A Guide to Leonardo and His Art in The Da Vinci Code - Questions and Answers

A Guide to Leonardo and His Art in The Da Vinci Code - Questions and Answers

01of 09

Have You Read the Book?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), detail, ca. 1503-05. Oil on poplar wood. 77 x 53 cm (30 3/8 x 20 7/8 in.). Musée du Louvre, Paris

Since The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, it has - no matter what anyone may think of it as literature - become a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Now a major motion picture, the book's intriguing fictional plot line has spawned both imitation novels and some 40 works of non-fiction written to refute elements found in The Code. It has also managed to raise questions in the minds of nearly everyone who's read it. In response to your emails, I've been publishing answers to questions about Leonardo and his art as found in The Da Vinci Code since 2003. They are here assembled, side by side and illustrated with works by Leonardo.
Please remember: this is an Art History site. We're covering art and an artist. If you have questions about murderous albino monks, Gnostic Gospels or Secret Societies, you'll have to go elsewhere. If you need art historic information about The Da Vinci Code, I hope what follows is helpful.

I sure have. Around five times from cover to cover now, when once would have more than sufficed. How about you?
By the way, the five full readings don't include needing to sift through certain pages an excessive number of times, or the thousands of pages of other, related material I've read in order to factually answer readers' excellent questions about Leonardo and his art as described in The Da Vinci Code. Legitimate research or latent masochism? You know, it all just ceased to matter at some point in 2004.
Speaking of which, there is a 2004 FAQ on the About Art History site saying yes, I've read The Da Vinci Code and am not answering your sincere questions with wild guesses. "Have you read the book?" is more friendly reassurance (and a naive - didn't know there was an email onslaught ahead - warning that TDVC is a work of fiction) than proper book review, so don't look for the latter.
Incidentally, don't you love the way La Gioconda is looking sideways in this eye detail? The whole Code business… would have been reason enough for the mysterious smile. Had book and painting been convergent works, I'd even be tempted to upgrade "mysterious smile" to "filthy rich smirk."

02of 09

How Much of the Book is True?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Storm in an Alpine Valley, ca. 1508-10. Red chalk on paper. 19.8 x 15.0 cm. Inscribed .137., probably by Francesco Melzi. RL 12409. © 2006 The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Like storm clouds gathering over the Alps north of Milan, the fall semester of 2004 saw emails start to trickle in from Honors English students who'd been assigned The Da Vinci Code as a topic. Did I know, they wondered (having read the book), if there was any basis in fact therein from which they could construct some sort of an informed paper?
Trickle becoming flood, I resorted to writing an article that flatly stated the book has a really bad factual batting average -- at least as far as Art History information goes. Which is why, in spite of its preface stating everything in The Da Vinci Code is "FACT," one needs to remember it is a fictitious novel, carefully re-read the preface and proceed with all due caution.
Dear, earnest, never-following-up students. I will forever wonder why you were given this assignment, if you made your papers' deadlines and whether or not you got satisfactory marks. I sincerely hope you have since gotten acceptance notices from your universities of choice, even though you cannot pursue a Baccalaureate degree in "symbology."

03of 09

What Was Leonardo's Name?

Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (Italian 1435-1488). Tobias and the Angel, 1470-80. Egg tempera on poplar. 84.4 x 66.2 cm. © National Gallery, London

Here we see Tobias and the Angel (1470-60), as it came out of the workshop of Leonardo's master, Andrea del Verrocchio. Rumor has it that the model for the splendid looking young man on our right is none other than a juvenile Leonardo, himself. Leonardo, as an apprentice, is also thought to have had a hand in executing this tempera on poplar work.
You'll note that the word "Leonardo" was just used three times in reference to an artist. At no time was there mention of "Da Vinci." To get the facts on this man's real name, please see this page.

