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Sienna expertly maneuvered the Trike through each arching curve as they left behind the dingy residential neighborhood and moved into the clean, cedar-laden air of the city’s upscale west bank. They passed a chapel clock that was just chiming 8 A.M.
Langdon held on, his mind churning with mystifying images of Dante’s inferno … and the mysterious face of a beautiful silver-haired woman he had just seen wedged in between two huge soldiers in the backseat of the van.
Whoever she is, Langdon thought, they have her now.
“The woman in the van,” Sienna said over the noise of the Trike’s engine. “You’re sure it was the same woman from your visions?”
“Then you must have met her at some point in the past two days. The question is why you keep seeing her … and why she keeps telling you to seek and find.”
Langdon agreed. “I don’t know … I have no recollection of meeting her, but every time I see her face, I have an overwhelming sense that I need to help her.”
Very sorry. Very sorry.
Langdon suddenly wondered if maybe his strange apology had been directed to the silver-haired woman. Did I fail her somehow? The thought left a knot in his gut.
For Langdon, it felt as if a vital weapon had been extracted from his arsenal. I have no memory. Eidetic since childhood, Langdon’s memory was the intellectual asset he relied on most. For a man accustomed to recalling every intricate detail of what he saw around him, functioning without his memory felt like attempting to land a plane in the dark with no radar.
“It seems like your only chance of finding answers is to decipher La Mappa,” Sienna said. “Whatever secret it holds … it seems to be the reason you’re being hunted.”
Langdon nodded, thinking about the word catrovacer, set against the backdrop of writhing bodies in Dante’s Inferno.
Suddenly a clear thought emerged in Langdon’s head.
I awoke in Florence …
No city on earth was more closely tied to Dante than Florence. Dante Alighieri had been born in Florence, grew up in Florence, fell in love, according to legend, with Beatrice in Florence, and was cruelly exiled from his home in Florence, destined to wander the Italian countryside for years, longing soulfully for his home.
You shall leave everything you love most, Dante wrote of banishment. This is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first.
As Langdon recalled those words from the seventeenth canto of the Paradiso, he looked to the right, gazing out across the Arno River toward the distant spires of old Florence.
Langdon pictured the layout of the old city—a labyrinth of tourists, congestion, and traffic bustling through narrow streets around Florence’s famed cathedral, museums, chapels, and shopping districts. He suspected that if he and Sienna ditched the Trike, they could evaporate into the throngs of people.
“The old city is where we need to go,” Langdon declared. “If there are answers, that’s where they’ll probably be. Old Florence was Dante’s entire world.”
Sienna nodded her agreement and called over her shoulder, “It will be safer, too—plenty of places to hide. I’ll head for Porta Romana, and from there, we can cross the river.”
The river, Langdon thought with a touch of trepidation. Dante’s famous journey into hell had begun by crossing a river as well.
Sienna opened up the throttle, and as the landscape blurred past, Langdon mentally scanned through images of the inferno, the dead and dying, the ten ditches of the Malebolge with the plague doctor and the strange word—CATROVACER. He pondered the words scrawled beneath La Mappa—The truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death—and wondered if the grim saying might be a quote from Dante.
I don’t recognize it.
Langdon was well versed in Dante’s work, and his prominence as an art historian who specialized in iconography meant he was occasionally called upon to interpret the vast array of symbols that populated Dante’s landscape. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, he had given a lecture on Dante’s Inferno about two years earlier.
“Divine Dante: Symbols of Hell.”
Dante Alighieri had evolved into one of history’s true cult icons, sparking the creation of Dante societies all around the world. The oldest American branch had been founded in 1881 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New England’s famous Fireside Poet was the first American to translate The Divine Comedy, his translation remaining among the most respected and widely read to this day.
As a noted student of Dante’s work, Langdon had been asked to speak at a major event hosted by one of the world’s oldest Dante societies—Società Dante Alighieri Vienna. The event was slated to take place at the Viennese Academy of Sciences. The event’s primary sponsor—a wealthy scientist and Dante Society member—had managed to secure the academy’s two-thousand-seat lecture hall.
When Langdon arrived at the event, he was met by the conference director and ushered inside. As they crossed the lobby, Langdon couldn’t help but notice the five words painted in gargantuan letters across the back wall: WHAT IF GOD WAS WRONG?
“It’s a Lukas Troberg,” the director whispered. “Our newest art installation. What do you think?”
Langdon eyed the massive text, uncertain how to respond. “Um … his brushstrokes are lavish, but his command of the subjunctive seems sparse.”
