The Secrets of Florence—Or Following in the Steps of Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

I apologize in advance to my good friends and scholars of Florence for any mistakes I have inadvertently made in describing their wonderful city and history—PM


9780385537858_p0_v11_s260x420I am just wrapping up nine weeks in Florence, Italy where I tried to see if my grey cells could accept the idea of learning a new language (Italian) and maybe unleash some long dormant art skills.  In the process of wandering the streets and checking out the sights of the city while not otherwise occupied conjugating verbs like “essere” (to be) or splashing paint on canvas (and my clothes—I finally got smart and bought one of those tourist aprons) I learned a bit about Florence and it’s “secrets.”  For those of you who are aficionados of Dan Brown you know his latest book “Inferno” mostly takes place in Florence where his main character, Dr. Robert Langdon, races through various secret passages among some of the more famous landmarks of the city.  The Italian tourist industry being very astute has developed an entire new series of tours which retrace Langdon’s fictional steps through the city.  I managed to get on some of those tours as well as a few private ones that I describe here and where I also try to add a little “fact” to the “fiction” of “Inferno.”

For those of you who haven’t read “Inferno” (either Dan Brown’s or Dante’s original in the “Devine Comedy”), not to worry.  It suffices to know that Dr. Langdon and his companion, Dr. Sienna Brooks, are being chased by bad people trying to kill him as he tries to recover his recently lost memory and solve various mysteries—Why is he in Italy—he awakens in a hospital just outside of Florence and has no recollection of how he got there? Why are people, including his own government trying to kill him? What is the mysterious disaster all the clues keep pointing to that he must solve to save mankind? His journey (and ours) starts south of the city near the Arno River.  When he tries to enter the city his path is blocked by his pursuers so he ducks into the Bobolli Gardens. 

Neptune's Fountain in the Boboli Gardens

Neptune’s Fountain in the Boboli Gardens

The gardens are a beautiful part of the famous Palazzo Pitti, once home of the Grand Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’Medici who’s family ruled over Florence for hundreds of years.  Tourists can readily visit the palace and its gardens and appreciate the fine art and wealth that the Medici family accumulated over several centuries.  Much is exactly as Brown describes in his book, including the reference to a colossal stone basin from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla (which Brown/Langdon refer to irreverently as “the world’s largest bathtub”).  It and the obelisk of Ramses II were both once part of Medici’s Roman palace. I cannot attest to the Buontalenti Grotto (which I assume actually exists) where Langdon and his cohort flee but I am fairly certain there is no little grey door with a guard preventing entrance into the Vasari Corridor located at its base.

Medici had a number of palaces including the Palazzo Vecchio in and about Florence and other parts of Italy.  Because of his wealth and power, Medici had no interest in mixing with the commoners of Florence. So for that and for personal security in 1564 he had the famous artist and architect, Giorgio Vasari, create an enclosed passageway between the two palaces.  Spanning almost two kilometers, the Vasari Corridor starts on the south end of the Palazzo Pitti, crosses the Arno River atop the famous Ponte Vecchio, parallels the Arno River to the Uffizi Gallery and from there to the Palazzo Vecchio. 

Inside the Vasari Corridor

Inside the Vasari Corridor

Langdon, through a variety of methods found his way into the Corridor and eventually into the Palazzo Vecchio and its Room of Five Hundred where the Republic of Florence’s Counselors met and later Medici wined and dined his friends and enemies. Access to the corridor while not prohibited does require special permission and guides.  In my case it took three weeks of trying various agents (the Uffizii Gallery ticket office said such tours were now closed for reconstruction) before I was able to secure a three-hour tour of the corridor, not including the last portion connecting with Palazzo Pitti which was being renovated. Entry is from the Uffizi museum and the door is electronically secured with a watchman standing nearby to ensure tourists don’t accidentally try to gain access. It is full of masterpieces, including the museum’s famous collection of self-portraits and many other works of art not available for viewing in the main galleries. photo 14The tour took us over the Ponte Vecchio where a series of panoramic windows at the bridge’s center overlook the Arno.  The windows were installed by order of Mussolini so Hitler could have a better view of the river during a visit in 1939.  It was apparently a good call as in 1944 Hitler gave specific orders to spare the bridge as the Allies marched northward and all the other bridges entering Florence were dynamited.

Langdon gained access to the Palazzo Vecchio by “pushing open” a heavy wooden door from the corridor.  In reality the entry to the palace from the corridor is blocked by a very large door with a padlock to which not even our escort had access.  You can only gain access to the palace by normal means (the front door in Piazza della Signoria) or by a “secret” small door on Via della Ninna next to the palace (which in the novel Langdon uses to exit the palace and escape from the his pursuers). 

