The Dan Brown phenomenon The Da Vinci Code: DaDa Da Vinci
The “genius” Leonardo Da Vinci, who gave his name to the book, is nevertheless mainly absent from the pages of the book. Was he the genius we believe he was? Was he grandmaster of a secret society? Or was he instead a lone painter?
by Philip Coppens
Few painters were famous during their lifetime. Until recently, painters were also seen more as interior decorators than “artists”, let alone “savants”. The same applied to Leonardo Da Vinci: in his own lifetime, he was considered to be a painter, rather than an intellectual – an aura that has only grown onto his image post his own lifetime, in fact, which has grown onto him only quite recently.
Let us not overstate his importance, as seems to have become customary over the past decade: The Last Supper, which is so central in The Da Vinci Code, was painted on one wall of a refectory of a convent… and I would argue that 95% of people don’t even know in which town. (It’s Milan.) It’s not the brilliant setting we all would like it to have. Though the Mona Lisa is currently the billboard of the Louvre, in his own lifetime, Leonardo, though it seems he was commissioned to paint it, apparently never delivered it, taking it with him whenever and wherever he moved. The setting today, hanging in the Louvre, is somewhat different from the likely rack of unfinished paintings that sat somewhere in his home.
There is no question that he did paint beautifully, though he did not invent painting with oil, as some believed for too many years. But the beauty of his paintings came at a price; in his time, he had a reputation for never delivering, or delivering too late. For the Last Supper, Leonardo wanted to experiment with a new style he had invented: tempera (egg yolk and vinegar) plus oil painting on dry plaster. The painting took him four years to complete and his patrons were furious at the delay, but Leonardo refused to go any quicker. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s style experiment was a disaster. The paint almost immediately began falling off the plaster, due to humidity; whole pieces of paint fell off the wall.
Today, we hence may judge him to be an “artist”, who delivered art, whenever he felt it was ready, rather than when his paymasters demanded it. Still, I am sure he was not the first, nor alone, in this aspect either. Today, we remember Leonardo as a genius, rather than an artist. A supergenius even. We believe he conceived the helicopter, a tank, the use of concentrated solar power, the calculator, a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics, the double hull, and other ideas too numerous to mention. The evidence: his notebooks. But what most people do not know and only some of his experts note, is that his notebooks were just that: notes. Often, they were not “his” notes – they were notes he made while he was reading books, written by other people. At that time, books were rare and a man like Leonardo could ill afford them. So when he was reading a book and needed to remember what was inside, he noted it down… in his notebook… like we all remember from our own schooldays. Helicopters, plate tectonics, etc. were not his idea… they were ideas of others, which caught his interest, and which could perhaps serve him at some point in the future. Hence he wrote them down.
The designs in his notebooks fall in two sections: those that did not work, which were mainly his own; and those that worked, which he is now known to have copied: the elaborate hoists and cranes were designed by Brunelleschi, his engines of war by the German engineer Konrad Keyser, his “automobile” by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, etc
In the category of designs that did not work sits his flying machine, which would never have flown. It’s true that Leonardo was a man who, according to one biographer, “was plunged into a kind of ecstasy by devising never-ending systems of cogwheels and screws” – but none of these visions really worked in reality. Many men have wondered about being able to fly, and anyone who believes Leonardo was the only one thinking about wanting to create a flying machine at that time, is sadly deluded. He thought about it, made some drawings, but nothing came even close to being a possible machine that would take off. In short: there is evidence Leonardo was a dreamer, but he was far from being a supergenius… he was only a genius with the paintbrush, and specifically the method in which he painted. For those who desperately want to keep the myth alive, they suggest he “self-censored” his ideas and that he decided not to publish his notebooks. The fact of the matter is that “his ideas” were not his, and “those ideas” had already been published. The rest of his notes contained nothing of value. Furthermore, even his greatest fans admit that his notebooks remained obscure until the 19th century, and were not directly of value to the development of science and technology. In fact, if they had not survived at all… we would still live in our everyday reality, for unlike the Wright brothers or Dyson, Leonardo never contributed