Rome from the air is a labyrinth - an indecipherable maze of ancient roadways winding around buildings, fountains, and crumbling ruins.
The Vatican chopper stayed low in the sky as it sliced northwest through the permanent smog layer coughed up by the congestion below. Langdon gazed down at the mopeds, sight-seeing buses, and armies of miniature Fiat sedans buzzing around rotaries in all directions. Koyaanisqatsi, he thought, recalling the Hopi term for "life out of balance."
Vittoria sat in silent determination in the seat beside him.
The chopper banked hard.
His stomach dropping, Langdon gazed farther into the distance. His eyes found the crumbling ruins of the Roman Coliseum. The Coliseum, Langdon had always thought, was one of history's greatest ironies. Now a dignified symbol for the rise of human culture and civilization, the stadium had been built to host centuries of barbaric events - hungry lions shredding prisoners, armies of slaves battling to the death, gang rapes of exotic women captured from far-off lands, as well as public beheadings and castrations. It was ironic, Langdon thought, or perhaps fitting, that the Coliseum had served as the architectural blueprint for Harvard's Soldier Field - the football stadium where the ancient traditions of savagery were reenacted every fall... crazed fans screaming for bloodshed as Harvard battled Yale.
As the chopper headed north, Langdon spied the Roman Forum - the heart of pre-Christian Rome. The decaying columns looked like toppled gravestones in a cemetery that had somehow avoided being swallowed by the metropolis surrounding it.
To the west the wide basin of the Tiber River wound enormous arcs across the city. Even from the air Langdon could tell the water was deep. The churning currents were brown, filled with silt and foam from heavy rains.
"Straight ahead," the pilot said, climbing higher.
Langdon and Vittoria looked out and saw it. Like a mountain parting the morning fog, the colossal dome rose out of the haze before them: St. Peter's Basilica.
"Now that," Langdon said to Vittoria, "is something Michelangelo got right."
Langdon had never seen St. Peter's from the air. The marble fa&ccedil;ade blazed like fire in the afternoon sun. Adorned with 140 statues of saints, martyrs, and angels, the Herculean edifice stretched two football fields wide and a staggering six long. The cavernous interior of the basilica had room for over 60,000 worshipers... over one hundred times the population of Vatican City, the smallest country in the world.
Incredibly, though, not even a citadel of this magnitude could dwarf the piazza before it. A sprawling expanse of granite, St. Peter's Square was a staggering open space in the congestion of Rome, like a classical Central Park. In front of the basilica, bordering the vast oval common, 284 columns swept outward in four concentric arcs of diminishing size... an architectural trompe de l'oiel used to heighten the piazza's sense of grandeur.
As he stared at the magnificent shrine before him, Langdon wondered what St. Peter would think if he were here now. The Saint had died a gruesome death, crucified upside down on this very spot. Now he rested in the most sacred of tombs, buried five stories down, directly beneath the central cupola of the basilica.
"Vatican City," the pilot said, sounding anything but welcoming.
Langdon looked out at the towering stone bastions that loomed ahead - impenetrable fortifications surrounding the complex... a strangely earthly defense for a spiritual world of secrets, power, and mystery.
"Look!" Vittoria said suddenly, grabbing Langdon's arm. She motioned frantically downward toward St. Peter's Square directly beneath them. Langdon put his face to the window and looked.
"Over there," she said, pointing.
Langdon looked. The rear of the piazza looked like a parking lot crowded with a dozen or so trailer trucks. Huge satellite dishes pointed skyward from the roof of every truck. The dishes were emblazoned with familiar names:
United Press International
Langdon felt suddenly confused, wondering if the news of the antimatter had already leaked out.
Vittoria seemed suddenly tense. "Why is the press here? What's going on?"
The pilot turned and gave her an odd look over his shoulder. "What's going on? You don't know?"
"No," she fired back, her accent husky and strong.
"Il Conclavo," he said. "It is to be sealed in about an hour. The whole world is watching."
The word rang a long moment in Langdon's ears before dropping like a brick to the pit of his stomach. Il Conclavo. The Vatican Conclave. How could he have forgotten? It had been in the news recently.
Fifteen days ago, the Pope, after a tremendously popular twelve-year reign, had passed away. Every paper in the world had carried the story about the Pope's fatal stroke while sleeping - a sudden and unexpected death many whispered was suspicious. But now, in keeping with the sacred tradition, fifteen days after the death of a Pope, the Vatican was holding Il Conclavo - the sacred ceremony in which the 165 cardinals of the world - the most powerful men in Christendom - gathered in Vatican City to elect the new Pope.
Every cardinal on the planet is here today, Langdon thought as the chopper passed over St. Peter's Basilica. The expansive inner world of Vatican City spread out beneath him. The entire power structure of the Roman Catholic Church is sitting on a time bomb.