The director gave him a confused look. Langdon hoped his rapport with the audience would be better.
When he finally stepped onstage, Langdon received a rousing round of applause from a crowd that was standing room only.
“Meine Damen und Herren,” Langdon began, his voice booming over the loudspeakers. “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.”
The famous line from Cabaret drew appreciative laughter from the crowd.
“I’ve been informed that our audience tonight contains not only Dante Society members, but also many visiting scientists and students who may be exploring Dante for the first time. So, for those in the audience who have been too busy studying to read medieval Italian epics, I thought I’d begin with a quick overview of Dante—his life, his work, and why he is considered one of the most influential figures in all of history.”
Using the tiny remote in his hand, Langdon called up a series of images of Dante, the first being Andrea del Castagno’s full-length portrait of the poet standing in a doorway, clutching a book of philosophy.
“Dante Alighieri,” Langdon began. “This Florentine writer and philosopher lived from 1265 to 1321. In this portrait, as in nearly all depictions, he wears on his head a red cappuccio—a tight-fitting, plaited hood with earflaps—which, along with his crimson Lucca robe, has become the most widely reproduced image of Dante.”
Langdon advanced slides to the Botticelli portrait of Dante from the Uffizi Gallery, which stressed Dante’s most salient features, a heavy jaw and hooked nose. “Here, Dante’s unique face is once again framed by his red cappuccio, but in this instance Botticelli has added a laurel wreath to his cap as a symbol of expertise—in this case in the poetic arts—a traditional symbol borrowed from ancient Greece and used even today in ceremonies honoring poet laureates and Nobel laureates.”
Langdon quickly scrolled through several other images, all showing Dante in his red cap, red tunic, laurel wreath, and prominent nose. “And to round out your image of Dante, here is a statue from the Piazza di Santa Croce … and, of course, the famous fresco attributed to Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello.”
Langdon left the slide of Giotto’s fresco on the screen and walked to the center of the stage.
“As you are no doubt aware, Dante is best known for his monumental literary masterpiece—The Divine Comedy—a brutally vivid account of the author’s descent into hell, passage through purgatory, and eventual ascent into paradise to commune with God. By modern standards, The Divine Comedy has nothing comedic about it. It’s called a comedy for another reason entirely. In the fourteenth century, Italian literature was, by requirement, divided into two categories: tragedy, representing high literature, was written in formal Italian; comedy, representing low literature, was written in the vernacular and geared toward the general population.”
Langdon advanced slides to the iconic fresco by Michelino, which showed Dante standing outside the walls of Florence clutching a copy of The Divine Comedy. In the background, the terraced mountain of purgatory rose high above the gates of hell. The painting now hung in Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore—better known as Il Duomo.
“As you may have guessed from the title,” Langdon continued, “The Divine Comedy was written in the vernacular—the language of the people. Even so, it brilliantly fused religion, history, politics, philosophy, and social commentary in a tapestry of fiction that, while erudite, remained wholly accessible to the masses. The work became such a pillar of Italian culture that Dante’s writing style has been credited with nothing less than the codification of the modern Italian language.”
Langdon paused a moment for effect and then whispered, “My friends, it is impossible to overstate the influence of Dante Alighieri’s work. Throughout all of history, with the sole exception perhaps of Holy Scripture, no single work of writing, art, music, or literature has inspired more tributes, imitations, variations, and annotations than The Divine Comedy.”
After listing the vast array of famous composers, artists, and authors who had created works based on Dante’s epic poem, Langdon scanned the crowd. “So tell me, do we have any authors here tonight?”
Nearly one-third of the hands went up. Langdon stared out in shock. Wow, either this is the most accomplished audience on earth, or this e-publishing thing is really taking off.
“Well, as all of you authors know, there is nothing a writer appreciates more than a blurb—one of those single-line endorsements from a powerful individual, designed to make others want to buy your work. And, in the Middle Ages, blurbs existed, too. And Dante got quite a few of them.”
Langdon changed slides. “How would you like to have this on your book jacket?”
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
A murmur of surprise rustled through the crowd.
“Yes,” Langdon said, “that’s the same Michelangelo you all know from the Sistine Chapel and the David. In addition to being a master painter and sculptor, Michelangelo was a superb poet, publishing nearly three hundred poems—including one titled ‘Dante,’ dedicated to the man whose stark visions of hell were those that inspired Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. And if you don’t believe me, read the third canto of Dante’s Inferno and then visit the Sistine Chapel; just above the altar, you’ll see this familiar image.”