anything to our technological world. We should not blame him for that; it is we who have painted this image onto him; he only ever saw himself as a painter, perhaps an “artist”, though he dreamed of doing other things too; but it is we who have made him into a super scientist. It is therefore bizarre to realize that the invented creation of the cryptex (introduced by Dan Brown) would actually perfectly fit within Leonardo as an “inventor”: the cryptex is based on vinegar dissolving a written text, if the wrong code is entered; but the “trap” is easily circumvented by freezing the cryptex, i.e. the vinegar inside, then opening the cryptex and taking the paper out, which will have been untouched by the frozen vinegar, irrelevant of whether the correct code was entered or not. Though it’s Brown invention, and it is flawed, it sits quite well within the flawed inventions Leonardo writes down in his notebooks and which were his own. For sure, Leonardo was intrigued by war machines and major engineering accomplishments. It was his passion – and it is intriguing to note that Leonardo is seldom portrayed as this “arms engineer”. Automating war machines were in his time what rocketry was in the early 20th century: of interest to political leaders who saw its potential, and a field where men like Leonardo were in their element: they were sponsored by people who saw the potential and who realised it took an “out of the box” thinker, who could perhaps create a breakthrough. Few made major discoveries in warfare innovation… and Leonardo was not one of them. As to engineering: he was notorious in his time for coming up with gigantic ideas, but which he was never able to execute in real life. Often, colleagues told him it would not work; sometimes, he would pursue his idea, only to see it fail. Edison said it took him two hundred failed attempts before he was able to make the light bulb; but Leonardo never succeeded; he only realised methods of how not to make things.
The problem was that Leonardo knew very little mathematics. Algebra was a closed book to him, and he was poor at figures. So it is quite uninformed of Dan Brown, in an interview with Elizabeth Vargas, to claim that Leonardo was a mathematician.
We do need to give him credit for accurately describing anatomy, but that is very much a painter’s prerogative. Anatomy is opening up a corpse, and drawing what you see inside. An artist is ideally suited to do that. And for a painter, observing the human body is vitally important, just like modern computer game animators or special effect specialists need to observe every aspect of human movement and physiology. Leonardo was a maverick; Dan Burstein has labelled him a “loner”. From Vinci, near Florence, he lived at the height of the Florentine Renaissance. But he was not welcome in the inner sanctum of the Platonic Academy, hence was not near the de Medici family; some believe he did not have the proper family credentials to gain access, but it’s equally possible he just wasn’t bright enough – as well as coming with some “social shortcomings”, to which we will return soon.
The Platonic Academy was the crème de la crème of esoteric thinking, a direct revival of the Graeco-Egyptian world, from Socrates to the Gnostic doctrines. The academy was almost single-handedly responsible for the Renaissance, of which Leonardo was part, but at the time not instrumental. Leonardo never set foot in the Academy, at a time when his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, were painting the Sistine Chapel… Leonardo was painting a wall in the refectory of a nunnery in Milan.
He did live in Rome from 1513 to 1516, when painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active, but he did not have much contact with them. He is believed to have been of pivotal importance in the relocation of David (in Florence), one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, but this happened against the artist’s will! Leonardo was not only not a socialiser, he was able to upset people easily. He nevertheless did have some remarkable friends, specifically Niccolò Machiavelli, the man whose name would become transformed into a political doctrine. It is remarkable that in retrospect, we believe he was the holder and main protector of a tremendous esoteric doctrine, summed up in his alleged status as “Grand Navigator” of the “Priory of Sion”. What twist of fate that men like Marsilio Ficino, a true genius of his time and the first “Grand Navigator” of the Platonic Academy, a man who changed the world and who possessed a true understanding of how Christianity was nothing more than a makeover of the Egyptian mystery cults, is now largely unknown, but a nobody in his time like Leonardo is believed to have preserved that very doctrine! But we should not blame Leonardo; we should blame ourselves, for it is we who are deluded; Leonardo never seems to have misunderstood his own importance; we have. So, let us consider Leonardo as a painter. Did he convey key messages that somehow bypassed centuries of experts, but have only in the past ten to twenty years been “realised” – understood?
