Marta Alvarez gazed tiredly up the steep staircase that ascended from the Hall of the Five Hundred to the second-floor museum.
Posso farcela, she told herself. I can do it.
As an arts and culture administrator at the Palazzo Vecchio, Marta had climbed these stairs countless times, but recently, being more than eight months pregnant, she found the ascent significantly more taxing.
"Marta, are you sure we don't want to take the elevator?" Robert Langdon looked concerned and motioned to the small service elevator nearby, which the palazzo had installed for handicapped visitors.
Marta smiled appreciatively but shook her head. "As I told you last night, my doctor says the exercise is good for the baby. Besides, Professor, I know you're claustrophobic."
Langdon seemed strangely startled by her comment. "Oh, right. I forgot I mentioned that."
Forgot he mentioned it? Marta puzzled. It was less than twelve hours ago, and we discussed at length the childhood incident that led to the fear.
Last night, while Langdon's morbidly obese companion, il Duomino, ascended in the elevator, Langdon had accompanied Marta on foot. En route Langdon had shared with her a vivid description of a boyhood fall into an abandoned well that had left him with a nearly debilitating fear of cramped spaces.
Now, while Langdon's younger sister bounded ahead, her blond ponytail swinging behind her, Langdon and Marta ascended methodically, pausing several times so she could catch her breath. "I'm surprised you want to see the mask again," she said. "Considering all the pieces in Florence, this one seems among the least interesting."
Langdon gave a noncommittal shrug. "I've returned mainly so Sienna can see it. Thank you, by the way, for letting us in again."
Langdon's reputation would have sufficed last night to persuade Marta to open the gallery for him, but the fact that he had been accompanied by il Duomino meant that she really had no choice.
Ignazio Busoni-the man known as il Duomino-was something of a celebrity in the Florence cultural world. The longtime director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Ignazio oversaw all aspects of Florence's most prominent historical site-Il Duomo-the massive, red-domed cathedral that dominated both the history and the skyline of Florence. His passion for the landmark, combined with his body weight of nearly four hundred pounds and his perpetually red face, resulted in his good-natured nickname of il Duomino-"the little dome."
Marta had no idea how Langdon had become acquainted with il Duomino, but the latter had called her last evening and said he wanted to bring a guest for a private viewing of the Dante death mask. When the mystery guest turned out to be the famous American symbologist and art historian Robert Langdon, Marta had felt a bit of a thrill at having the opportunity to usher these two famous men into the palazzo's gallery.
Now, as they reached the top of the stairs, Marta placed her hands on her hips, breathing deeply. Sienna was already at the balcony railing, peering back down into the Hall of the Five Hundred.
"My favorite view of the room," Marta panted. "You get an entirely different perspective on the murals. I imagine your brother told you about the mysterious message hidden in that one there?" She pointed.
Sienna nodded enthusiastically. "Cerca trova."
As Langdon gazed toward the room, Marta watched him. In the light of the mezzanine windows, she couldn't help but notice that Langdon did not look as striking as he had last night. She liked his new suit, but he needed a shave, and his face seemed pale and weary. Also, his hair, which was thick and full last night, looked matted this morning, as if he had yet to take a shower.
Marta turned back to the mural before he caught her staring. "We're standing at nearly the exact height as cerca trova," Marta said. "You can almost see the words with the naked eye."
Langdon's sister seemed indifferent to the mural. "Tell me about Dante's death mask. Why is it here at the Palazzo Vecchio?"
Like brother, like sister, Marta thought with an inward groan, still perplexed that the mask held such fascination for them. Then again, the Dante death mask had a very strange history, especially recently, and Langdon was not the first to show a nearly maniacal fascination with it. "Well, tell me, what do you know about Dante?"
The pretty, young blonde shrugged. "Just what everyone learns in school. Dante was an Italian poet most famous for writing The Divine Comedy, which describes his imagined journey through hell."
