A better question would be “What’s right with Angels and Demons?”
Dan Brown, author of the immensely popular The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, makes a big deal of the accuracy of his books and the time he spends researching them. On his webpage, Brown explains that “Because my novels are so research-intensive, they take a couple of years to write.” The first page of both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons has the heading “FACT”. The following page in Angels and Demons claims that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.”
Since Brown highlights his concern with getting the facts right, he opens himself up to criticism of the “facts” that he presents throughout his novels. And it turns out that Dan Brown, much of the time, is full of manure. What follows is a list of errors found in Angels and Demons. It is not meant to be exhaustive or complete. There are plenty of inaccuracies that I’m sure I’ve missed. Nor does it catalog the innumerable instances of infelicitous prose and implausible scenarios. Dan Brown is an awful writer – his language is pedestrian at best, his characters flat, his plots formulaic. The problem with Dan Brown’s books is that people buy into his claims that they’re factually accurate. Facts matter, especially when you claim that you get the facts right.
My goal here is convince people that you shouldn’t believe any of Dan Brown’s factual assertions. He gets some stuff right, but he’s wrong just as often as he’s right. Go ahead and read his novels for fun. But don’t trust a single word he’s saying without doing further reading. Brown’s either incompetent or careless. In either case, he insults his readers by getting so much wrong.
This list is limited just to instances where Brown is flat-out wrong. There are plenty of misleading and dubious passages in Angels and Demons that I’ve left out due to the difficulty in verifying all of his errors. So this list is representative of the kinds of factual mistakes that Dan Brown makes. As you’ll see, Brown has some knowledge on the topics he writes about; it’s just that his knowledge is superficial and incomplete.
The next time you hear someone talk about how smart Dan Brown is, send them this way.
– On the map of “Modern Rome,” there are at least five errors.
1) The Ponte Sant’ Angelo is translated as “Bridge of Angels.” This is a rather bad translation… the bridge bit is right, but “Sant’ Angelo” means holy or blessed angel.
2) It’s not the Via Condotti, it’s the Via dei Condotti. It’s considerably further south than Brown put it.
3) It’s not the Via Nationale, it’s the Via Nazionale.
4) The Pantheon is south of Piazza della Rotunda, not north of the piazza, as Brown puts it.
5) Sant’ Agnese in Agone is west of Piazza Navona, not east of it, where Brown puts it.
– After sending a fax, you don’t stay on the line.
– Langdon calls “ancient documents” and “historical hearsay” the “symbolic equivalent of fossils”. This is nonsensical. I’m not sure how documents and hearsay are symbolic equivalents of anything? More substantially, documents and hearsay differ when it comes to what they reveal about the past. Documents, particularly those roughly contemporary to the events they describe (primary sources), are generally considered relatively reliable sources of information. Hearsay, especially when far removed from the event in question, is far less useful, though it can reveal plenty about who’s propagating the hearsay. To conflate documents and hearsay into a category that is equivalent to fossils reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how history is written.
– The pilot of the X-33 claims that at sixty thousand feet, people weigh thirty percent less. This is pure nonsense. Rising 60,000 feet from the earth will decrease one’s weight by less than 0.6%.
– While walking around the CERN campus, Langdon notices a marble column incorrectly labeled Ionic. Langdon points the mistake out to Kohler: “That column isn’t Ionic. Ionic columns are uniform in width. That one’s tapered. It’s a Doric – the Greek counterpart.” The problem is that Ionic columns are themselves Greek. The three orders of classical columns, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, are all Greek in origin, so it’s impossible for the Doric order to the be the Greek counterpart of the Ionic. It’s also much easier to distinguish the Doric from the Ionic based on their capitals; Doric columns have plain capitals, while Ionic columns are topped by volutes or scrolls.
– In one of his lecture-y moments, Langdon mentions the Polish astronomer Copernicus. Kohler interrupts, saying that the church murdered Copernicus and other scientists “for revealing scientific truths.” Copernicus died from complications from a stroke in 1543, soon after the publication of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. There is no evidence that Copernicus was murdered by anyone.
