The Palazzo Vecchio resembles a giant chess piece. With its robust quadrangular facade and rusticated square-cut battlements, the massive rooklike building is aptly situated, guarding the southeast corner of the Piazza della Signoria.
The building's unusual single spire, rising off center from within the square fortress, cuts a distinctive profile against the skyline and has become an inimitable symbol of Florence.
Built as a potent seat of Italian government, the building imposes on its arriving visitors an intimidating array of masculine statuary. Ammannati's muscular Neptune stands naked atop four sea horses, a symbol of Florence's dominance in the sea. A replica of Michelangelo's David-arguably the world's most admired male nude-stands in all his glory at the palazzo entrance. David is joined by Hercules and Cacus-two more colossal naked men-who, in concert with a host of Neptune's satyrs, bring to more than a dozen the total number of exposed penises that greet visitors to the palazzo.
Normally, Langdon's visits to the Palazzo Vecchio had begun here on the Piazza della Signoria, which, despite its overabundance of phalluses, had always been one of his favorite plazas in all of Europe. No trip to the piazza was complete without sipping an espresso at Caffè Rivoire, followed by a visit to the Medici lions in the Loggia dei Lanzi-the piazza's open-air sculpture gallery.
Today, however, Langdon and his companion planned to enter the Palazzo Vecchio via the Vasari Corridor, much as Medici dukes might have done in their day-bypassing the famous Uffizi Gallery and following the corridor as it snaked above bridges, over roads, and through buildings, leading directly into the heart of the old palace. Thus far, they had heard no trace of footsteps behind them, but Langdon was still anxious to exit the corridor.
And now we've arrived, Langdon realized, eyeing the heavy wooden door before them. The entrance to the old palace.
The door, despite its substantial locking mechanism, was equipped with a horizontal push bar, which provided emergency-exit capability while preventing anyone on the other side from entering the Vasari Corridor without a key card.
Langdon placed his ear to the door and listened. Hearing nothing on the other side, he put his hands against the bar and pushed gently.
The lock clicked.
As the wooden portal creaked open a few inches, Langdon peered into the world beyond. A small alcove. Empty. Silent.
With a small sigh of relief, Langdon stepped through and motioned for Sienna to follow.
Standing in a quiet alcove somewhere inside the Palazzo Vecchio, Langdon waited a moment and tried to get his bearings. In front of them, a long hallway ran perpendicular to the alcove. To their left, in the distance, voices echoed up the corridor, calm and jovial. The Palazzo Vecchio, much like the United States Capitol Building, was both a tourist attraction and a governmental office. At this hour, the voices they heard were most likely those of civic employees bustling in and out of offices, getting ready for the day.
Langdon and Sienna inched toward the hallway and peered around the corner. Sure enough, at the end of the hallway was an atrium in which a dozen or so government employees stood around sipping morning espressi and chatting with colleagues before work.
"The Vasari mural," Sienna whispered, "you said it's in the Hall of the Five Hundred?"
Langdon nodded and pointed across the crowded atrium toward a portico that opened into a stone hallway
. "Unfortunately, it's through that atrium."
Langdon nodded. "We'll never make it through without being seen."
"They're government workers. They'll have no interest in us. Just walk like you belong here."
Sienna reached up and gently smoothed out Langdon's Brioni suit jacket and adjusted his collar. "You look very presentable, Robert." She gave him a demure smile, adjusted her own sweater, and set out.
Langdon hurried after her, both of them striding purposefully toward the atrium. As they entered, Sienna began talking to him in rapid Italian-something about farm subsidies-gesticulating passionately as she spoke. They kept to the outer wall, maintaining their distance from the others. To Langdon's amazement, not one single employee gave them a second glance.
When they were beyond the atrium, they quickly pressed onward toward the hallway. Langdon recalled the Shakespeare playbill. Mischievous Puck. "You're quite an actress," he whispered.
"I've had to be," she said reflexively, her voice strangely distant.
Once again, Langdon sensed there was more heartache in this young woman's past than he knew, and he felt a deepening sense of remorse for having entangled her in his dangerous predicament. He reminded himself that there was nothing to be done now, except to see it through.
Keep swimming through the tunnel ... and pray for light.
As they neared their portico, Langdon was relieved to see that his memory had served him well. A small plaque with an arrow pointed around the corner into the hallway and announced: IL SALONE DEI CINQUECENTO. The Hall of the Five Hundred, Langdon thought, wondering what answers awaited within. The truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death. What could this mean?
"The room may still be locked," Langdon warned as they neared the corner. Although the Hall of the Five Hundred was a popular tourist destination, the palazzo did not appear to be open yet to tourists this morning.
"Do you hear that?" Sienna asked, stopping short.
Langdon heard it. A loud humming noise was coming from just around the corner. Please tell me it's not an indoor drone. Cautiously, Langdon peered around the corner of the portico. Thirty yards away stood the surprisingly simple wooden door that opened into the Hall of the Five Hundred. Regrettably, directly between them stood a portly custodian pushing an electric floor-buffing machine in weary circles.
Guardian of the gate.
Langdon's attention shifted to three symbols on a plastic sign outside the door. Decipherable to even the least experienced of symbologists, these universal icons were: a video camera with an X through it; a drinking cup with an X through it; and a pair of boxy stick figures, one female, one male.
Langdon took charge, striding swiftly toward the custodian, breaking into a jog as he drew nearer. Sienna rushed behind him to keep up.
The custodian glanced up, looking startled. "Signori?!" He held out his arms for Langdon and Sienna to stop.
Langdon gave the man a pained smile-more of a wince-and motioned apologetically toward the symbols near the door. "Toilette," he declared, his voice pinched. It was not a question.
The custodian hesitated a moment, looking ready to deny their request, and then finally, watching Langdon shift uncomfortably before him, he gave a sympathetic nod and waved them through.
When they reached the door, Langdon gave Sienna a quick wink. "Compassion is a universal language."