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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in the Movies: Angels & Demons

Ah, yes, it's the spookiest of seasons and what's spookier than having the dreaded conversation about science versus religion? Actually, it's not that scary. More annoying than anything especially when your father won't stop quoting Philippians 1(which he totally spelled Philippines more than once) while you're just trying to eat dinner. But that might just be my personal experience.

Anyway, Angels & Demons is a 2009 movie adaptation of the book of the same name by Dan Brown that enjoyed some mild success after its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, also did relatively well in the box office. What's more interesting about these books turned movies is that Angels & Demons was actually the first book in the series of Robert Langdon's symbolism heavy and "historically accurate" adventures that generally boil down to the Illuminati did it. Much like the Freemasons and the National Treasure films, there's always a pesky group of clandestine religious zealots ready to pull Professor Langdon out of the swimming pool and into yet another murder mystery. If you want a great comparison of the book and the film, I recommend checking out Dominic Noble's Lost in Adaptation Youtube channel.

The general plot of the film goeth thusly: The Pope dies, prompting the Vatican to begin a papal conclave to decide who will be the new Pope. As the cardinals are gathered in Rome, the four cardinals believed to be the favorites, preferiti, for Pope are kidnapped by an unknown assassin who seeks to punish the church in the name of the Illuminati. He's also managed to steal some antimatter from CERN and made a bomb that will explode at midnight after executing each cardinal in the hours leading up to the explosion. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in by the Vatican Police to help, which involves some puzzle-solving, lecturing, red-herring nonsense, and a lot of running through the streets of Rome. And Ewan McGregor is there too! He's neat!

But enough of that, we're here to talk about the two scenes featuring the Vatican archives!

Fun fact: until very recently the archives were known as the Vatican Secret Archives, which conspiracy theorists mistook for something hidden away for nefarious reasons instead of a misunderstanding of Latin. The former seal of the Vatican archives reads ARCHIVUM SECRETUM APOSTOLICUM VATICANUM, but secretum actually means 'private' in the same way that the word secretary involves a person who handles private or confidential records, minutes, correspondence, etc. So, it would be more accurate to say that it's the Vatican Private Archives since it stores and preserves papal documentation as well as records acquired by the church starting in the Apostolic Age. In 2019, however, Pope Francis issued an official letter renaming the archives as the Vatican Apostolic Archives. No more secrets, just apostles and Popes all the way down.

So, in order to find the Path of Illumination that will possibly lead them to the bomb or the assassin, Langdon and Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a CERN scientist, are led into the sleek as all get out, technologically advanced looking Vatican Archives. Centuries of records and writings, artifacts, and all manner of archival materials are hermetically sealed in glass cases with fancy alarms and locks only accessible to the Swiss Guard. Langdon and Vetra retrieve Galileo's book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo) and examine the text, only to find a hidden watermark and a message written in English (le gasp!). Before Langdon can read the whole thing, however, Vetra decides they have no time and rips the centuries old paper out of the book.

The second instance of the archives comes a bit later in the film when Langdon needs to do some additional research and is only accompanied by his personal Swiss Guard guard dog, Lieutenant Chartrand. Unfortunately, they're in the wrong place at the wrong time as the rolling blackouts being used to determine where the antimatter bomb is targets the archives. Langdon and Chartrand have a scant few minutes to break out of the sealed room before they lose oxygen. It's very intense and they survive, but barely. It's pretty much the same in the book and mostly serves to make Langdon look a little more badass, I guess. Also, they figure out where the next murder is likely to take place because what's a little research without your life always being in danger?

So, let's talk about the first scene since it's definitely more fruitful in how it depicts an archives and how Langdon and Vetra interact with the materials. Personally, I've never been to the Vatican Archives, but I know based on research that it doesn't look as slick and sleek as it's portrayed in the movie. The actual Vatican Archives is located in several locations within the Apostolic Palace, one of which is an underground bunker containing shelves and stacks more akin to how an academic archives might appear. It's utilitarian in it's need to house and preserve a lot of very old and very delicate materials and, given the architectural limits of the Vatican or any Italian city dating back centuries, there isn't a lot of room for technological advancement without massive renovations. The preservation laboratories, reading rooms, and many historic documents and pieces of art are displayed or stored above ground within the palace.

Actual Vatican Archives materials

Shocking, I know, a Hollywood movie makes something look better and more advanced than it actually is while simultaneously limiting the scope of the archives! Funnily enough, the Vatican opened its bunker to a number of journalists to enter the archives not long after the movie premiered. Whether it was a PR stunt or just another way to stick it to Dan Brown, it was a surprising show of good faith to let people see the relatively humble-looking materials contained in the archives. It's important to note not only when popular culture shows archives as dusty basement dwellings but also when it goes overboard in showing an archives to be advanced beyond its real life counterpart. The National Archives in National Treasure, the Smithsonian Archives in Wonder Woman 84, and the Vatican Archives in Angels & Demons give audiences a false sense of cutting edge technology contained in specifically government buildings. This is, again, not true in any way, shape, or form, but it doesn't stop the film and tv industry from doing it because it'll look better on the big and small screens under more dramatic lighting.

I don't know if there's a correlation between how sleek an archives looks and whether or not an individual or audiences would interpret that to mean your average archives is well off, financially speaking. It's not out of the question to consider it since the lingering ideas of dust and aged archivists persists as well, but it's yet another piece of information to take in as we try to uncover the shape of the archival profession in the eyes of those on the outside.

Regarding Langdon and Vetra's actions in the archives; where's the archivist? According to the Vatican itself there are cardinals who act as archivists, so why wasn't an archivist present in the archives instead of the Swiss Guard? Why did Langdon bother to wear gloves and use a tool to turn the pages only to disregard any possibility of preserving the page by smearing his sweaty fingers over 1600s ink? As with the issue of rolling the Declaration of Independence like a dorm room poster, paper and parchment made prior to industrialization and chemical preservatives is very fragile and degrades quickly and easily if not properly preserved. European-made paper can be especially brittle due to the application of gelatin, so call me a skeptic when Dr. Vetra manages to make a clean rip of paper that would've been printed in 1632 without particles and most of the page breaking into crumbly bits.

Sorry, paper and ink are areas of interest to me, but my point remains valid! Stop stealing historic documents intellectual protagonists! It's not cool and there's definitely an archivist in your universe whose villainous origin story begins with your theft and destruction of their life's work!

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