Dan Brown is a fraud: A list of errors in 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 shit. 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. But that's not my concern. The problem with Dan Brown's books is that people buy into his claims that they're factually accurate. Call me a pedant, but 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. It's amateurish, and he should be castigated for it.
I've restricted this list 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.
If you know of further errors in Angels and Demons or if you spot any mistakes in this list, please feel free to pass them on. And 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. Brown's pluralized it and dropped the holy bit.
2) It's not the Via Condotti, it's the Via dei Condotti. And its 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 (7).
- Langdon calls "ancient documents" and "historical hearsay" the "symbolic equivalent of fossils" (8). This is nonsensical. I'm not sure how documents and hearsay 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 (15). This is pure nonsense. Rising 60,000 feet from the earth will decrease one's weight by less than 0.6%. For information on the effects of altitude on weight, see this page.
- 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 ones tapered. It's a Doric - the Greek counterpart." (26) 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. You can see the differences here.
- 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." (31) 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 the church.
- 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 - Gods adversary. The church chose Islam for the name because it was a language they considered dirty." (34) Complete bullshit. 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?
UPDATE (27 January 2005): Niek Kouwenberg e-mailed me and argued that "Shaitan" is of Islamic origin (it's from the Koran), so Langdon and Brown are correct here. That argument relies on a reading of the passage that I don't agree with but I think I can see. I may have been too harsh here. In any case, Brown doesn't make things very clear.
- 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." (50) 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" (69). 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's death. She's unable to, since "This far underground, her cell phone had no dial tone." (95) I have no trouble believing that Vittoria had no dial tone, but it's not because shes underground. Cell phones never have dial tones.
- While pondering the removal of the Vatican Museums 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" (107). There are four (yes, four!) errors in just this sentence. First, its 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." (115) As usual, despite Langdon's supposedly expert knowledge, he succeeds in getting it wrong. Its 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. Browns description of the forum includes this gem: "The decaying columns looked like toppled gravestones" (119) 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." (119) I suppose there's some question as to what deep means, but its 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 its highly unlikely that its any deeper while in Rome. For more information on the Tiber, see this page.
- 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." (119) Take a look at the façade of St. Peters. Do you see 140 statues there? Then theres the matter of the size of St. Peters. 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 dont for this sort of thing). According to Brown, that would make St. Peters 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. At first I thought that 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, hes already mentioned the façade, and piazzas dont have façades. Either Brown's awfully confused or he's just wrong.
UPDATE (1 February 2005): Eamonn Gaines e-mailed me to point out that the dimensions of Piazza San Pietro probably changed in the 1930s as the result of the construction of Via della Conciliazione, which provided an unobstructed view of St. Peter's from the Tiber (which itself was a consequence of the Lateran Treaties signed by the Holy See and Italy in 1929). This does not, however, change the fact that Brown drastically overestimates the length of St. Peter's. Thanks to Eamonn for the insightful comment.
- While walking through the Vatican, Langdon and Vittoria see lots of signs, one of which says "Capella Sistina" (124). I'm guessing the Vatican sign-makers speak Italian and actually get the spelling right: cappella. Brown probably makes a ton of these Italian mistakes throughout the book, but it's not worth my time to check out every (mis)use of Italian.
- 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." (224) Langdon is so nonsensical that its 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 doesnt mean they worshipped "all gods." Rather, they worshipped their particular set of gods, as Langdon suggests, contradicting the statement hed 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." (243) 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, theres 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 worlds brightest young minds into the Illuminati." (256) This is impossible, since the fellowships "were initiated after the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902." See the Rhodes Scholarship website for further information.
- 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." (259) The church sits on the northeast corner of the piazza, not the southeast corner, as this map shows. 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." (261) 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) (265). 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. Peters (see a picture of his tomb here. 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" (289). Santa Maria del Popolo has no rose window. Most churches in Italy don't. Extensive information on Santa Maria del Popolo can be found at this impressive Churches of Rome site.
- As the BBC journalists watch Langdon and Vittoria, Chinita tells Gunther that he's "definitely going to hell." He agrees, but insists that hell "be taking the Pulitzer with" him (290). 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." (293) 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." (336-337) 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." (402) 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." (424) Quick! Name a famous building in Rome! The Colosseum? St. Peters? 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 youre 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 crosss central arm passed directly through the center of the castles bridge, dividing it into two equal halves." (425) 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." (542) 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.
UPDATE (4 January 2005, 8:30 P.M.)
People have contacted me with some more of Dan Brown's mistakes and to provide further information.
- Pope John Paul II abolished the office of the devil's advocate in 1983 (courtesy Sandra Miesel, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax).
- Brown gots the Illuminati all wrong. According to Miesel 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."
There's plenty more dumb stuff like this. If you have any more, feel free to send them in and I'll keep updating this list.
UPDATE (20 February 2005, 12:05 A.M.)
Swiss reader mzfrogg e-mailed with more errors in Angels and Demons:
- Vittoria remembers the first years of her childhood in Switzerland: «She
was nine years old, rolling down hills of edelweiss flowers» (S. 126)*.
«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. I've only seen one or two in 30 years of walking
around in the mountains
- 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» (S. 366). Doesn't Brown know we pay church tax in
- Der commander of the Swiss Guard's name is Olivetti. There is hardly a
name more Italian than that Dabei wissen wir doch: Commanders of the Swiss
Guard however are very often of German Swiss stock (aristocratic stock,
too). The current one is called Mäder. There was one called Estermann and
one called Mäder.
- 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 catholic
inhabitants: Zug, Luzern, Fribourg, Schwyz, Jura, Nidwalden, Ticino,
Appenzell Innerrhoden, Obwalden, Valais, Uri. They are the traditional
Catholic cantons of Switzerland. In an interview I read on the net, Guard
commander Elmar Mäder said that about half of the members of the guard were
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». Now I have to put in a word for the author at this point: He
wouldn’t want to waste time explaining to the audience that four languages
are spoken in Switzerland. And since he wrote the book for Americans he’d
have to explain this. Because most Americans don’t know the difference
between Switzerland and Sweden, let alone the cultural niceties of each
country. And since part of his novel is set in Geneva (French speaking)
he’ll have all Swiss speak French, even if it’s not true. The motto seems
to be a fair one: «never let the facts get into the way of a good story».
It is, after all a well plotted book.
- Hang on, though! On page 268, we are given the cv of Rookie Lieutenant
Chartrand: «Chartrand was Swiss army trained and had endured two years of
additional Ausbildung in Bern before qualifying for the grueling Vatican
prova held in secret barracks outside of Rome.» There is a German word
after all: «Ausbildung». As to this obviously necessary «Ausbildung»:
www.schweizergarde.org tells us nothing about it. Also, if it exists, it’s
very very unlikely to be in Bern. Because if there is one staunchly
protestant Canton in Switzerland, it’s Bern.