"Partially correct," Marta replied. "In his poem, Dante eventually escapes hell, continues through purgatory, and finally arrives in paradise. If you ever read The Divine Comedy, you'll see his journey is divided into three parts-Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso." Marta motioned for them to follow her along the balcony toward the museum entrance. "The reason the mask resides here in the Palazzo Vecchio has nothing to do with The Divine Comedy, though. It has to do with real history. Dante lived in Florence, and he loved this city as much as anyone could ever love a city. He was a very prominent and powerful Florentine, but there was a shift in political power, and Dante supported the wrong side, so he was exiled-thrown outside the city walls and told he could never come back."
Marta paused to catch her breath as they approached the museum entrance. Hands again on her hips, she leaned back and continued talking. "Some people claim that Dante's exile is the reason why his death mask looks so sad, but I have another theory. I'm a bit of a romantic, and I think the sad face has more to do with a woman named Beatrice. You see, Dante spent his entire life desperately in love with a young woman named Beatrice Portinari. But sadly, Beatrice married another man, which meant Dante had to live not only without his beloved Florence, but also without the woman he so deeply loved. His love for Beatrice became a central theme in The Divine Comedy."
"Interesting," Sienna said in a tone that suggested she had not heard a word. "And yet I'm still not clear on why the death mask is kept here inside the palazzo?"
Marta found the young woman's insistence both unusual and bordering on impolite. "Well," she continued, walking again, "when Dante died, he was still forbidden to enter Florence, and his body was buried in Ravenna. But because his true love, Beatrice, was buried in Florence, and because Dante so loved Florence, bringing his death mask here seemed like a kindhearted tribute to the man."
"I see," Sienna said. "And the choice of this building in particular?"
"The Palazzo Vecchio is the oldest symbol of Florence and, in Dante's time, was the heart of the city. In fact, there is a famous painting in the cathedral that shows Dante standing outside the walled city, banished, while visible in the background is his cherished palazzo tower. In many ways, by keeping his death mask here, we feel like Dante has finally been allowed to come home."
"That's nice," Sienna said, finally seeming satisfied. "Thank you."
Marta arrived at the door of the museum and rapped three times. "Sono io, Marta! Buongiorno!"
Some keys rattled inside and the door opened
. An elderly guard smiled tiredly at her and checked his watch. "È un po' presto," he said with a smile. A little early.
By way of explanation, Marta motioned to Langdon, and the guard immediately brightened. "Signore! Bentornato!" Welcome back!
"Grazie," Langdon replied amiably as the guard motioned them all inside.
They moved through a small foyer, where the guard disarmed a security system and then unlocked a second, heavier door. As the door swung open, he stepped aside, sweeping his arm out with a flourish. "Ecco il museo!"
Marta smiled her thanks and led her guests inside.
The space that made up this museum had originally been designed as government offices, which meant that rather than a sprawling, wide-open gallery space, it was a labyrinth of moderate-size rooms and hallways, which encircled half of the building.
"The Dante death mask is around the corner," Marta told Sienna. "It's displayed in a narrow space called l'andito, which is essentially just a walkway between two larger rooms. An antique cabinet against the sidewall holds the mask, which keeps it invisible until you draw even with it. For this reason, many visitors walk right past the mask without even noticing it!"
Langdon was striding faster now, eyes straight ahead, as if the mask held some kind of strange power over him. Marta nudged Sienna and whispered, "Obviously, your brother is not interested in any of our other pieces, but as long as you're here, you shouldn't miss our bust of Machiavelli or the Mappa Mundi globe in the Hall of Maps."
Sienna nodded politely and kept moving, her eyes also straight ahead. Marta was barely able to keep pace. As they reached the third room, she had fallen behind a bit and finally stopped short.
"Professor?" she called out, panting. "Perhaps you ... want to show your sister ... some of the gallery ... before we see his mask?"
Langdon turned, seeming distracted, as if returning to the present from some far-off thought. "Excuse me?"
Marta breathlessly pointed to a nearby display case. "One of the earliest ... printed copies of The Divine Comedy?"
When Langdon finally saw Marta dabbing her forehead and trying to catch her breath, he looked mortified. "Marta, forgive me! Of course, yes, a quick glance at the text would be wonderful."
Langdon hurried back, permitting Marta to guide them over to the antique case. Inside was a well-worn, leather-bound book, propped open to an ornate title page: La Divina Commedia: Dante Alighieri.