– In discussing the Illuminati, Langdon reveals that the Catholic Church denounced the group as Shaitan. Questioned by Kohler, Langdon provides further information. “It’s Islamic. It means adversary – God’s adversary. The church chose Islam for the name because it was a language they considered dirty.” Complete hogwash. Neither “Islamic” nor “Islam” is a language. The latter is a religion, the former the adjective form of that religion. Perhaps Langdon (and Brown) was thinking of Arabic?
– After learning that Vittoria Vetra practices hatha yoga, Langdon muses that “The ancient Buddhist art of meditative stretching seemed an odd proficiency for the physicist daughter of a Catholic priest.” All forms of yoga are Hindu in origin, not Buddhist.
– While talking with Kohler and Vetra about the Big Bang theory, Langdon insists that the theory was first proposed by “Harvard astronomer Edwin Hubble” . At no point in his life was Hubble associated with Harvard.
– In defiance of Kohler, Vittoria tries calling the authorities to help investigate her father’ death. She’s unable to, since “This far underground, her cell phone had no dial tone.” I have no trouble believing that Vittoria had no dial tone, but it’s not because she’s underground. Cell phones never have dial tones.
– While pondering the removal of the Vatican Museum’s works of art, Langdon also thinks of the architectural treasures housed within the museum: “the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s famed staircase leading to the Musèo Vaticano” . There are four (yes, four!) errors in just this sentence. First, it’s the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums), not the Museo Vaticano. Second, there’s no accent over the e in “museo” in Italian. Italian has penultimate stress, so there’s no need for the accent. Third, St. Peter’s is not housed within the Vatican Museums. Finally (and most wrong), the spiral staircase was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, over 350 years after Michelangelo’s death.
– Upon seeing the pilot of the helicopter in his “garish attire,” Langdon explains that the uniforms were “Designed by Michelangelo himself.” He then recalls the requirements for entering the Swiss Guard: “applicants had to be Swiss males between nineteen and thirty years old, at least 5 feet 6 inches, trained by the Swiss Army, and unmarried.” As usual, despite Langdon’s supposedly expert knowledge, he succeeds in getting it wrong. It’s a popular misconception that Michelangelo designed the uniforms of the Swiss Guard; in fact, the current uniforms were designed by Jules Repond in the early 20th century. Langdon (and Brown) also gets the requirements wrong. Applicants must be at least 174 cm (68.5 inches, or a bit over 5’8″).
– As Langdon and Vittoria fly over Rome, they see the Roman Forum. Brown’s description of the forum includes this gem: “The decaying columns looked like toppled gravestones” Toppled gravestones have fallen down; they’re horizontal. Just about all the visible columns in the Roman Forum are still upright, as this photo shows.
– A bit later, Brown describes the Tiber. “Even from the air, Langdon could tell the water was deep.” I suppose there’s some question as to what “deep” means, but it’s hard to believe the Tiber would ever qualify as deep. As the Tiber runs from Rome to the Mediterranean Sea, its depth ranges from 7 to 20 feet, so it’s highly unlikely that it’s any deeper while in Rome.
– As they approach St. Peter’s, the reader is treated to a description of the basilica. “The marble façade 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.” Take a look at the façade of St. Peter’s. Do you see 140 statues there? Then there’s the matter of the size of St. Peter’s. As most Americans (but apparently not Dan Brown) know, a football field is 100 yards or 300 feet long (120 yards if you count the end zones, but you typically don’t for this sort of thing). According to Brown, that would make St. Peter’s 600 feet wide and 1,800 feet long. Yet, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (which would know), the dimensions are a bit different: “width of the [nave] at the entrance, 90.2 feet entire length of the basilica including the vestibule, 693.8 feet”. I have no clue where Brown got his numbers. Brown might be conflating the piazza with the church, but the piazza’s approximately 1100 feet long and 800 feet wide (again from the Catholic Encyclopedia). Perhaps Brown got the length of “St. Peter’s” by adding together the length of the basilica and the piazza, but “St. Peter’s” is used to refer to only the church. Plus, he’s already mentioned the façade, and piazzas don’t have façades. Either Brown’s awfully confused or he’s just wrong.
