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Pop Esoterica!

Leonardo Da Vinci at the beach.

The Da Vinci Code
By Dan Brown
(Doubleday, 454 pp., $24.95)

The Rule of Four
By Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
(The Dial Press, 372 pp., $24)

Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone's Asking
By Darrel L. Bock
(Nelson Books, 188 pp., $19.99)

By Luther Blissett
(Harcourt, 750 pp., $26)

DESPITE PREVAILING GOSSIP in the groves of academe, people still like their Renaissance, with its prancing nymphs, striplings in hose, and Venus on the half-shell, an endless Primavera with Lorenzo de' Medici presiding benignly over the pagan rites. The fact that this Renaissance is a myth gives them no pause whatsoever, nor should it: the Renaissance was always a myth, and also, on occasion, a chivalric lay or an instructive fable, depending on who told the story, why, and to whom. For Angelo Poliziano, currying the favor of Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano with superabundant talent, the Medici brothers posed as modern Arthurian knights in Stanze per la Giostra, or Verses for the Joust. Botticelli, in the same years, acted as the city's great mythographer, painting glossy riddles in tempera for a restless Medici cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. If Machiavelli sent it all up with masterful cynicism in The Prince, he did so believing in another myth of Florence, the city as free Etruscan republic. Whatever their individual cynicism or dashed hopes, they all persisted in regarding Florence as a divinely favored place, every one.

People today still like this Renaissance of Poliziano, Botticelli, and the brothers Medici, because it stands for an idea of civilization, no matter what the poststructuralists say, and in these strange times an idea of civilization is something we desperately need. The depths of that need can be judged from the tone--and the popularity--of thrillers otherwise as disparate as The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, both of which take Renaissance Florence as their shining image of civility, and quite specifically of Western civility. In a world where a rich turbaned sheik takes aim at skyscrapers, discotheques, and train stations in the name of holy war, these books argue, with their genre's implicit conservatism, that the West has contributed something more to humanity than McDonald's, cowboy presidents, and the stock market. The extraordinary success of such pointedly cultural thrillers indicates a longing to take the Western heritage seriously, to accord it some degree of honor rather than subject it to yet another critique. This is not by any means a discouraging development.

Despite The Da Vinci Code's title, however, the standing symbol of Western civility in both this best-seller and in The Rule of Four is not, in fact, the multifarious and frustratingly incomplete work of Leonardo da Vinci, but rather the paintings executed by his contemporary Alessandro Filipepi, whom we know by his nickname "the Little Barrel," or Botticelli. The Rule of Four explicitly singles out Botticelli for two reasons: one is clearly the quality of Botticelli's painting itself, with its hard-gloss tempera surfaces, sinuous lines, and crystal-clear perspectival spaces. This linear clarity is essential to Renaissance Florence, the limpidly geometric architecture of which sits solidly on a foursquare ancient Roman street plan. Leonardo moved on from Florence to foggy Milan, where his painting began to explore the interplay of light and shadow and took on the darkness, the ambiguity, the indefinable edges that make all his later work as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's smile.

Botticelli also figures in The Rule of Four because of what happened to him in life: some of his paintings were destroyed between 1494 and 1496 by followers of the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In those years, Savonarola's disciples, called piagnoni or "snivelers" owing to their weepy acts of repentance, set huge bonfires of the vanities, lit to purge a society as devoted to its own version of conspicuous consumption as our own. Some of Botticelli's more licentious--that is, mythological--paintings were apparently flung into the flames along with jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, and frivolous books; and he has sometimes been identified as a piagnone himself. In any case, he fell victim to religious fanaticism, at least until the day when Savonarola's power-lust came to be seen as a vanity in its own right and the Florentines lit another refining fire in their main piazza, this time for the Dominican demagogue and two of his associates. (Another victim of religious zeal was Botticelli's near contemporary the great German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, whose hands would be broken by Lutheran fanatics--but sixteenth-century Nuremberg was swept away by events in the twentieth century as sixteenth-century Florence was not, and Riemenschneider's adversaries were not punished so neatly.)

For the authors of The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, Botticelli's combination of lucid form and riddling content speaks of initiation into higher truths about humanity and civility, truths rooted in the traditions of Greece and Rome at the dawn of Western civilization, and transmitted secretly down the centuries. Thrillers, after all, thrive on secrecy, on the distinction between appearance and reality. Their most successful recent incarnation was as Cold War spy novels; and writers of thrillers, like their readers, are still searching a post-communist world for the next set of black-and-white certainties.

