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And nobody has any idea …
The poem on the back of Dante’s death mask still played in Langdon’s mind, and he wondered where the verses would lead them. He had the transcription of the poem in his pocket, but the plaster mask itself—at Sienna’s suggestion—Langdon had wrapped in newspaper and discreetly sealed inside a self-serve locker in the train station. Although an egregiously inadequate resting place for such a precious artifact, the locker was certainly far safer than carrying the priceless plaster mask around a water-filled city.
“Robert?” Sienna was up ahead with Ferris, motioning toward the water taxis. “We don’t have much time.”
Langdon hurried toward them, although as an architecture enthusiast, he found it almost unthinkable to rush a trip along the Grand Canal. Few Venetian experiences were more pleasurable than boarding vaporetto no. 1—the city’s primary open-air water bus—preferably at night, and sitting up front in the open air as the floodlit cathedrals and palaces drifted past.
No vaporetto today, Langdon thought. The vaporetti water buses were notoriously slow, and water taxi would be a faster option. Unfortunately, the taxi queue outside the train station looked interminable at the moment.
Ferris, in no apparent mood to wait, quickly took matters into his own hands. With a generous stack of bills, he quickly summoned over a water limousine—a highly polished Veneziano Convertible made of South African mahogany. While the elegant craft was certainly overkill, the journey would be both private and swift—a mere fifteen minutes along the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square.
Their driver was a strikingly handsome man in a tailored Armani suit. He looked more like a movie star than a skipper, but this was, after all, Venice, the land of Italian elegance.
“Maurizio Pimponi,” the man said, winking at Sienna as he welcomed them all aboard. “Prosecco? Limoncello? Champagne?”
“No, grazie,” Sienna replied, instructing him in rapid-fire Italian to get them to St. Mark’s Square as fast as he possibly could.
“Ma certo!” Maurizio winked again. “My boat, she is the fastest in all of Venezia …”
As Langdon and the others settled into plush seats in the open-air stern, Maurizio reversed the boat’s Volvo Penta motor, expertly backing away from the bank. Then he spun the wheel to the right and gunned the engines forward, maneuvering his large craft through a throng of gondolas, leaving a number of stripe-shirted gondolieri shaking their fists as their sleek black crafts bobbed up and down in his wake.
“Scusate!” Maurizio called apologetically. “VIPs!”
Within seconds, Maurizio had pulled away from the congestion at Santa Lucia Station and was skimming eastward along the Grand Canal. As they accelerated beneath the graceful expanse of the Ponte degli Scalzi, Langdon smelled the distinctively sweet aroma of the local delicacy seppie al nero—squid in its own ink—which was wafting out of the canopied restaurants along the bank nearby. As they rounded a bend in the canal, the massive, domed Church of San Geremia came into view.
“Saint Lucia,” Langdon whispered, reading the saint’s name from the inscription on the side of the church. “The bones of the blind.”
“I’m sorry?” Sienna glanced over, looking hopeful that Langdon might have figured out something more about the mysterious poem.
“Nothing,” Langdon said. “Strange thought. Probably nothing.” He pointed to the church. “See the inscription? Saint Lucia is buried there. I sometimes lecture on hagiographic art—art depicting Christian saints—and it just occurred to me that Saint Lucia is the patron saint of the blind.”
“Sì, santa Lucia!” Maurizio chimed in, eager to be of service. “Saint for the blind! You know the story, no?” Their driver looked back at them and shouted over the sound of the engines. “Lucia was so beautiful that all men have lust for her. So, Lucia, for to be pure to God and keep virginity, she cut out her own eyes.”
Sienna groaned. “There’s commitment.”
“As reward for her sacrifice,” Maurizio added, “God gave Lucia an even more beautiful set of eyes!”
Sienna looked at Langdon. “He does know that makes no sense, right?”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Langdon observed, picturing the twenty or so famous Old Master paintings depicting Saint Lucia carrying her own eyeballs on a platter.
