomo, which depicted the red-robed Dante standing outside the walls of Florence. “And if you look carefully … you will see those stars.”
Langdon pointed to the star-filled sky that arched above Dante’s head. “As you see, the heavens are constructed in a series of nine concentric spheres around the earth. This nine-tiered structure of paradise is intended to reflect and balance the nine rings of the underworld. As you’ve probably noticed, the number nine is a recurring theme for Dante.”
Langdon paused, taking a sip of water and letting the crowd catch their breath after their harrowing descent and final exit from hell.
“So, after enduring the horrors of the inferno, you must all be very excited to move toward paradise. Unfortunately, in the world of Dante, nothing is ever simple.” He heaved a dramatic sigh. “To ascend to paradise we all must—both figuratively and literally—climb a mountain.”
Langdon pointed to the Michelino painting. On the horizon, behind Dante, the audience could see a single cone-shaped mountain rising into the heavens. Spiraling up the mountain, a pathway circled the cone repeatedly—nine times—ascending in ever-tightening terraces toward the top. Along the pathway, naked figures trudged upward in misery, enduring various penances on the way.
“I give you Mount Purgatory,” Langdon announced. “And sadly, this grueling, nine-ringed ascent is the only route from the depths of inferno to the glory of