It’s hard for me to avoid the theological elements of the book, but I will exercise restraint and limit myself here to nine things that bugged me about how Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code handled the art and the career of Leonardo DaVinci. These are minor irritants compared to his handling of things like the history of Christ and his early followers, but since I spotted them, here they are.
- It’s Leonardo, not DaVinci. He’s one-name famous, like Elvis and Cher. “Da Vinci” means “the guy from Vinci.” He signed his work “Leonardo,” not “DaVinci.” I admit this complaint is a little snobby, sort of like insisting that Aquinas isn’t named Aquinas, he’s Thomas, from Aquino. On one hand, everybody knows who you’re talking about if you use the faux last name —partly because the towns of Vinci and Aquino aren’t exactly swarming with super-famous citizens. On the other hand, if you’ve done extensive research, you’d be pretty likely to have read a few books and articles by experts, who invariably, exclusively, habitually call the guy Leonardo and wouldn’t be caught dead calling him DaVinci.
- Leonardo didn’t have “numerous Vatican commissions” and paint gobs and gobs of art for churches. I think art historians can prove one Vatican commission. And as artists go, Leonardo was kind of an underachiever who didn’t leave us a lot of work to hold on to. Don’t get me wrong, he was inventing flying machines and stuff, so I’m not saying he was lazy.
- The Mona Lisa didn’t go by that name. We don’t know what name it went by during Leonardo’s lifetime, but it was the biographer Vasari who called it Mona Lisa long after Leonardo’s death, and the name didn’t really stick as definitive until the 19th century. This only matters if, following “symbologist” Robert Langdon’s lead, you’re supposed to re-arrange the letters to spell Amon L’Isa. Not a challenging anagram, exactly, and not very enlightening at that. But the point is that if you did this, you’d be re-arranging letters Leonardo didn’t arrange in the first place, which would be silly.
- The Mona Lisa is just not a self-portrait of Leonardo with a wig and a push-up bra. Forget it. The attempted proofs of this are predicated on the idea that we have a good idea of what Leonardo looked like, or that we have sufficient grounds to claim that there’s a self-portrait sketch by Leonardo to compare it to. Unfortunately, neither is true, so extrapolating further is arguing that “if A is true, and also B, and also C, then maybe D, in which case possibly E, and then you might say F…”
- The Madonna of the Rocks is a big painting on wood, which makes it hard to imagine how the petite Sophie Neveu can hold it between herself and the Louvre guard, and how it manages to bend as she puts pressure on it. Art historian Bruce Boucher points this out. Hmm, they’ll have to fix this one in the movie somehow. Speaking of the movie, the letters of Madonna of the Rocks can be re-arranged to whisper the cryptic message, TOM HANKS FED RACCOON!!! A word to the wise is sufficient…
- The Last Supper is not a fresco. It’s a mural. Fresco is a special technique of painting directly onto fresh (fresco, not secco) plaster. A mural is any painting on the wall. And unfortunately, Leonardo used any old paint (tempera) on any old wall (stone), so it’s in awful shape like a fresco wouldn’t be.
- There’s not a disembodied knife-hand floating menacingly in the composition. It’s Peter’s hand. Leonardo’s sketches make this clear. And he’s got a knife because there’s a Bible story about that. Wow, a little bit of research could have saved a couple of pages of mystery mongering.
- The person to Jesus’ right in the Last Supper is not a woman. It’s John the Evangelist, and if you look at a handful of disciple paintings from the centuries around Leonardo, you’ll see he’s always portrayed young and pretty. That may say something about Renaissance Italy’s standards of male beauty, but it doesn’t say anything at all about Leonardo hiding secret messages about Mary Magdalene in his painting. Brown gets a lot of mileage out of the “dude look like a lady” routine, but what it reveals is that he’s not spending enough time in the Renaissance room at the Louvre or anywhere else.
- Leonardo DaVinci didn’t have a code. It was just allergies. Get it? Hahahahaha. But seriously. Brown says that Leonardo was “A prankster and genius … widely believed to have hidden secret messages within much of his artwork. Most scholars agree that even Da Vinci’s most famous pieces—works like The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Madonna of the Rocks—contain startling anomalies that all seem to be whispering the same cryptic message…” Well, no, most scholars do not agree with that. Genius, sure; prankster, yes. Cryptic messages, no, nobody’s arguing that.
But the fact that I have nine items in this list is highly significant, and the symbologists among you should begin dissecting this triple triad for the secrets it contains.