CHRISTIANITY, ANOTHER ESSENTIAL component of Western civilization, appears in a more ambiguous light. The Da Vinci Code centers on a secret cache of documents, guarded by a secret sect of adepts, that, if revealed, would bring down the Church--in this novel meaning Roman Catholicism--by documenting that Jesus had not died on the cross and been resurrected from the dead, but instead had moved to France with his wife Mary Magdalene to found the Merovingian dynasty of French kings and to keep alive a series of pagan mysteries that included ritual sex and cultivation of what the book's characters call, with striking pedantry, "the sacred feminine." (This complex of beliefs seems to consist of the Mutterrecht of the nineteenth-century mythographer Bachofen strained through the sieve of the present-day New Age goddess cult).

The Da Vinci Code would have us believe that the descendants of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their distant scion King Clovis have been guarded since ancient Roman times by a knightly group called the Priory of Sion, whose grand masters seem to have been exclusively French except for two fifteenth-century Florentines, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom are said by Dan Brown to have left hints about this secret stewardship in their paintings. The evidence that he supplies for their membership in this French confraternity is so superficial that even a drowsy traveler engrossed in the action can swallow it without a thought--or without a look at an actual painting. Brown's best-known assertions in this regard have to do with Leonardo's Last Supper. Through the conversations of his characters (who exist more to spout instructive "facts" than to converse), Brown identifies the figure to the right of Jesus (the figure to our left) in this great, ruined fresco as Mary Magdalene, who is, according to his own claims, the wife of Christ. On the basis of this assertion, Brown claims that Jesus and his consort spell out a gigantic M with their arms and bodies. The V-shape of the space between them is presumed to refer to Mary Magdalene's womb, the figurative chalice that is the real Holy Grail, and the prime example in Western tradition of the sacred feminine.

The problem with this ad hoc iconography is that readers of The Da Vinci Code may come to believe that by accepting the conventionally flimsy premises of a thriller plot, they have learned something about Leonardo and his art. Brown encourages this delusion by professing at the beginning of his book that what he says is true. But in this claim, as in the rest of his narrative, he is writing fiction. As the Bible makes plain, Leonardo's blond bombshell is a man, the "Beloved Disciple" who has been resting in his Lord's bosom, identified by immemorial Christian tradition as the apostle John. Leonardo's portrayal of the Beloved Disciple as an attractive young blond fits right into the conventions of every other Last Supper painted in Italy in his generation. Given the villainous perversity of Brown's gay characters, all of them devoutly Catholic (the corrupt cardinal and his catamite-driver, the hit man from Opus Dei), one wonders what it is that really drives him to perform a sex change on the Beloved Disciple as embodied in Leonardo's admittedly androgynous youth. For Leonardo's famous sfumato, or "smoke effect," extends beyond the modeling of his figures to the very ambiguity of their being.

The fresco of the Last Supper once dominated one end of the dining room, or refectory, of a religious community in Milan, reminding the friars that through their faith they transformed every meal into a last supper in the presence of Jesus. There are profound historical and spiritual connections between ancient Greco-Roman sacrificial ritual and the sacrifice of the Jewish Passover, both of which together informed early Christian ritual; but what Leonardo chooses as the focus for his own version of the story is a human drama. He depicts this Passover meal at the moment just after Jesus has announced that one of his twelve disciples will betray him that night. Jesus lets the terrible news settle in with an expression of calm resignation, suffused with an infinite sadness that can still be seen through the painting's ravaged surface. (Leonardo, as often, had tried a new technique in this painting, and it failed to improve on the old, painstaking traditional method.) Saint Peter, hand pointed to his chest, has shot up from the table and is crying, "Who, me?" The Beloved Disciple, who has been leaning against Jesus up to now, has pulled back, faint with horror: "Not I!"

Leonardo is showing us, as he showed those Milanese friars five hundred years ago, that terror jolts us all into stark solitude. The friars would have recognized that they, too, should stand on guard against the complacency, the human weakness, that might lead them to betray their own faith in their Lord. Meanwhile, of course, Judas Iscariot has already turned his friend over for thirty pieces of silver; and Leonardo shows the guilt-ridden informer knocking over the saltcellar, the most precious object on the table. It takes more than a human spell-out ("M" is for Magdalene, "V" is for ... viscera?) to convey the dark ambiguities that stand at the heart of Leonardo's great picture.