While there were numerous versions of the Saint Lucia tale, they all involved Lucia cutting out her lust-inducing eyes and placing them on a platter for her ardent suitor and defiantly declaring: “Here hast thou, what thou so much desired … and, for the rest, I beseech thee, leave me now in peace!” Eerily, it had been Holy Scripture that had inspired Lucia’s self-mutilation, forever linking her to Christ’s famous admonition “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee.”
Pluck, Langdon thought, realizing the same word was used in the poem. Seek the treacherous doge of Venice who … plucked up the bones of the blind.
Puzzled by the coincidence, he wondered if perhaps this was a cryptic indication that Saint Lucia was the blind person being referenced in the poem.
“Maurizio,” Langdon shouted, pointing to the Church of San Geremia. “The bones of Saint Lucia are in that church, no?”
“A few, yes,” Maurizio said, driving skillfully with one hand and looking back at his passengers, ignoring the boat traffic ahead. “But mostly no. Saint Lucia is so beloved, her body has spread in churches all over the world. Venetians love Saint Lucia the most, of course, and so we celebrate—”
“Maurizio!” Ferris shouted. “Saint Lucia is blind, not you. Eyes front!”
Maurizio laughed good-naturedly and turned forward just in time to handily avoid colliding with an oncoming boat.
Sienna was studying Langdon. “What are you getting at? The treacherous doge who plucked up the bones of the blind?”
Langdon pursed his lips. “I’m not sure.”
He quickly told Sienna and Ferris the history of Saint Lucia’s relics—her bones—which was among the strangest in all of hagiography. Allegedly, when the beautiful Lucia refused the advances of an influential suitor, the man denounced her and had her burned at the stake, where, according to legend, her body refused to burn. Because her flesh had been resistant to fire, her relics were believed to have special powers, and whoever possessed them would enjoy an unusually long life.
“Magic bones?” Sienna said.
“Believed to be, yes, which is the reason her relics have been spread all over the world. For two millennia, powerful leaders have tried to thwart aging and death by possessing the bones of Saint Lucia. Her skeleton has been stolen, restolen, relocated, and divided up more times than that of any other saint in history. Her bones have passed through the hands of at least a dozen of history’s most powerful people.”
“Including,” Sienna inquired, “a treacherous doge?”
Seek the treacherous doge of Venice who severed the heads from horses … and plucked up the bones of the blind.
“Quite possibly,” Langdon said, now realizing that Dante’s Inferno mentioned Saint Lucia very prominently. Lucia was one of the three blessed women—le “tre donne benedette”—who helped summon Virgil to help Dante escape the underworld. As the other two women were the Virgin Mary and Dante’s beloved Beatrice, Dante had placed Saint Lucia in the highest of all company.
“If you’re right about this,” Sienna said, excitement in her voice, “then the same treacherous doge who severed the heads from horses …”
“… also stole the bones of Saint Lucia,” Langdon concluded.
Sienna nodded. “Which should narrow our list considerably.” She glanced over at Ferris. “Are you sure your phone’s not working? We might be able to search online for—”
“Stone dead,” Ferris said. “I just checked. Sorry.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Langdon said. “I have no doubt we’ll be able to find some answers at St. Mark’s Basilica.”
St. Mark’s was the only piece of the puzzle that felt rock solid to Langdon. The mouseion of holy wisdom. Langdon was counting on the basilica to reveal the identity of their mysterious doge … and from there, with luck, the specific palace that Zobrist had chosen to release his plague. For here, in the darkness, the chthonic monster waits.
Langdon tried to push from his mind any images of the plague, but it was no use. He had often wondered what this incredible city had been like in its heyday … before the plague weakened it enough for it to be conquered by the Ottomans, and then by Napoleon … back when Venice reigned gloriously as the commercial center of Europe. By all accounts, there was no more beautiful city in the world, the wealth and culture of its population unparalleled.
Ironically, it was the population’s taste for foreign luxuries that brought about its demise—the deadly plague traveling from China to Venice on the backs of rats stowed away on trading vessels. The same plague that destroyed an unfathomable two-thirds of China’s population arrived in Europe and very quickly killed one in three—young and old, rich and poor alike.