Secret entrance into the Palazzo Vecchio

Secret entrance into the Palazzo Vecchio

The door, which was the beginning of our personal tour of the palace, was created as an emergency exit for its powerful occupants and leads up very narrow stairs through the interior of the palace walls into the upper floors to the personal rooms of the Medicci family.  These include the private bedroom of the Duke, his wife’s bedroom and various sitting rooms, including a personal chapel and other mysterious areas of their “home.”  The Duke’s son, Ferdinand had one room (described by Brown as a “jewel box”) where he hid his most prized possessions—odd bits of stone, feathers, horns and the like—no one said they were smart, just very rich and powerful. 

The "Jewel Box" room

The “Jewel Box” room

It is covered in beautiful frescos and contains hidden cabinets behind beautiful paintings whose themes gave clues as to the cabinets contents. It is only one of a number of remarkable rooms and corridors within the palace we were able to visit.

In the novel Langdon found his way from the Corridor into the Hall of the Five Hundred, a meeting place of the Grand Council of the Republic in the 15th century and later the dining hall of the Grand Duke.  He was searching for the clue “cerca trova” (“search and you shall find”), part of a painting by Vasari, the “Battle of Marciano.”  Langdon’s colleague with her “young eyes” was able to make out the clue on the painting while standing a hundred feet below it.  Our group was only able to see it after careful coaching by our guide and through the lens of a very good camera (my iPhone couldn’t hack it) Sure enough the clue, written centuries earlier by Varsari, was on a small battlefield flag in the painting. 

Circle marks location of the clue "Cerca Tovar"

Circle marks location of the clue “Cerca Trovar”

Scholars believe Varsari was telling the world that a “lost” fresco by Michelangelo was hidden behind his painting; to date no such fresco has been discovered despite recent studies of the murals using new scanning technology.

Our guide took us to see Dante’s “dealth mask”, also key to Langdon’s search, which is readily available for viewing by the public.  It, however, appears to be a fake as a close examination shows the eyes of the individual were open when the mask was supposedly created—not likely possible if the person were actually dead. 

Dante's "death mask"

Dante’s “death mask”

Secret doorway in the map room

Secret doorway in the map room

The mask is now safely behind a glass enclosure despite its mysterious disappearance in the novel.  The tour also took us to the map room, from whence Langdon fled through a “secret door” behind an ancient map of Armenia.  Sure enough the map room with a large globe in its center and maps covering the walls had a small, locked door behind the map of Armenia.  The door led into a small passageway and another secret room used by the Medicci family to keep some of their treasures as well as to spy on the meetings taking place in the Room of the Five Hundred. This was done through a small screened window on one wall and allowed the family to keep tabs on friends and foes alike.

In the attic above the "Room of the Five Hundred"

In the attic above the “Room of the Five Hundred”

Ceiling paintings in the Room of the Five Hundred

Ceiling paintings in the Room of the Five Hundred

Perhaps of most interest was the visit to the attic of the Palazzo.  Accessible through small winding stairs we were able to go into the attic directly above the Room of the Five Hundred where the support structure and beams supporting the roof above and the ceiling below are readily seen from a small platform exactly as described by Brown.  The ceiling itself is made up of thirty-six wooden panels of intricate paintings by Varsai and his assistants depicting the “great episodes” from the life of the Grand Duke.  It is obvious Varsari knew where his allegiance lay.  In Brown’s novel he replaced the paintings’ wooden panels with panels of canvas—all the better to do away with one of the “bad guys” when they fall from the attic platform through the paintings to the floor below.  Our guide suggested that given the age of the wooden panels they would not likely support anyone falling on them either (!).  We will have to await the movie version of “Inferno” to see how they deal with this obvious fictional fabrication.

I will not go into any further detail as it relates to Brown’s book or more of the secrets of Florence related to Dante or many of its other famous citizens.  Perhaps in another post or over a cold adult beverage I’ll get a chance to describe graffiti by sixteen year old Michelangelo often overlooked but easily seen in the Piazza della Signoria or why a cow’s head (muca) sits atop the parapet of the majestic Duomo or what do Galileo, Michelangelo and Macchiavelli all have in common other than being sons of Florence? Suffice it to say that Florence has many secrets and interesting tales (true and untrue) extending over the thousand years of its rich history well worth exploring by any intrepid visitor or tourist.  Cera Trova—Paul Maxwell

Paul's ride

Paul’s ride

Paul Maxwell is on extended sabbatical and periodically reports on his observations across various borders.


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