First, Dan Brown has made it clear that Picknett & Prince’s The Templar Revelation was a key influence in his fascination with Leonardo’s painting. As any fiction writer is expected to do, he transformed their work, and what is the outcome in The Da Vinci Code, is radically different from The Templar Revelation. In the latter, the authors use their previous theory that Leonardo created the Turin Shroud and new analysis of his paintings to argue that he was a devotee of John the Baptist, about whom he possessed a secret doctrine, namely that John was the “true messiah” – I have left out certain qualifying remarks for the sake of brevity. Dan Brown instead uses Leonardo paintings in the Louvre so that Saunière can leave cryptic messages, and later on, Teabing and Langdon educate Neveu how The Last Supper reveals Leonardo’s secret knowledge about the true Grail: Mary Magdalene and their descendents.
Furthermore, the paintings on which Picknett & Prince focus their attention are not Leonardo’s best known – though as only 12 paintings have been absolutely confirmed as his work, there is no such thing as a “not famous Leonardo”. Brown made sure to go for Leonardo’s most famous: the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. The “John Gesture”, which Picknett & Prince see as the sign that Leonardo worked into his paintings to reveal his allegiance to John is so central to The Templar Revelation, but it is absent from the pages of The Da Vinci Code. It has been substituted with the “V-shape”, which he has apparently taken from Margaret Starbird’s writings. In short, Brown has lifted the intrigue, but not the contents of the argument. There is nothing wrong with that; I am merely stating it. Which brings us to the question: is it Mary Magdalene that sits next to Jesus? Yes, that character looks very feminine, but anyone who has studied the painting of John the Baptist by Leonardo knows how feminine that person is. It is this work that has been seen as being imbued with homoerotic overtones by art critics such as Martin Kemp and James Saslow.
Leonardo kept his private life particularly secret. He claimed to have a distaste of physical relations: he commented that “the act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions.” He apparently did not like sex, though he seemed to have no aversion in cutting open dead bodies in order to see human anatomy. It clearly was therefore no aversion towards the body, but towards sex in particular. Why?
In 1476, he was twice accused – anonymously it has to be said – of sodomy with a 17 year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, a youth already known to the authorities for his sexual escapades with men. After two months in jail, Leonardo was acquitted, allegedly because no witnesses stepped forward, but one expert, James Saslow, makes clear that it was actually on the strength of Leonardo’s father’s respected position that the charges “were dropped”; in short, daddy made sure Leonardo did not have to pay for the crime; he may have (literally) paid for it. For some time afterwards, Leonardo and the other men involved were kept under observation by Florence’s Officers of the Night, a Renaissance organization charged with suppressing the practice of sodomy.
Since, his homosexuality has continued to be a cause of intrigue – though we should not see his left-handedness and his mirror writing as a “clear sign”, as some have all too silly interpreted it to be. Following this misfortune at a time when he may have been searching for his own sexual identity, did he abandon sex all together, as he would later claim? Perhaps, but unlikely, in spite of what he wrote down.
Leonardo had a servant and assistant, Caprotti il Salaino. Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo’s first biographer, described him as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted”. Let us note that this description is very much the style in which Leonardo fashioned his John the Baptist: young, curly hair… and something feminine about him; the same applies to the other John, John the Evangelist, which Brown and others try to transform into Mary Magdalene.
His servant, Il Salaino, entered Leonardo’s household in 1490 at the age of 10. The relationship was not an easy one. A year later, Leonardo made a list of the boy’s misdemeanours, calling him “a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton”. The “Little Devil” had made off with money and valuables on at least five occasions, and spent a fortune on apparel, among which were twenty-four pairs of shoes. We should note that he was only an eleven year old kid, after all! Nevertheless, il Salaino remained his companion, servant, and assistant for the next thirty years. It is clear that despite all the complaining, Leonardo loved him, either as a father figure… or something else.
Il Salaino’s name appears (crossed out) on the back of an erotic drawing (ca. 1513) by the artist, titled “The Incarnate Angel”. It is seen as a humorous and revealing take on John the Baptist – which incidentally also hangs in the Louvre. There are other works by him on erotic topics, including his drawings of heterosexual human sexual intercourse. However, these drawings were destroyed by a priest who found them after his death. The evidence clearly suggests that Leonardo had at least a platonic affection for (young) men, as well as the likelihood that John the Evangelist in the Last Supper was indeed… John the Evangelist.