Along with its occasional forays into art history lite, The Da Vinci Code introduces us to the Priory of Sion's most recent grand master, whose profession is director of the Louvre, at least until his murder at the very beginning of the book. This excellent Frenchman had worked, in other words, right in front of the Leonardos and Botticellis that will gradually disclose his secret life as a hierophant of the sacred feminine to the thriller's protagonists, and to its readers. The dramatic manner of his death shows how well versed he has been in the Last Supper's alphabetic arcane: bleeding to death from a gunshot wound inflicted in one of the museum's galleries, he strips naked, writes a pentagram on his belly, scrawls secret messages in fluorescent pen, and then arranges himself in the pose of a famous Leonardo drawing. The Frenchman's presence of mind--and absence of incapacitating pain-- is plausible only according to the loose logic of pulp fiction.

THE RULE OF FOUR also involves a secret hoard, which, like the sacred feminine in The Da Vinci Code, has been threatened with suppression by the Church. This time the Church is circumscribed to the time and the person of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, although the secrets targeted for suppression once again include pagan rites and abundant sex, once again hinted at by a litter of clues in Botticelli's paintings. (But then how many secrets do not involve wild sex and pagan rites, from Euripides's Bacchae to Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"?) The key that enables the protagonist of The Rule of Four to unlock these "pagan mysteries in the Renaissance" (to borrow a phrase from the great scholar Edgar Wind) lies in a dense, beautifully illustrated novel called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real book that was published in 1499, although one less impossibly rare than the young authors of this thriller imply.

The chapter headings of the Hypnerotomachia spell out a curious acrostic that has puzzled everyone who discerns it: "Francesco Colonna Loved Polia Very Much." (Who was he? Who was she? Scholars still do not know for sure.) Working from this genuine premise, the authors suppose that the mysterious work hides a whole series of secret messages, each disguised by a different kind of fifteenth-century code. As deciphered by the novel's present-day protagonists, the messages add up to a ciphered cry for help from Francesco Colonna to his fifteenth-century readers: Savonarola and the snivelers are closing in on him. Never mind that Savonarola was incinerated a good three years before the Hypnerotomachia's publication. The plot of The Rule of Four thus exploits the Hypnerotomachia's most salient quality (after its marvelously sensuous illustrations, some of them reproduced in The Rule of Four): its nearly impenetrable prose, which from the beginning has either fascinated or repelled readers. Those who have soldiered on through Francesco Colonna's dense jungle of strange adjectives and slow, slow action have often read deep meaning into the text, while others, such as the sixteenth-century jurist Antonio Agustin, stopped at the sexy pictures. One disgusted reader in the sixteenth century put a warning in the flyleaf of a copy of the book now preserved in the Vatican Library: "it's a boring novel of sorts." But the pictures are not boring in the least.

Which is why the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili looks like such prime material for hiding secret messages. Nobody would write like Francesco Colonna if they could help it, including Colonna himself. The book sold poorly. But then he used "elephantine" to describe a nymph's ivory-pale leg. He called Ionic columns Doric. He was trying very hard to write a beautiful and mysterious novel, so hard that the metaphorical drops of sweat plop large on every page and we seem to hear the author's indecorous groans as he strains to reach for another arcane metaphor. In the meantime, The Rule of Four spices the code- breaking by making it a competition among various species of cultural fauna: the drunken Princeton professor, the suave New York art dealer, the obsessive Midwestern bookseller, the obsessive undergraduate on scholarship, the graduate student (whose obsessiveness goes without saying). It often seems as if the characters' behavior is driven less by curiosity about a five-hundred-year-old steamy novel than by an immanent preoccupation with wealth and status, symbolized by membership in those Princeton eating clubs whose rites of passage may be as opaque to outsiders as the ponderous prose of the Hypnerotomachia.

Thrillers are a conservative genre. Thrillers are a conservative genre. Like Greek tragedies and murder mysteries, they upset society's balance in order to right it, and to re-affirm it in the righting. Like Wagner's operas, they keep an unresolved chord going for hours just to set up the sheer biological joy of its final resolution. A good thriller must provide comfort after the thrill. Many people have read The Da Vinci Code while riding on airplanes, senses irked into a state of low-grade discomfort and dulled by oxygen deprivation, dehydration, and slipping time zones. The characters in a thriller should not grab them too insistently or they will weep into their chicken Chernobyl; the plot must obey only the logic of the jet-lagged, and no suggestion of philosophical anarchy should threaten to bring down the premises by which airline passengers continue to believe that lift plus thrust will keep them airborne to their destination.