Langdon had read descriptions of life in Venice during the plague outbreaks. With little or no dry land in which to bury the dead, bloated bodies floated in the canals, with some areas so densely packed with corpses that workers had to labor like log rollers and prod the bodies out to sea. It seemed no amount of praying could diminish the plague’s wrath. By the time city officials realized it was the rats that were causing the disease, it was too late, but Venice still enforced a decree by which all incoming vessels had to anchor offshore for a full forty days before they would be permitted to unload. To this day, the number forty—quaranta in Italian—served as a grim reminder of the origins of the word quarantine.
As their boat sped onward around another bend in the canal, a festive red awning luffed in the breeze, pulling Langdon’s attention away from his grim thoughts of death toward an elegant, three-tiered structure on his left.
CASINÒ DI VENEZIA: AN INFINITE EMOTION.
While Langdon had never quite understood the words on the casino’s banner, the spectacular Renaissance-style palace had been part of the Venetian landscape since the sixteenth century. Once a private mansion, it was now a black-tie gaming hall that was famous for being the site at which, in 1883, composer Richard Wagner had collapsed dead of a heart attack shortly after composing his opera Parsifal.
Beyond the casino on the right, a Baroque, rusticated facade bore an even larger banner, this one deep blue, announcing the CA’ PESARO: GALLERIA INTERNAZIONALE D’ARTE MODERNA. Years ago, Langdon had been inside and seen Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss while it was on loan from Vienna. Klimt’s dazzling gold-leaf rendering of intertwined lovers had sparked in him a passion for the artist’s work, and to this day, Langdon credited Venice’s Ca’ Pesaro with arousing his lifelong gusto for modern art.
Maurizio drove on, powering faster now in the wide canal.
Ahead, the famous Rialto Bridge loomed—the halfway point to St. Mark’s Square. As they neared the bridge, preparing to pass beneath it, Langdon looked up and saw a lone figure standing motionless at the railing, peering down at them with a somber visage.
The face was both familiar … and terrifying.
Langdon recoiled on instinct.
Grayish and elongated, the face had cold dead eyes and a long beaked nose.
The boat slipped beneath the ominous figure just as Langdon realized it was nothing more than a tourist showing off a recent purchase—one of the hundreds of plague masks sold every day in the nearby Rialto Market.
Today, however, the costume seemed anything but charming.
St. Mark’s Square lies at the southernmost tip of Venice’s Grand Canal, where the sheltered waterway merges with the open sea. Overlooking this perilous intersection is the austere triangular fortress of Dogana da Mar—the Maritime Customs Office—whose watch-tower once guarded Venice against foreign invasion. Nowadays, the tower has been replaced by a massive golden globe and a weather vane depicting the goddess of fortune, whose shifting directions on the breeze serve as a reminder to ocean-bound sailors of the unpredictability of fate.
As Maurizio steered the sleek boat toward the end of the canal, the choppy sea opened ominously before them. Robert Langdon had traveled this route many times before, although always in a much larger vaporetto, and he felt uneasy as their limo lurched on the growing swells.
To reach the docks at St. Mark’s Square, their boat would need to cross an expanse of open lagoon whose waters were congested with hundreds of craft—everything from luxury yachts, to tankers, to private sailboats, to massive cruise liners. It felt as if they were leaving a country road and merging onto an eight-lane superhighway.
Sienna seemed equally uncertain as she eyed the towering ten-story cruise liner that was now passing in front of them, only three hundred yards off. The ship’s decks were crawling with passengers, all packed against the railings, taking photos of St. Mark’s Square from the water. In the churning wake of this ship, three others were lined up, awaiting their chance to drive past Venice’s best-known landmark. Langdon had heard that in recent years, the number of ships had multiplied so quickly that an endless line of cruises passed all day and all night.
At the helm, Maurizio studied the line of oncoming cruise liners and then glanced to his left at a canopied dock not far away. “I park at Harry’s Bar?” He motioned to the restaurant famous for having invented the Bellini. “St. Mark’s Square is very short walking.”
“No, take us all the way,” Ferris commanded, pointing across the lagoon toward the docks at St. Mark’s Square.
Maurizio shrugged good-naturedly. “Your choice. Hold on!”
