The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Leonardo da Vinci is hard at work on "The Last Supper", when anonymous letters to Rome lead to an Inquisitor being despatched to Milan to discover whether the work contains a heretical code aimed at bringing down the mother church. Are the accusations against the artist in any way linked to the mysterious deaths that start to occur in the vicinity? Unfortunately Father Agostino is an unconvincing Inquisitor and un-engaging story-teller. The book's greater merits are in the details that invite further study elsewhere.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN: 978-1416522027

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I'm beginning to feel a bit sorry for poor old Leonardo. Time was, when I was 15 and doing O-level history, he was the hero of the age. The archetypal Renaissance man: painter, scientist, philosopher, inventor, engineer. Somewhere along the line, and I confess my ignorance in not knowing where, he has become the villain of the piece.

The piece in question, obviously, is the magnificent Cenacolo... his rendition of The Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The picture which shows Christ and the Saints without their customary halos, which depicts the Supper without the sacrament, which ultimately depicts the Supper as a bunch of men feasting. Are there hidden meanings in this picture? If so, do they speak of the Magdalene and whatever relationship she may or may not have had with Christ? Or do they, as Sierra suggests, speak of another creed altogether... one that might, should it gain currency, destabilise the Church of Rome beyond recovery. Not now. Not in the 21st century with tales of centuries of manipulation and political intrigue between the painting and its interpretation... but right then... back in 1490s when Leonardo was still hard at work in Santa Maria.

Our guide, obviously, is an investigator. The crack Private Eye of the time: a member of "the Holy Office" - the Inquisition to you and me. Father Agostino Leyre is dispatched by the Pope to discover the truth behind anonymous letters which suggest that the refectory painting is a heretical code. Is it? Or is this merely some plan of vengeance against the artist? Much rests within the coded letters and other cryptographic clues in paintings and tarot cards. As people on the fringes of the affair start to die in mysterious and possibly connected circumstances, clearly there must be some truth in the allegations of the Soothsayer, but Fr Agostino must first discover who he is, and what his purpose.

So we have the genre-du-jour. Art history, religious controversy, murder mystery and a cowled investigator... and all of it founded in fact.

It should work brilliantly.

It doesn't.

Not in this translation anyway... and I do always feel the need to caveat a work reviewed in translation as one never knows if the lost nuances matter. That our translator (Alberto Manguel) opted to use the anachronistic King James version of the bible for his quotations because our familiarity with it retains the 'flavour' required, which would be lost by using the more appropriate Vulgate or any other version, suggests that he does know his trade however, and so I feel more comfortable in laying my reservations at the author's feet.

Agostino just does not hold true as a central character. He simply isn't 'driven' enough to be an Inquisitor (even one who freely admits taking on the administration because he cannot bear the work of the cells); he is a cryptographer and yet misses clues and techniques that a child should fathom. Therein the second problem. The ultimate 'mystery' of the painting is glaringly obvious chapters ahead of the experts focussing their attention upon it. Much is made of the murders, but very little in the way of actual 'detecting'.

It is clear that Sierra has researched his subject to the very depths, and interviews with him suggest that he left much out - for which we can only be thankful. I'm afraid he kept too much in. The need to explain geography in map-like detail is a burden. To ensure we miss nothing of the historical or architectural context involves contrived lectures. This is detail exposited. More deftly woven in, it would have enriched the telling. Sadly, it merely detracted from it.

Worst of all... he builds the mystery upon a partial, and potentially false, picture of the Cenacolo. The rendition of the painting given on the inside cover of the book, lends weight to the arguments and possibilities portrayed in the story - but compare it with fuller, clearer pictures and the bias fundamental to the plot simply isn't there.

At least he got the technicalities right. The painting is not a fresco, and even in painting it, he suggests, Leonardo knew (or maybe discovered) that it would not survive intact for long. Who knows how much of what we now see, was what he originally put there?

So, not even worth opening up at all then? Not quite. Some of the detail is interesting for its own sake. The biographical detail and character study of the artist is enough to reawaken my interest in the man behind the legend. The description of the heresy - which did exist, although it is unlikely that Leonardo was part of it - and the impact it could have had on the Church of Rome is well described. The treatises on art and religious symbolism are also edifying for those of us with limited knowledge of such things. I did learn a thing or two... I just found it a little heavy going to get there.

Clearly the book invites comparisons with Dan Brown's work, but your reviewer confesses to not having read The Da Vinci Code so is unable to comment.

On the other hand - the little known work Montaillou, by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, is worth reading if you're intrigued by any of the ideas raised by the story.

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