04of 09

What Did Leonardo Look Like?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Self-Portrait, ca. 1512. Red chalk on paper. 33.3 x 21.3 cm (13 1/8 x 8 3/8 in). © Biblioteca Reale, Turin

By all accounts, Leonardo was one of the few, the proud, the extremely handsome. (It's a happy, lucky combination of DNA when it happens, folks.) He knew it, and took advantage of it if a given situation lent itself to good looks being advantageous.
Maike Vogt-Lüerssen, a German-born Australian historian, has pondered whether or not the chalk drawing (above) is a self-portrait by Leonardo, or that of either his uncle (Francesco da Vinci) or father (Ser Piero da Vinci).

05of 09

Was Leonardo Gay?

Francesco Melzi (Italian, 1491/93-ca. 1570). Portrait of Leonardo, after 1510. Red chalk on paper. 275 x 190 cm (108 1/4 x 74 3/4 in.). © Royal Library, Windsor.

Yes, I read that Leonardo was a "flamboyant homosexual" in The Da Vinci Code, too. It came as somewhat of a shock. Not the "homosexual" part, mind you - rather, the astonishing discovery that the author had managed to uncover details of Leonardo's orientation after so many centuries. Many have tried, and all have failed until this novel's publication. (Not that literary claims in The Code have been backed with primary documentation… but let's not allow lack of evidence to impede a good story… )
The sketch seen here is by the Lombard artist Francesco Melzi, Leonardo's pupil, companion and primary heir. Melzi became an apprentice to Leonardo in 1508, during the latter's second stint in Milan, and remained at his side until Leonardo died in 1519.
The fact that Melzi, and the aptly named troublemaker "Salai" ("Offspring of Satan") were both protégés of Leonardo - regardless of their respective artistic talents or lack thereof - has caused speculation over the years. We all know how tongues love to wag. Were they apprentices or something more? Honestly, no one knows this except the above men, all long dead, never uttering a peep while they lived and leaving no tell-all diaries. I have gathered a few thoughts about Leonardo's potential homosexuality here, though, and offer further sources for the truly curious.

06of 09

Did Leonardo Write in Code?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Water, 1506-1510. Codex Leicester (formerly Codex Hammer), 11r. Pen and ink on paper. 14.5 x 22 cm. © William H. Gates III Collection, Redmond, Washington

Would this question be about p. 45 in The Da Vinci Code, where we find Robert Langdon pondering Leonardo's "eerie eccentricities?" One part of which read "… he kept mysterious journals in illegible reverse handwriting?"
I'm going to have to disagree with the "illegible" part, since there is a five-pound book entitled The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci sitting on my desk. Obviously, someone was able to read his handwriting.
As for the "reverse handwriting," there may be a less-than-exciting motive behind it. All evidence - particularly the direction in which he cross-hatched to shade his drawings - points towards Leonardo's having been left-handed.
Let me explain why this is significant. When you are a "lefty" (as I am) and work with a wet medium such as paint or ink, or even a dry medium like charcoal or pencil, it's nearly impossible to avoid dragging the outside of your left hand through anything you've put to paper or canvas. Unless you work from right to left. This may sound crazy if you're right-handed (and 90% of all humans are), but it is relatively easy for us southpaws to work this way, and also to read standard Western text upside-down and/or from right to left.
Leonardo point being: "They" told me in grade school that Leonardo used "mirror writing," and wasn't that too deliciously mysterious? Didn't buy that explanation then - while busy mucking up my No. 2 penciling in a right-handed, spiral-bound copybook, all the time sweating over lost neatness points - and haven't since. As a fellow left-handed person, I assumed he wanted to get his observations written down as expeditiously as possible, and didn't want to worry about smearing his ink. (Before you email me, I would like to publicly acknowledge that my theory here is boring. Practical, and also plausible, but boring.)
The image above is that of one page (11 r.) from the Leicester Codex (probable dates 1506-1510), a collection of 18 double sheets of paper upon which Leonardo wrote thousands of lines of his observations on water and the science of hydraulics. Every single line is "backwards." Leonardo also sketched some 300 illustrations throughout, usually within the right-hand margins.

07of 09

How Much Art Makes Up an "Enormous Output?"

