No mere Da Vinci Code redux, this Spanish bestseller fuses an ecclesiastical whodunit with an A-Z guide to Neoplatonist philosophy and Renaissance symbology.
Leonardo’s masterwork The Last Supper has become the 15th century’s Zapruder film, obsessively scrutinized for clues to conspiracies. Now Sierra (La Dama Azul, 2005, etc.) produces a corker: His Da Vinci is a Cathar, member of a heretical sect espousing a mystical Christianity. And, as Father Agostino, Sierra’s clerical super-sleuth, detects, the world’s most famous fresco drips with cryptic Cathar propaganda. Isn’t that Leonardo himself, after all, at the left of the Passover table, chatting up Plato? Don’t the 12 apostles resonate with astrological and numerological significance? And isn’t there a secret message their gestures and names spell out? Maybe this “discovery” is balderdash, but it’s fascinating fun. We meet Marsilio Ficino, rescuer of esoteric Egyptian wisdom, Savonarola, so shocked by Botticelli’s paganism that he convinces that fine painter to trash his brush, Lorenzo the Magnificent, ultra–Renaissance Man—all real-life titans portrayed with a storyteller’s zest for anecdote. Sierra’s breakneck plotting provides the novel’s juice, but its satisfying aftertaste comes from its erudite explaining of the art of the symbol: The last thing the quattrocento masters intended was to paint just “pretty pictures.” Instead, they aimed at allegory, constructing visual narratives rich in coded signs and wonders, an achievement long celebrated by historians and Jungians alike. In ushering general readers into that numinous realm, the author ensures that they’ll never again rush through a museum.
Sierra is a more sophisticated writer than Dan Brown, and he offers fresh perspective on the Renaissance mind.