Roma San Pietro,iStock

The Eternal City’s iconic sites
provide a thrilling backdrop to the blockbuster movie, but they also hold scandals
and sordid histories of their own.

Tom Hanks dashes through a
graceful Roman piazza, past an ancient Egyptian obelisk surrounded by fountains
of water-spouting lions, his eyes focused on a church tucked into the corner of
the square. Moviegoers know that his character, Robert Langdon, is trying
desperately to stop a grisly murder, following a trail of secret clues laid
down nearly four centuries ago by the scientist Galileo and the baroque
sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini. What they don’t know is that this
graceful piazza itself harbors a dark secret.

 Piazza del Popolo—and its
namesake church, where Langdon is headed—was built to evict Nero’s ghost. This
had been the hated emperor’s ancient family estate, and his likely burial spot,
and area residents had for centuries complained that Nero’s evil spirit haunted
a pine grove on the site. Finally, the Vatican chopped down the trees,
exorcized the site, and built the piazza and its church “of the people.”

 Many of Rome’s important sites
are featured in Angels & Demons, the latest codes-and-clues thriller
courtesy of author Dan Brown, director Ron Howard, and leading man Tom Hanks.
These Roman spots are full of secrets and scandals, and while the movie reveals
several—and invents a few more to serve its plot involving Illuminati assassins
and Renaissance intellectuals—the true miraculous and demonic events that took
place at them are often even stranger than those Dan Brown’s imagination could
whip up.

 First, a reality check: the
movie’s church interiors aren’t the real deal. Howard wasn’t allowed to film
inside any of them, especially in the Vatican. (Actually, no one can shoot
movies in the Vatican, not even the producers of the official John Paul II
biopic.) However, plenty of the exteriors are genuine, and Roman life
occasionally intruded on filming. At one point, Hanks reportedly halted
production to help a bride cut through the set—even holding her train—so she
wouldn’t be late for her wedding inside the Pantheon.

 What the movie doesn’t say,
though, is that the Pantheon—an ancient pagan shrine that survived barbarian
sackings and became a church in AD 609—was pillaged by none other than a pope.
In the 1600s, Pope Urban VIII (a member of the powerful Barberini family)
seized the bronze revetments from the Pantheon portico’s ceiling and had them
melted down to make cannons for the papal stronghold, Castel Sant’Angelo. (The
act led to the infamous phrase, “That which even the barbarians wouldn’t do,
Barberini did.”)

We’ve rounded up the inside
scoop on the movie’s most noteworthy sites and crafted a tour that follows in
the footsteps of Robert Langdon but goes well beyond Angels & Demons to
reveal some of the even weirder—and true—sagas, scandals, and miracles of the
Eternal City. When you go see the movie, keep our handy guide close (spoiler
alerts ahead, however!) while you’re reaching for the popcorn.