LEONARDO DA VINCI enjoys greater name recognition than almost any other
artist. His interests ranged from music and anatomy to art and the occult;
his uncanny ability to predict inventions like the airplane, and the rarity
and enigmatic nature of his few finished paintings, conjure up the very
image of the Renaissance man. Controversial in life, Leonardo still provokes
a bewildering range of admirers and detractors. No other artist is burdened
with such baggage, but then, the ambiguity and gaps in our knowledge render
him a blank sheet onto which almost anything can be projected.
That Dan Brown's thriller "The Da Vinci Code" has successfully
tapped into popular interest in Leonardo is resoundingly confirmed by its 18
weeks on The
New York Times
best-seller list. In the book, the author unabashedly adapts Leonardo's art
and theories, which he says on his Web site he researched extensively, to
his own fictional requirements.
The discovery of a murdered Louvre curator, found in the pose of
Leonardo's celebrated "Vitruvian man" — a figure inscribed in
both a circle and a square — sets in motion an ingenious plot involving
numerological symbolism, verbal puzzles and an alternative version of
Christianity, wrapped up in the legend of the Holy Grail. Even Opus Dei, the
controversial Roman Catholic movement, surfaces here as a shadowy force,
struggling to acquire this potentially explosive information. It is all
carried off with aplomb, but it also leaves readers wondering: how much does
this murder mystery have to do with the real Leonardo?
The short answer is not much, and the author's grasp of the historical
Leonardo is shaky. One small but telling point comes in Mr. Brown's
references to Leonardo as "Da Vinci," as if that were the
painter's last name, yet it is no surname but simply a reference to the fact
that he was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero of Vinci, in the Florentine
territory. Like other great artists, with or without last names, Leonardo is
invariably referred to by his given name and not by da Vinci.
The nomenclature suggests a lack of familiarity with the copious
bibliography on the painter, as do Mr. Brown's references to Leonardo's
"enormous output" of Christian art and "hundreds of lucrative
Vatican commissions." Leonardo was, in fact, notorious for his meager
production and spent little time in Rome. Neither, for that matter, is it
accurate to call Leonardo a "flamboyant homosexual": despite a
charge of sodomy against him as a young man, the evidence of his sexual
orientation remains inconclusive and fragmentary.
It is also breathtaking to read that the heroine, Sophie Neveu, uses one
of Leonardo's paintings, "The Madonna of the Rocks," as a shield,
pressing it so close to her body that it bends. More than six feet tall and
painted on wood, not canvas, the
is unlikely to be so supple. But that may be poetic license on Mr. Brown's
part; even the legendary connoisseur Bernard Berenson was uncertain whether
Leonardo painted on wood or canvas.
If Mr. Brown's approach to Leonardo is rather broad-brushed, so is his
concept of academe. The hero, Robert Langdon, is a professor of "symbology,"
which seems to be the study of symbolism with a dash of numerology thrown
in. The reader is treated to examples of Langdon's lectures: in one, the
Vitruvian man becomes a vehicle for explaining the "divine
proportion," or golden section, as a fundamental building block of
nature. This concept was popular in the Renaissance and derived from a
treatise by the ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius. Many artists drew
the Vitruvian man, hoping that it would unlock the secret relationship
between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the world.
Just how the figure relates to the golden section and its occurrence in
art and architecture is never made explicit, but Langdon seems to have read
some dubious texts, fashionable in the last century, by the German writer
Adolf Zeising and his followers, who saw the golden section everywhere. In
reality, Leonardo's beliefs on the subject are far from clear. Although he
went through a phase of believing that anatomy could be reduced to
mathematical certainty, he eventually realized that the relationship between
mathematics and art was not straightforward: the concept of the Vitruvian
man was an arresting image but ultimately a fudge.
Elsewhere, our hero lectures to a group of prisoners about the
There the old canard about the portrait as Leonardo in drag appears, and
according to Langdon, this is "a subtle message of androgyny,"
strengthened by computerized analysis of the painting and self-portraits of
the artist. Again, we know that the sitter was a woman from contemporary
documents, and that contrary to popular opinion, there are no definitively
documented images of Leonardo.
But the male-female fusion of the "Mona Lisa" is important in
"The Da Vinci Code," since the plot centers on the quest for the
Grail and its true nature. In Mr. Brown's telling, the Grail is not the
medieval sangreal, the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper,
but rather a metaphor for the sacred feminine and a form of goddess worship
suppressed by Christianity. At the center of the book, Langdon and a crusty
old English knight give an impromptu lecture in which Leonardo's
in Milan is Exhibit A.
The conventional interpretation of the mural (tempera on stone, not
fresco, as Mr. Brown has it) is that Jesus is prophesying to his disciples
that one of them will betray him. Leonardo groups the disciples in triads,
which not only isolates Jesus at the center of the scene, but also plays the
disciples' reactions off of one another. Langdon and his sidekick find it
significant that Jesus and the beautiful figure seated on his right form the
letter "M." Moreover, Langdon believes this second figure is not
St. John, as conventionally interpreted, but Mary Magdalene, the "bride
of Christ," dressed as a man.
"The Last Supper"
appears to prove that the grail was not a chalice (none is depicted by
Leonardo), and the presence of the Magdalene represents, in Langdon's words,
"the sacred feminine and the goddess, which of course has now been
lost, virtually eliminated by the Church." Mr. Brown seems to have
derived this arresting theory from feminist accounts of Mary Magdalene and
from conspiracy theories about the true nature of the grail, which
Leonardo's mural seems to confirm — hence its crucial role in the
unfolding of the novel.
This interpretation is quite a stretch, and there is more sangria than
sangreal swirling around it. Leonardo's composition points, in fact, in
another direction, for it conforms to traditional Florentine depictions of
the Last Supper, stressing the betrayal and sacrifice of Jesus rather than
the institution of the Eucharist and the chalice. At the same time, St. John
was invariably represented as a beautiful young man whose special affinity
with Jesus was expressed by his being seated at Jesus' right. Leonardo's St.
John conforms to this type, and parallels for the absence of a chalice
appear in earlier Italian examples.
A weak grasp of context also means that Mr. Brown misinterprets other
pieces of "evidence" in the painting. Langdon draws attention to a
dagger that seems to be wielded by a "disembodied" hand in the
group around St. Peter; yet this hand is not disembodied. Both a preliminary
drawing by Leonardo and early copies of "The Last Supper" show
that the hand and dagger belong to Peter — a reference to a passage in the
Gospel of St. John, in which Peter draws a sword in defense of Jesus.
Somehow, you know that Umberto Eco, author of the
"The Name of the Rose,"
would have been more adept at this. "The Da Vinci Code" is an
entertainment drawing on the conspiracy-theory genre — in this case, the
quest for the true nature of the Holy Grail. It is written like a screenplay
and cuts cleverly from crisis to crisis in a manner that seems designed for
film. Even Robert Langdon is described as "Harrison Ford in Harris
Rather than film, however, there seems to an opera lurking in these
pages, and Mr. Brown could do worse than weigh the immortal advice of
Voltaire: "If it's too silly to be said, it can always be sung."
Bruce Boucher is the curator of European decorative arts and
sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of ``Andrea
Palladio: The Architect in His Time.''