Just in case there remains any doubt about his sexual orientation: in 1506, Leonardo met Count Francesco Melzi, the 15 year old son of a Lombard aristocrat. Melzi described Leonardo’s feelings towards him as “a deeply passionate and most burning love”. Il Salaino eventually accepted Melzi’s continued presence and the three undertook several journeys throughout Italy.
Times then were different than they are now, but it’s clear that if Da Vinci lived now, he would be described as favouring “young boys”… and would have been labelled a paedophile. Let us, however, note that now is different from then: sodomy and paedophilia in Florence in Leonardo’s day was not uncommon; it was practiced so much that it gave rise to those brigades, trying to control if not stamp out the practice. To repeat: is John the Evangelist Mary Magdalene? The character sitting next to Jesus is supposed to be John the Evangelist, Jesus’ “Beloved Disciple”. Leonardo depicts John the Baptist and the Evangelist very feminine. It may say more about his sexuality, rather than a hidden message about Christianity. For a man who perhaps had to try to hide his sexual preferences, followed as he was across the streets, did he give a “wink” to the notion of a “beloved” disciple? Let us note that the mural was also visible inside a convent. If anything, the secret message may be that he felt that Jesus might have been gay – a conviction easily arrived at when reading what happened during the raising of Lazarus in certain versions of that event. I am not suggesting Jesus was gay, only that for a homosexual like Leonardo, such a thought may have crossed his mind… he may equally have thought it desirable.
But, let us ask ourselves this: if it is a key message, if it is THE most important question of the past two millennia… why leave it on an ordinary wall in an unimportant convent? It’s not the best place to store the biggest secret of the past 2000 years – if only because the painting rapidly deteriorated, partially due to new but defective techniques used by Leonardo during the creation of the work. And not wishing to pee on this parade, but would our “genius” really hope that this key message would one day be uncovered by a pair of London authors who would by complete accident stumble across it, and then inspire a failed musician turned author (read: Brown) who had one last chance to success… and by the most amazing collection of coincidences and circumstances did? Finally, the V-shape between the sides of Jesus and John the Evangelist. Just like Dan Burstein has suddenly risen not merely to fame but apparently out of nowhere on the back of Dan Brown, the importance of the V, its representation of the vulva and the Grail, is a sudden addition to the entire debate – or, at least, it never got treated as important. First of all, why leave it to such a bizarre interpretation that a fiction author worked into the book in a rather silly manner? Secondly, the link between the V-shape, the vulva, its intended presence on The Last Supper, and its significance as the Grail is “new” – newspeak for “invented” for the purpose of this work of fiction. There is nothing wrong with this, but few interviewees have been seen willing to discuss this on camera – only Margaret Starbird seems to have continuously been interviewed to underline this aspect. It is sensible not to endorse it, for it is a sequence of assumptions, each flimsier than the previous: though the Grail has been interpreted as many things, the vulva of Mary Magdalene is a very recent “interpretation”, not based on any original Grail material, in which Mary Magdalene is a non-entity. The Grail legend is, saints-wise, linked with Joseph of Arimathea, and in an indirect way with John the Evangelist. That the V in The Last Supper is intended to be seen as a V is pure speculation and there is no evidence that we should depart from the classic interpretation, which is that Leonardo primarily used it as a device to set the scene of thirteen people into two distinct groups.
A far more intriguing question, which Dan Brown has correctly posed, is why there is no cup on the table of The Last Supper. The implied thinking which Brown wants us to follow is that if there is no “Grail Cup” on the table, perhaps he has painted the true Grail, i.e. Mary Magdalene? However, this is just one possible train of thought: we could equally conclude that Leonardo forgot, that it was painted out during restoration, or that – more imaginatively – Leonardo did not paint a cup, for he may have used its omission as his “protest” against the “validity” of Jesus as Christ; a “logical conclusion” within the framework of The Templar Revelation, which argues that the true Messiah was John the Baptist. But that, of course, is just another train of thought, which could be worked into a work of fiction… but should therefore not be considered as gospel.