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Madonna Litta, ca. 1490-91. Tempera on canvas, transferred from panel. 42 x 33 cm (16 1/2 x 13 in.). The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Referring (yet again!) to p. 45 in the hardcover edition of The Da Vinci Code, one reads of "… Da Vinci's enormous output of breathtaking Christian art… " I reacted to this sentence with a classic double-take (complete with sound effect *doing!*), and wondered if there'd ever be any getting past p. 45. Surely this had to be an inside joke of Robert Langdon's, crack Harvard professor of symbology and protagonist of the novel.
If he had said "… enormous output of art… " without inserting "breathtaking Christian," that might have been an acceptable statement, as long as one included all of Leonardo's drawings and notebook sketches in order to constitute an "enormous" total.
If he had said "… enormous breathtaking Christian art… " without the "output of" bit, you would certainly be justified to nod your head in agreement while thinking "Yes, Last Supper, of course."
But what we've got is "… Da Vinci's enormous output of breathtaking Christian art… " and a little problem. Leonardo really didn't paint very many pictures. He's been either credited or associated with less than thirty paintings, which is not an enormous output by anyone's standards. Even Vermeer painted more quickly than this.
To further complicate matters, roughly half of these are secular, not religious in nature. And not all of the paintings in question have been universally accepted by scholars in a position to authenticate them as Leonardo's work. When you get right down to it, there are ten or less paintings by Leonardo that qualify as "breathtaking" and "Christian" - and two (possibly three!) of these are nearly identical canvases.
If you'd care to detour for a few moments, we have a gallery of Leonardo da Vinci paintings arranged chronologically for your viewing enjoyment. Madonna Litta (1490-91), seen here, was among the last works Leonardo painted before embarking on his epic Last Supper project.

08of 09

How Many Vatican Commissions Did Leonardo Get?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). St. John the Baptist, 1513-16. Oil on wood. 69 x 57 cm (27 1/4 x 22 1/2 in.). © Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Da Vinci Code claimed that Leonardo got "hundreds" of those fabled "lucrative 'Vatican' commissions." Hundreds? Really? I couldn't come up with evidence for even "dozens." In fact, you are hereby referred to St. John the Baptist's right index finger, as seen in the image above, as the biggest, fattest counting clue on this subject.

09of 09

Androgynous Anagram of Egyptian God Names?

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), ca. 1503-05. Oil on poplar wood. 77 x 53 cm (30 3/8 x 20 7/8 in.). © Musée du Louvre, Paris

In chapter 26 of The Da Vinci Code, we are all treated to a gigantic secret during a flash-backed memory of a "Culture for Convicts" (Mr. Brown's droll words, not mine) lecture that professor Langdon once presented to a group of inmates in some sort of community outreach program. The secret is: the Mona Lisa is an androgynous self portrait of Leonardo!
But wait, it gets even better. "Mona Lisa" is an anagram of "Amon" and "Isis," if you write "Isis" in the manner of some (unreferenced) ancient pictogram that roughly translates to "L'isa" in Latin text. Thus PROVING that (quoting from p. 121) "… not only does the face of Mona Lisa look androgynous, but her name is an anagram of the divine union of male and female. And that, my friends, is Da Vinci's little secret, and the reason for Mona Lisa's knowing smile."
What an utter load of fiction.
Facts are, Leonardo didn't name this painting. Anything. Not La Gioconda, not La Gioconde, not La Joconde and not Mona Lisa. He was very fond of it and made sure it traveled with him until he died in France, but he never named either the painting or its sitter. (If there was, in fact, a sitter.)
Mona Lisa was something that Giorgio Vasari, Italian painter and author, came up with in 1550 when he identified the sitter (nearly half a century after the fact) as Lisa Gherardini, young wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. I cannot tell you if Vasari was additionally an Egyptologist capable of making a secretive, jokey anagram of ancient gods' and goddesses' names. What I can say with certainty is that he very frequently missed the "accurate" mark with names and dates within his art historic 1550 publication Delle Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. Vasari had a great knack, however, for telling a good story. (You are entirely welcome to any parallels you may care to draw here between fact, fiction, 1550, 2003 and a good story.)