"Scusi!" Robert Langdon chased after the group of students. "Scusate!"
They all turned, and Langdon made a show of glancing around like a lost tourist.
"Dov'è l'Istituto statale d'arte?" Langdon asked in broken Italian.
A tattooed kid puffed coolly on a cigarette and snidely replied, "Non parliamo italiano." His accent was French.
One of the girls admonished her tattooed friend and politely pointed down the long wall toward the Porta Romana. "Più avanti, sempre dritto."
Straight ahead, Langdon translated. "Grazie."
On cue, Sienna emerged unseen from behind the Porta-Potty and walked over. The willowy thirty-two-year-old approached the group and Langdon placed a welcoming hand on her shoulder. "This is my sister, Sienna. She's an art teacher."
The tattooed kid muttered, "T-I-L-F," and his male friends laughed.
Langdon ignored them. "We're in Florence researching possible spots for a teaching year abroad. Can we walk in with you?"
"Ma certo," the Italian girl said with a smile.
As the group migrated toward the police at the Porta Romana, Sienna fell into conversation with the students while Langdon merged to the middle of the group, slouching low, trying to stay out of sight.
Seek and ye shall find, Langdon thought, his pulse racing with excitement as he pictured the ten ditches of the Malebolge.
Catrovacer. These ten letters, Langdon had realized, stood at the core of one of the art world's most enigmatic mysteries, a centuries-old puzzle that had never been solved. In 1563, these ten letters had been used to spell a message high on a wall inside Florence's famed Palazzo Vecchio, painted some forty feet off the ground, barely visible without binoculars. It had remained hidden there in plain sight for centuries until the 1970s, when it was spotted by a now-famous art diagnostician, who had spent decades trying to uncover its meaning. Despite numerous theories, the significance of the message remains an enigma to this day.
For Langdon, the code felt like familiar ground-a safe harbor from this strange and churning sea. After all, art history and ancient secrets were far more Langdon's realm than were biohazard tubes and gunfire.
Up ahead, additional police cars had begun streaming into the Porta Romana.
"Jesus," the tattooed kid said. "Whoever they're looking for must have done something terrible."
The group arrived at the Art Institute's main gate on the right, where a crowd of students had gathered to watch the action at the Porta Romana. The school's minimum-wage security guard was halfheartedly glancing at student IDs as kids streamed in, but he was clearly more interested in what was happening with the police.
A loud screech of brakes echoed across the plaza as an all-too-familiar black van skidded into the Porta Romana.
Langdon didn't need a second look.
Without a word, he and Sienna seized the moment, slipping through the gate with their new friends.
The entry road to the Istituto Statale d'Arte was startlingly beautiful, almost regal in appearance. Massive oak trees arched gently in from either side, creating a canopy that framed the distant building-a huge, faded yellow structure with a triple portico and an expansive oval lawn.
This building, Langdon knew, had been commissioned, like so many in this city, by the same illustrious dynasty that had dominated Florentine politics during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
The name alone had become a symbol of Florence. During its three-century reign, the royal house of Medici amassed unfathomable wealth and influence, producing four popes, two queens of France, and the largest financial institution in all of Europe. To this day, modern banks use the accounting method invented by the Medici-the dual-entry system of credits and debits
The Medici's greatest legacy, however, was not in finance or politics, but rather in art. Perhaps the most lavish patrons the art world has ever known, the Medici provided a generous stream of commissions that fueled the Renaissance. The list of luminaries receiving Medici patronage ranged from da Vinci to Galileo to Botticelli-the latter's most famous painting, Birth of Venus, the result of a commission from Lorenzo de' Medici, who requested a sexually provocative painting to hang over his cousin's marital bed as a wedding gift.
Lorenzo de' Medici-known in his day as Lorenzo the Magnificent on account of his benevolence-was an accomplished artist and poet in his own right and was said to have a superb eye. In 1489 Lorenzo took a liking to the work of a young Florentine sculptor and invited the boy to move into the Medici palace, where he could practice his craft surrounded by fine art, great poetry, and high culture. Under Medici tutelage, the adolescent boy flourished and eventually went on to carve two of the most celebrated sculptures in all of history-the Pietà and the David. Today we know him as Michelangelo-a creative giant who is sometimes called the Medici's greatest gift to humankind.
Considering the Medici's passion for art, Langdon imagined the family would be pleased to know that the building before him-originally built as the Medici's primary horse stables-had been transformed into the vibrant Art Institute. This tranquil site that now inspired young artists had been specifically chosen for the Medici's stables because of its proximity to one of the most beautiful riding areas in all of Florence.
The Boboli Gardens.
Langdon glanced to his left, where a forest of treetops could be seen over a high wall. The massive expanse of the Boboli Gardens was now a popular tourist attraction. Langdon had little doubt that if he and Sienna could gain entrance to the gardens, they could make their way across it, bypassing the Porta Romana undetected. After all, the gardens were vast and had no shortage of hiding places-forests, labyrinths, grottoes, nymphaea. More important, traversing the Boboli Gardens would eventually lead them to the Palazzo Pitti, the stone citadel that once housed the main seat of the Medici grand duchy, and whose 140 rooms remained one of Florence's most frequented tourist attractions.
If we can reach the Palazzo Pitti, Langdon thought, the bridge to the old city is a stone's throw away.
Langdon motioned as calmly as possible to the high wall that enclosed the gardens. "How do we get into the gardens?" he asked. "I'd love to show my sister before we tour the institute."
The tattooed kid shook his head. "You can't get into the gardens from here. The entrance is way over at Pitti Palace. You'd have to drive through Porta Romana and go around."
"Bullshit," Sienna blurted.
Everyone turned and stared at her, including Langdon.
"Come on," she said, smirking coyly at the students as she stroked her blond ponytail. "You're telling me you guys don't sneak into the gardens to smoke weed and fool around?"
The kids all exchanged looks and then burst out laughing.
The guy with the tattoos now looked utterly smitten. "Ma'am, you should totally teach here." He walked Sienna to the side of the building and pointed around the corner to a rear parking lot. "See that shed on the left? There's an old platform behind it. Climb up on the roof, and you can jump down on the other side of the wall."
Sienna was already on the move. She glanced back at Langdon with a patronizing smile. "Come on, brother Bob. Unless you're too old to jump a fence?"