Langdon advanced slides to a frightening detail of a muscle-bound beast swinging a giant paddle at cowering people. “This is Dante’s hellish ferryman, Charon, beating straggling passengers with an oar.”
Langdon moved now to a new slide—a second detail of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a man being crucified. “This is Haman the Agagite, who, according to Scripture, was hanged to death. However, in Dante’s poem, he was crucified instead. As you can see here in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo chose Dante’s version over that of the Bible.” Langdon grinned and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell the pope.”
The crowd laughed.
“Dante’s Inferno created a world of pain and suffering beyond all previous human imagination, and his writing quite literally defined our modern visions of hell.” Langdon paused. “And believe me, the Catholic Church has much to thank Dante for. His Inferno terrified the faithful for centuries, and no doubt tripled church attendance among the fearful.”
Langdon switched the slide. “And this leads us to the reason we are all here tonight.”
The screen now displayed the title of his lecture: DIVINE DANTE: SYMBOLS OF HELL.
“Dante’s Inferno is a landscape so rich in symbolism and iconography that I often dedicate an entire semester course to it. And tonight, I thought there would be no better way to unveil the symbols of Dante’s Inferno than to walk side by side with him … through the gates of hell.”
Langdon paced out to the edge of the stage and surveyed the crowd. “Now, if we’re planning on taking a stroll through hell, I strongly recommend we use a map. And there is no map of Dante’s hell more complete and accurate than the one painted by Sandro Botticelli.”
He touched his remote, and Botticelli’s forbidding Mappa dell’Inferno materialized before the crowd. He could hear several groans as people absorbed the various horrors taking place in the funnel-shaped subterranean cavern.
“Unlike some artists, Botticelli was extremely faithful in his interpretation of Dante’s text. In fact, he spent so much time reading Dante that the great art historian Giorgio Vasari said Botticelli’s obsession with Dante led to ‘serious disorders in his living.’ Botticelli created more than two dozen other works relating to Dante, but this map is his most famous.”
Langdon turned now, pointing to the upper left-hand corner of the painting. “Our journey will begin up there, aboveground, where you can see Dante in red, along with his guide, Virgil, standing outside the gates of hell. From there we will travel downward, through the nine rings of Dante’s inferno, and eventually come face-to-face with …”
Langdon quickly flashed to a new slide—a giant enlargement of Satan as depicted by Botticelli in this very painting—a horrific, three-headed Lucifer consuming three different people, one in each mouth.
The crowd gasped audibly.
“A glance at coming attractions,” Langdon announced. “This frightening character here is where tonight’s journey will end. This is the ninth ring of hell, where Satan himself resides. However …” Langdon paused. “Getting there is half the fun, so let’s rewind a bit … back up to the gates of hell, where our journey begins.”
Langdon moved to the next slide—a Gustave Doré lithograph that depicted a dark, tunneled entrance carved into the face of an austere cliff. The inscription above the door read: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.
“So …” Langdon said with a smile. “Shall we enter?”
Somewhere tires screeched loudly, and the audience evaporated before Langdon’s eyes. He felt himself lurch forward, and he collided with Sienna’s back as the Trike skidded to a stop in the middle of the Viale Machiavelli.
Langdon reeled, still thinking about the gates of hell looming before him. As he regained his bearings, he saw where he was.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
Sienna pointed three hundred yards ahead to the Porta Romana—the ancient stone gateway that served as the entrance to old Florence. “Robert, we’ve got a problem.”
Agent Brüder stood in the humble apartment and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Who the hell lives here? The decor was sparse and jumbled, like a college dorm room furnished on a budget.
“Agent Brüder?” one of his men called from down the hall. “You’ll want to see this.”
As Brüder made his way down the hall, he wondered if the local police had detained Langdon yet. Brüder would have preferred to solve this crisis “in-house,” but Langdon’s escape had left little choice but to enlist local police support and set up roadblocks. An agile motorbike on the labyrinthine streets of Florence would easily elude Brüder’s vans, whose heavy polycarbonate windows and solid, puncture-proof tires made them impenetrable but lumbering. The Italian police had a reputation for being uncooperative with outsiders, but Brüder’s organization had significant influence—police, consulates, embassies. When we make demands, nobody dares question.
Brüder entered the small office where his man stood over an open laptop and typed in latex gloves. “This is the machine he used,” the man said. “Langdon used it to access his e-mail and run some searches. The files are still cached.”
Brüder moved toward the desk.