– Langdon tells Vittoria that the Pantheon “got its name from the original religion practiced there – “Pantheism” the worship of all gods, specifically the pagan gods of Mother Earth.” Langdon is so nonsensical that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the Romans did not practice pantheism, the belief that God is everywhere and involved with all phenomena. Second, while the Romans were polytheistic, that doesn’t mean they worshipped “all gods.” Rather, they worshipped their particular set of gods, as Langdon suggests, contradicting the statement he’d just made. Third, while Terra (the Roman equivalent of Gaia, the goddess of the earth) was part of the Roman pantheon, she was not equivalent to the Mother Earth of later neo-paganism that Brown seems to be referencing here.
– In a useless flashback, Langdon recalls a lecture he gave in his Symbology 212 class where he tells his class that “The practice of ‘god-eating’ – that is, Holy Communion – was borrowed from the Aztecs.” It’s unclear exactly how this would have occurred, seeing as the communion has its roots in the Last Supper (somewhere around 30 C.E.) and the Aztec civilization did not rise until the 14th century. Even if the Aztecs had been around when the practice of communion began, there was no contact between Europeans and inhabitants of Central American at that time, what with Columbus not reaching the New World until 1492.
– The BBC correspondent Gunther Glick tells his photographer (through Brown’s typically clunky exposition) that “the Rhodes Scholarships were funds set up centuries ago to recruit the world’s brightest young minds into the Illuminati.” This is impossible, since the fellowships “were initiated after the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902.”
– Brown describes Santa Maria del Popolo as “askew at the base of a hill on the southeast corner of the Piazza. The eleventh-century stone aerie was made even more clumsy by the tower of scaffolding covering the façade.” The church sits on the northeast corner of the piazza, not the southeast corner. Also, the current building dates from the 15th century, not the 11th, as Brown asserts. Later Langdon muses about the number of entrances the church has, remembering that “Most Renaissance cathedrals were designed as makeshift fortresses in the event a city was stormed.” Santa Maria del Popolo is not a cathedral and if, as Brown claims, it was built in the 11th century, it’s not Renaissance in any way.
– Brown places the tomb of Alexander Chigi in the “secondary left apse of this cathedral” (Santa Maria del Popolo). We’ve again run into the cathedral problem, but Brown makes some more mistakes here. First, the Chigi chapel houses the tombs of Agostino and Sigismondo Chigi, but not that of Alexander Chigi. Alexander Chigi, Pope Alexander VII, lived in the 17th century and is buried in St. Peter’s. Second, the Chigi chapel is not an apse. Apses are round and typically found at the altar-end of churches. The Chigi chapel is rectangular and found near the entrance of the church. While the Chigi chapel is found on the left side of the church, I have no idea what it means for it to be “secondary.” Once he’s back in the piazza, Langdon’s “eyes climbed the tower of rickety scaffolding above him. It rose six stories, almost to the top of the church’s rose window”. Santa Maria del Popolo has no rose window. Most churches in Italy don’t.
– As the BBC journalists watch Langdon and Vittoria, Chinita tells Gunther that he’s “definitely going to hell.” He agrees, but insists that he’ll “be taking the Pulitzer with” him. Brown’s describing an impossible circumstance, as only work that has “appeared in a U.S. newspaper published at least once a week” is eligible for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
– As Langdon, Vittoria, and Olivetti search for the site of the next murder, Langdon asks Vittoria if they’re looking for churches southwest of the Piazza del Popolo. She nods and tells him “No churches. From here the first one you hit is St. Peter’s.” Nonsense. If you go southwest of Santa Maria del Popolo, you’ll hit plenty of churches, but never St. Peter’s, since St. Peter’s is nearly due west from S.M. del Popolo.
– In describing Bernini’s mixed media work The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Brown claims that the sculpture was commissioned by Urban VIII who then rejected it since it was “too sexually explicit for the Vatican.” Bernini’s masterpiece, which consists of more than the central sculpture of St. Teresa and the angel, was meant to be in Santa Maria della Vittoria all along.