The engines revved and the limo began cutting through the heavy chop, falling into one of the travel lanes marked by buoys. The passing cruise liners looked like floating apartment buildings, their wakes tossing the other boats like corks.
To Langdon’s surprise, dozens of gondolas were making this same crossing. Their slender hulls—at nearly forty feet in length and almost fourteen hundred pounds—appeared remarkably stable in the rough waters. Each vessel was piloted by a sure-footed gondolier who stood on a platform on the left side of the stern in his traditional black-and-white-striped shirt and rowed a single oar attached to the right-hand gunwale. Even in the rough water, it was evident that every gondola listed mysteriously to the left, an oddity that Langdon had learned was caused by the boat’s asymmetrical construction; every gondola’s hull was curved to the right, away from the gondolier, to resist the boat’s tendency to turn left from the right-sided rowing.
Maurizio pointed proudly to one of the gondolas as they powered past it. “You see the metal design on the front?” he called over his shoulder, motioning to the elegant ornament protruding from the bow. “It’s the only metal on a gondola—called ferro di prua—the iron of the prow. It is a picture of Venice!”
Maurizio explained that the scythelike decoration that protruded from the bow of every gondola in Venice had a symbolic meaning. The ferro’s curved shape represented the Grand Canal, its six teeth reflected the six sestieri or districts of Venice, and its oblong blade was the stylized headpiece of the Venetian doge.
The doge, Langdon thought, his thoughts returning to the task ahead. Seek the treacherous doge of Venice who severed the heads from horses … and plucked up the bones of the blind.
Langdon raised his gaze to the shoreline ahead, where a small wooded park met the water’s edge. Above the trees, silhouetted against a cloudless sky, rose the redbrick spire of St. Mark’s bell tower, atop which a golden Archangel Gabriel peered down from a dizzying three hundred feet.
In a city where high-rises were nonexistent as a result of their tendency to sink, the towering Campanile di San Marco served as a navigational beacon to all who ventured into Venice’s maze of canals and passageways; a lost traveler, with a single glance skyward, would see the way back to St. Mark’s Square. Langdon still found it hard to believe that this massive tower had collapsed in 1902, leaving an enormous pile of rubble on St. Mark’s Square. Remarkably, the lone casualty in the disaster had been a cat.
Visitors to Venice could experience the city’s inimitable atmosphere in any number of breathtaking locales, and yet Langdon’s favorite had always been the Riva degli Schiavoni. The wide stone promenade that sat along the water’s edge had been built in the ninth century from dredged silt and ran from the old Arsenal all the way to St. Mark’s Square.
Lined with fine cafés, elegant hotels, and even the home church of Antonio Vivaldi, the Riva began its course at the Arsenal—Venice’s ancient shipbuilding yards—where the piney scent of boiling tree sap had once filled the air as boatbuilders smeared hot pitch on their unsound vessels to plug the holes. Allegedly it had been a visit to these very shipyards that had inspired Dante Alighieri to include rivers of boiling pitch as a torture device in his Inferno.
Langdon’s gaze moved to the right, tracing the Riva along the waterfront, and coming to rest on the promenade’s dramatic ending. Here, at the southernmost edge of St. Mark’s Square, the vast expanse of pavement met the open sea. During Venice’s golden age, this stark precipice had been proudly dubbed “the edge of all civilization.”
Today, the three-hundred-yard-long stretch where St. Mark’s Square met the sea was lined, as it always was, with no fewer than a hundred black gondolas, which bobbed against their moorings, their scythelike bow ornaments rising and falling against the white marble buildings of the piazza.
Langdon still found it hard to fathom that this tiny city—just twice the size of Central Park in New York—had somehow risen out of the sea to become the largest and richest empire in the west.
As Maurizio powered the boat closer, Langdon could see that the main square was absolutely mobbed with people. Napoleon had once referred to St. Mark’s Square as “the drawing room of Europe,” and from the looks of things, this “room” was hosting a party for far too many guests. The entire piazza looked almost as if it would sink beneath the weight of its admirers.
“My God,” Sienna whispered, gazing out at the throngs of people.