“It doesn’t appear to be Langdon’s computer,” the tech said. “It’s registered to someone initialed S.C.—I should have a full name shortly.”
As Brüder waited, his eyes were drawn to a stack of papers on the desk. He picked them up, thumbing through the unusual array—an old playbill from the London Globe Theatre and a series of newspaper articles. The more Brüder read, the wider his eyes became.
Taking the documents, Brüder slipped back into the hall and placed a call to his boss. “It’s Brüder,” he said. “I think I’ve got an ID on the person helping Langdon.”
“Who is it?” his boss replied.
Brüder exhaled slowly. “You’re not going to believe this.”
Two miles away, Vayentha hunkered low on her BMW as it fled the area. Police cars raced past her in the opposite direction, sirens blaring.
I’ve been disavowed, she thought.
Normally, the soft vibration of the motorcycle’s four-stroke engine helped calm her nerves. Not today.
Vayentha had worked for the Consortium for twelve years, climbing the ranks from ground support, to strategy coordination, all the way to a high-ranked field agent. My career is all I have. Field agents endured a life of secrecy, travel, and long missions, all of which precluded any real outside life or relationships.
I’ve been on this same mission for a year, she thought, still unable to believe the provost had pulled the trigger and disavowed her so abruptly.
For twelve months Vayentha had been overseeing support services for the same client of the Consortium—an eccentric, green-eyed genius who wanted only to “disappear” for a while so he could work unmolested by his rivals and enemies. He traveled very rarely, and always invisibly, but mostly he worked. The nature of this man’s work was not known to Vayentha, whose contract had simply been to keep the client hidden from the powerful people trying to find him.
Vayentha had performed the service with consummate professionalism, and everything had gone perfectly.
Perfectly, that was … until last night.
Vayentha’s emotional state and career had been in a downward spiral ever since.
I’m on the outside now.
The disavowal protocol, if invoked, required that the agent instantly abandon her current mission and exit “the arena” at once. If the agent were captured, the Consortium would disavow all knowledge of the agent. Agents knew better than to press their luck with the organization, having witnessed firsthand its disturbing ability to manipulate reality into whatever suited its needs.
Vayentha knew of only two agents who had been disavowed. Strangely, she had never seen either of them again. She had always assumed they had been called in for their formal review and fired, required never to make contact again with Consortium employees.
Now, however, Vayentha was not so sure.
You’re overreacting, she tried to tell herself. The Consortium’s methods are far more elegant than cold-blooded murder.
Even so, she felt a fresh chill sweep through her body.
It had been instinct that urged her to flee the hotel rooftop unseen the moment she saw Brüder’s team arrive, and she wondered if that instinct had saved her.
Nobody knows where I am now.
As Vayentha sped northward on the sleek straightaway of the Viale del Poggio Imperiale, she realized what a difference a few hours had made for her. Last night she had been worried about protecting her job. Now she was worried about protecting her life.
Florence was once a walled city, its primary entrance the stone gateway of the Porta Romana, built in 1326. While most of the city’s perimeter walls were destroyed centuries ago, the Porta Romana still exists, and to this day, traffic enters the city by funneling through deep arched tunnels in the colossal fortification.
The gateway itself is a fifty-foot-tall barrier of ancient brick and stone whose primary passageway still retains its massive bolted wooden doors, which are propped open at all times to let traffic pass through. Six major roads converge in front of these doors, filtering into a rotary whose grassy median is dominated by a large Pistoletto statue depicting a woman departing the city gates carrying an enormous bundle on her head.
Although nowadays it is more of a snarled traffic nightmare, Florence’s austere city gate was once the site of the Fiera dei Contratti—the Contracts Fair—at which fathers sold their daughters into a contracted marriage, often forcing them to dance provocatively in an effort to secure higher dowries.
This morning, several hundred yards short of the gateway, Sienna had screeched to a stop and was now pointing in alarm. On the back of the Trike, Langdon looked ahead and immediately shared her apprehension. In front of them, a long line of cars idled at a full stop. Traffic in the rotary had been halted by a police barricade, and more police cars were now arriving. Armed officers were walking from car to car, asking questions.
That can’t be for us, Langdon thought. Can it?
A sweaty cyclist came pedaling toward them up the Viale Machiavelli away from the traffic. He was on a recumbent bike, his bare legs pumping out in front of him.
Sienna shouted out to him. “Cos’ è successo?”
“E chi lo sa!” he shouted back, looking concerned. “Carabinieri.” He hurried past, looking eager to clear the area.