– Brown described Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers as “A flawless tribute to water [which] glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.” As usual, Brown starts on the right track only to end up horribly confused. While the fountain does represent the four rivers he names, that’s about all he gets right. Brown’s biggest mistake is thinking that the Rio de la Plata is a river of the Old World. Unless Argentina is now in the Old World, the Rio de la Plata isn’t there. Bernini’s four rivers are meant to represent the continents: the Nile represents Africa, the Ganges Asia, the Danube Europe, and the Rio de la Plata America.
– After the battle in the fountain with the Hassassin, Langdon climbs up the platform of the fountain and sees “All of Rome spread out before him. He spots a building as famous as any in Rome.” Quick! Name a famous building in Rome! The Colosseum? St. Peter’s? The Pantheon? Did you say Castel Sant’ Angelo? I didn’t think so. Not to mention the fact that you can barely see outside of Piazza Navona when you’re in it, even if you’re on the center of the fountain.
– “In a final breathtaking revelation, Langdon realized Bernini’s city-wide cross of obelisks marked the fortress in perfect Illuminati fashion; the cross’s central arm passed directly through the center of the castle’s bridge, dividing it into two equal halves.” I’m not sure what Brown means by “central arm.” Crosses have two arms, so neither of them are central. And even using Brown’s doctored map, neither arm of his cross cuts directly through Ponte Sant’ Angelo. He’s just making stuff up.
– While describing the election of the recently deceased pope, Cardinal Mortati reveals that he was the Devil’s Advocate for the process. Brown goes on to explain that the Devil’s Advocate is “that individual responsible for unearthing reasons why the eligible cardinals should not become Pope.” More of Brown’s half-truths. There is such a role in the Catholic Church, but not when it comes to papal elections. Rather, as the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, the devil’s advocate’s responsibility is to “prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of beatification and canonization”. In other words, the devil’s advocate finds the skeletons in the closets of those who are being considered for sainthood (or blessedness, in the case of beatification), not the papacy. The office of the devil’s advocate was abolished in the early 1980s.
– Brown gots the Illuminati all wrong. They “were a kind of Masonic group bent on world domination. They had nothing to do with science and were permanently shut down by the Bavarian police in 1785 or thereabouts.”
Vittoria remembers the first years of her childhood in Switzerland: “She
was nine years old, rolling down hills of edelweiss flowers.
And smashed all her bones, as I would like to add”. Everyone grown up with
alpine lore knows: Edelweiss grow mostly on rocks and often in very exposed
places. Those trying to pick one often fall to their death in the process.
They are also very rare.
– CERN-secretary Sylvie Baudeloque thinks about the significance of the
church in her life: “The church recorded the benchmarks of her life –
funerals, weddings, baptisms, holiday – and it asked for nothing in
return”. The Swiss pay church tax in Switzerland??!!
– Der commander of the Swiss Guard’s name is Olivetti. There is hardly a
name more Italian than that. But Commanders of the Swiss
Guard however are very often of German Swiss stock (aristocratic stock,
– According to Brown, Swiss Guards are recruited from one of Switzerland’s four Catholic cantons. The 1990 Swiss census holds that there are 11 (out of 26) cantons with a clear majority of catholicinhabitants: Zug, Luzern, Fribourg, Schwyz, Jura, Nidwalden, Ticino,Appenzell Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Valais, Uri. They are the traditional
Catholic cantons of Switzerland. About half of the members of the guard are from one of the three cantons Lucerne, Valais or St. Gallen (which has a large Catholic diaspora). The rest are from all over the place, but most
likely from Catholic cantons.
– Brown describes the accent common to Swiss Guards as fluent Italian tainted by the Franco-Swiss influence. That is unlikely, as the Catholic cantons mentioned above are German speaking – except Valais (German & French), Ticino (Italian) and Jura (French). The typical Swiss Guard accent is therefore much more likely to be tainted by the Swiss German influence.
These are just some of the errors. The point is, if you can’t trust Brown’s information to be accurate, then you ought to really know that this is fictional.