"Incredible," Langdon said, sounding surprised. "I recognize the frontispiece. I didn't know you had one of the original Numeister editions."
Of course you knew, Marta thought, puzzled. I showed this to you last night!
"In the mid–fourteen hundreds," Langdon said hurriedly to Sienna, "Johann Numeister created the first printed edition of this work. Several hundred copies were printed, but only about a dozen survived. They're very rare."
It now seemed to Marta that Langdon had been playing dumb so he could show off for his younger sibling. It seemed a rather unbecoming immodesty for a professor whose reputation was one of academic humility.
"This copy is on loan from the Laurentian Library," Marta offered. "If you and Robert have not visited there, you should. They have a spectacular staircase designed by Michelangelo, which leads up to the world's first public reading room. The books there were actually chained to the seats so nobody could take them out. Of course, many of the books were the only copies in the world."
"Amazing," Sienna said, glancing deeper into the museum. "And the mask is this way?"
What's the hurry? Marta needed another minute to regain her breath. "Yes, but you might be interested to hear about this." She pointed across an alcove toward a small staircase that disappeared into the ceiling. "That goes up to a viewing platform in the rafters where you can actually look down on Vasari's famous hanging ceiling. I'd be happy to wait here if you'd like to-"
"Please, Marta," Sienna interjected. "I'd love to see the mask. We're a little short on time."
Marta stared at the pretty, young woman, perplexed. She very much disliked the new fashion of strangers calling each other by their first names. I'm Signora Alvarez, she silently chided. And I'm doing you a favor.
"Okay, Sienna," Marta said curtly. "The mask is right this way."
Marta wasted no more time offering Langdon and his sister informed commentary as they made their way through the winding suite of gallery rooms toward the mask. Last night, Langdon and il Duomino had spent nearly a half hour in the narrow andito, viewing the mask. Marta, intrigued by the men's curiosity for the piece, had asked if their fascination was related somehow to the unusual series of events surrounding the mask over this past year. Langdon and il Duomino had been coy, offering no real answer.
Now, as they approached the andito, Langdon began explaining to his sister the simple process used to create a death mask. His description, Marta was pleased to hear, was perfectly accurate, unlike his bogus claim that he had not previously seen the museum's rare copy of The Divine Comedy.
"Shortly after death," Langdon described, "the deceased is laid out, and his face is coated with olive oil. Then a layer of wet plaster is caked onto the skin, covering everything-mouth, nose, eyelids-from the hairline down to the neck. Once hardened, the plaster is easily lifted off and used as a mold into which fresh plaster is poured. This plaster hardens into a perfectly detailed replica of the deceased's face. The practice was particularly widespread in commemorating eminent persons and men of genius-Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tasso, Keats-they all had death masks made."
"And here we are at last," Marta announced as the trio arrived outside the andito. She stepped aside and motioned for Langdon's sister to enter first. "The mask is in the display case against the wall on your left. We ask that you please stay outside the stanchions."
"Thank you." Sienna entered the narrow corridor, walked toward the display case, and peered inside. Her eyes instantly went wide, and she glanced back at her brother with an expression of dread.
Marta had seen the reaction a thousand times; visitors were often jolted and repulsed by their first glimpse of the mask-Dante's eerily crinkled visage, hooked nose, and closed eyes.
Langdon strode in right behind Sienna, arriving beside her and looking into the display case. He immediately stepped back, his face also registering surprise.
Marta groaned. Che esagerato. She followed them in. But when she gazed into the cabinet, she, too, gasped out loud. Oh mio Dio!
Marta Alvarez had expected to see Dante's familiar dead face staring back at her, but instead, all she saw was the red satin interior of the cabinet and the peg on which the mask normally hung.
Marta covered her mouth and stared in horror at the empty display case. Her breathing accelerated and she grabbed one of the stanchions for support. Finally, she tore her eyes from the bare cabinet and wheeled in the direction of the night guards at the main entrance.
"La maschera di Dante!" she shouted like a madwoman. "La maschera di Dante è sparita!"