Angels and Demons

Emma and Jenna by the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Bernini)

And the demons won, at least logistically.    We had a busy day planned.  I was to do an Angels and Demons tour at 1:00, and a seminar on Vico at the Colosseum at 7:00.   Some students went to a concert designed to mix the art of Caravaggio and the music of his era, exploring the connections between music and art.   Others had a seminar on Catullus and Roman poetry.    Those went very well, and the Caravaggio + music concert was combined with a lecture in English that fit perfectly with the themes of this course; Steve and the students who went were enthused.

For me, the day just didn’t work out.   I didn’t realize that the main churches on my tour were closed between noon and 3:00, and thus we couldn’t go in and see the art work.   When I got to the Colosseum at 6:40 to scope out a seminar space only two showed up.  They reported others were interested, but were scattered in Rome.   We decided to reschedule and they left.   As I was leaving four others showed up, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want the two punctual ones to miss out.    So basically my stuff flopped today.   I am going to do the Angels and Demons walking tour again tomorrow at 3:30, and work Vico into a final seminar tomorrow evening.

Diana and Chris were ready for the Vico/broad look at history seminar, but we rescheduled

I will describe the walking tour today, but I may get better pictures when I repeat the walk tomorrow.

Angels and Demons is a novel by Dan Brown later made into the movie.   In that film a group called the Illuminati are alleged to have kidnapped four Cardinals just as the College of Cardinals was about to go into conclave to elect a new Pope.  The four were the top candidates for the job and in the story they are assassinated one by one in holy sites around Rome, with Tom Hanks following clues to try to stop the killing and ultimately save the Church.   The tour was to use the connection students have with the film or book to help them learn more about the people and history behind these places.

The first stop (based on the fact our hotel is near Termini) was at Santa Maria della Vittoria, where the Bernini sculpture “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” is located.   This statue was inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic who was part of the counter-reformation.   She emphasized the importance of a contemplative life mystically connected with God through constant mental prayer (as opposed to ritual spoken prayer, which was the norm those days).   Once while ill she described an emotional experience of becoming one with God during her prayers, feeling “excessive” and “sweet” pain, on fire with the love of God, after having a gold spear thrust into her.

Due to her life of works she was canonized in 1622 and in 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a “Doctor of the Church.”   The language St. Teresa uses to describe her experience can be read as akin to a sexual encounter, and many thought that Bernini tried to capture not just the ecstasy of God’s love but Theresa in the throes of an orgasm.  This made the sculpture at times controversial, and of course fed into the  Angels and Demons story.

Next we took the subway to Flaminio, where the church Santa Maria del Popolo is located.   Named for the poplar trees that used to stand there, it’s a beautiful little church and a piazza defined by a large obelisk.   Inside on the left is the Chigi chapel.  (Again, we’ll have to come back Sunday to visit it)    The chapel was designed by Raphael (1483-1520), completed later by Bernini (1598-1680), who also supplied sculpture.    A beautiful high renaissance work, the chapel’s design, involving pyramids, signs of the zodiac and other things that seem odd for a Christian church now, lends itself to Dan Brown’s story.

At the closed Maria del Popolo

Both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, our next stops, were parts of ancient Rome.  Piazza Navona was called Circus Agonalis (the name seems to have evolved from agone to navone and finally navona), where games were held.   Its centerpiece is the famouns Bernini sculpture “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.”   In the story the final candidate for Pope was rescued from drowning in that fountain.   We discussed how both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona have changed through time, but help bridge the gap between ancient and present.   Rome’s personality is still shaped by the attributes from ancient Rome.

We also viewed  Castel Sant’Angelo.  It was the mausoleum for Hadrian and was constructed by 139 AD, about the same time the Pantheon was built.   As Rome declined it was transformed into a military fortress in 410.   Popes would often take refuge there in the tumult after the fall of Rome, and Pope Nicolas III had a pathway built between the fort and the papal apartments to make it easier for the Pope to flee to the safety of this gigantic fortress.   Connecting to past seminars, the pathway was built during the time of Aquinas (1200s), Dante had Nicolas III condemned to the third Bolgia of the Eighth circle of  hell for bribery, and the pathway was used during the sack of Rome in 1527, just after Machiavelli’s death.

We also discussed a bit about the story line of the book/film, namely the role of the Illuminati.   There was a group with that name founded in Ingolstadt, Germany in 1776, clearly long after Raphael, Galileo and Bernini were dead.  We shifted the discussion away from conspiracy theories to the lingering and yet unresolved tension between the secular and the sacred.

Behind the students the passageway from the Vatican connects to Castel Sant'Angelo

What gives Brown such fodder for his stories is that in that era intellectuals were starting to discover a world that couldn’t be explained completely by church doctrine.    For artists and scholars the real, material, human world was becoming more important, yielding a quiet rebellion against church authority in the Catholic world.  After 1517 there would be a century of open rebellion and war from the protestants.

The intellectuals didn’t doubt the existence of God — how could a world like this come into existence without a creator?    The question of ‘where did God come from’ was brushed aside because only in the material world do you need an act of creation.   Yet they were questioning key tenets of Christian faith and recognizing corruption and hypocrisy in the Church.

Fears of punishment during the counter-reformation and concern about just staying employed meant that doubts and dissent had to be quiet, often in small secret societies that could meet and talk about things in private that could have led to severe consequences of made public.    They may even have had hidden messages and small conspiracies, but probably nothing too dramatic.   After all, even in Brown’s story the Illuminati are ultimately not the villains, and may not be real.

Still, I find Angels and Demons to be a useful book and film in opening the door to get students to think about the sites in Rome differently, to want to learn more about them, and to discuss the tension between the sacred and secular that persists to this day.   One can quibble about errors and the license he uses to make the story interesting, but anything that can engage people with the past and want to learn more is very welcome!

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