Langdon wasn’t sure whether she was saying this out of fear that Zobrist might have chosen such a heavily populated location to release his plague … or because she sensed that Zobrist might actually have had a point in warning about the dangers of overpopulation.
Venice hosted a staggering number of tourists every year—an estimated one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population—some twenty million visitors in the year 2000. With the additional billion added to the earth’s population since that year, the city was now groaning under the weight of three million more tourists per year. Venice, like the planet itself, had only a finite amount of space, and at some point would no longer be able to import enough food, dispose of enough waste, or find enough beds for all those who wanted to visit it.
Ferris stood nearby, his eyes turned not toward the mainland, but out to sea, watching all the incoming ships.
“You okay?” Sienna asked, eyeing him curiously.
Ferris turned abruptly. “Yeah, fine … just thinking.” He faced front and called up to Maurizio: “Park as close to St. Mark’s as you can.”
“No problem!” Their driver gave a wave. “Two minutes!”
The limo had now come even with St. Mark’s Square, and the Doge’s Palace rose majestically to their right, dominating the shoreline.
A perfect example of Venetian Gothic architecture, the palace was an exercise in understated elegance. With none of the turrets or spires normally associated with the palaces of France or England, it was conceived as a massive rectangular prism, which provided for the largest possible amount of interior square footage in which to house the doge’s substantial government and support staff.
Viewed from the ocean, the palace’s massive expanse of white limestone would have been overbearing had the effect not been carefully muted by the addition of porticos, columns, a loggia, and quatrefoil perforations. Geometric patterns of pink limestone ran throughout the exterior, reminding Langdon of the Alhambra in Spain.
As the boat pulled closer to the moorings, Ferris seemed concerned by a gathering of people in front of the palace. A dense crowd had gathered on a bridge, and all of its members were pointing down a narrow canal that sliced between two large sections of the Doge’s Palace.
“What are they looking at?” Ferris demanded, sounding nervous.
“Il Ponte dei Sospiri,” Sienna replied. “A famous Venetian bridge.”
Langdon peered down the cramped waterway and saw the beautifully carved, enclosed tunnel that arched between the two buildings. The Bridge of Sighs, he thought, recalling one of his favorite boyhood movies, A Little Romance, which was based on the legend that if two young lovers kissed beneath this bridge at sunset while the bells of St. Mark’s were ringing, they would love each other forever. The deeply romantic notion had stayed with Langdon his entire life. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that the film also starred an adorable fourteen-year-old newcomer named Diane Lane, on whom Langdon had immediately developed a boyhood crush … a crush that, admittedly, he had never quite shaken.
Years later, Langdon had been horrified to learn that the Bridge of Sighs drew its name not from sighs of passion … but instead from sighs of misery. As it turned out, the enclosed walkway served as the connector between the Doge’s Palace and the doge’s prison, where the incarcerated languished and died, their groans of anguish echoing out of the grated windows along the narrow canal.
Langdon had visited the prison once, and was surprised to learn that the most terrifying cells were not those at water level, which often flooded, but those next door on the top floor of the palace proper—called piombi after their lead-tiled roofs—which made them torturously hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. The great lover Casanova had once been a prisoner in the piombi; charged by the Inquisition with adultery and spying, he had survived fifteen months of incarceration only to escape by beguiling his keeper.
“Sta’ attento!” Maurizio shouted to the pilot of a gondola as their limo slid into the berth the gondola was just vacating. He had found a spot in front of the Hotel Danieli, only a hundred yards from St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.
Maurizio threw a line around a mooring post and leaped ashore as if he were auditioning for a swashbuckling movie. Once he had secured the boat, he turned and extended a hand down into the boat, offering to help his passengers out.
“Thanks,” Langdon said as the muscular Italian pulled him ashore.
Ferris followed, looking vaguely distracted and again glancing out to sea.
Sienna was the last to disembark. As the devilishly handsome Maurizio hoisted her ashore, he fixed her with a deep stare that seemed to imply that she’d have a better time if she ditched her two companions and stayed aboard with him. Sienna seemed not to notice.
“Grazie, Maurizio,” she said absently, her gaze focused on the nearby Doge’s Palace.
Then, without missing a stride, she led Langdon and Ferris into the crowd.