Thus The Da Vinci Code may threaten to bring down the Church, but its heroes hail from other safe bastions of civilization: the Louvre, Harvard, and the police, whose members act with courage and ingenuity to keep civilization secure for ourselves and our descendants. At the same time, we learn that Leonardo and Botticelli have been sending out their own beacon of civility from Renaissance Florence, under the approving gaze of the Medici. Indeed, despite some close calls, the Church itself survives the conniving of The Da Vinci Code's gay villains, both the corrupt cardinal and the hit man from the powerful and very real Catholic organization called Opus Dei. Dan Brown's most daring move is to insert a topical twist into the novel: a new pope, the successor to John Paul II, deprives Opus Dei of the favor that it enjoys in our own world under the present papacy and sets Catholicism on a new, liberal course. Now that is real re-affirmation of the social order! Quietly, all the while, the dynasty founded by Jesus and Mary Magdalene is revealed to have lived on from generation to generation, lovingly watched over by the Priory of Sion; and only a churl would note that some two and a half centuries ago the French decided to consign the divine right of kings to the guillotine.

YET IF IT is the thriller's place to comfort souls in transit, so, too, it is the scholar's pleasure to take potshots at pretensions to historical truth in potboilers or on screen--to point out with stolid glee that, say, every fresco in Gladiator does not in fact need to look as if it had gone through the eruption of Vesuvius, that Roman army generals in the field were unlikely to tote around marble busts of family members, and that pitching catapults against trees is a waste of good shot (ancient war machines were designed to knock down city walls). Only this kind of unregenerate stickler, perhaps, would wonder what precisely the Priory of Sion's incriminating documents were written on, papyrus or parchment, and what kind of bureaucrat drafted them for what kind of archive; or insist that "Da Vinci" is the one thing Leonardo would never have been called in his lifetime, any more than "Of Arc" was Joan's surname. At the same time, scholarly sticklers are precisely the sorts of people that The Da Vinci Code praises for working (as the book might put it in characteristic breathless italics) in the Vatican Secret Archives, the most exclusive archives in the world! One of these indefatigable pedants even gets to be the book's hero. Pedantry aside, The Da Vinci Code's jet-lag logic also raises some more serious questions. It is difficult--no, impossible--to look upon the novel's bucolic ending, as the latter-day spawn of Jesus and Mary Magdalene fade into a Scottish sunset, without noting, like the filthy anarcho-syndicalist peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that the world no longer stands in need of sacred kingship, male or female. "I am Arthur, your king," intones Graham Chapman's Arthur in that excellent film, to which the peasants cackle: "I thought we were an autonomous collective!" Long before the advent of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, from which The Da Vinci Code draws a good deal of its lore about Mary Magdalene and the Children of Jesus, Monty Python had already connected the Holy Grail to a gaggle of beautiful, lascivious women, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek; and it is hard to read some passages of The Da Vinci Code without thinking of Michael Palin as Galahad stumbling into the seraglio as the ladies berate their queen: "Oh, naughty, naughty Zoot! Time for a spanking!"

As the Pythons recognized, it is one thing to postulate a sect of divine kings in a society that includes Crusades and Knights Templar among its features, but the bloom has long since left that medieval rose, and as the final sentence in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili observes, "a withered rose will never live again." The Da Vinci Code should be taken for what it is: modest balm for convalescents, insomniacs, and jet travelers. It is certainly not in any real way about the people, the places, or the ideas that it uses for its story--though if, like the now-defunct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles called Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, it sparks interest in the realities of those excellent artists, it will have performed a mighty work.

The Rule of Four nurtures higher ambitions; unlike The Da Vinci Code, whose Harvard professor gives off only the sparest scent of the Charles River, the book is deeply rooted in another bastion of Western civilization, Princeton University, whose tortuous undergraduate rituals take on much greater reality than the putative secrets of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. In fact, the book is mostly about Princeton: about getting into your eating club, writing your senior thesis, hooking up with a partner, with an evanescent gust of Florence to shiver the clinging ivy. One wonders what would have happened if The Da Vinci Code or The Rule of Four had been set at, say, Michigan State or California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where human thought has been known to occur, and, some would assert, the institutions carry out a civilizing influence. Yet all too evidently, as these authors suggest, Western civilization, despite its name, stopped dead somewhere around Philadelphia. There is as much courtly bowing and scraping in The Rule of Four as there is in Rigoletto, without Verdi's thrilling outrage that grown men must look on in patient silence while spoiled young men disgrace themselves.

The Rule of Four is clearly a more learned thriller than The Da Vinci Code. It has real local detail and puzzles too intricate to solve mentally from an airplane seat. (Indeed, some of the puzzles cannot be solved at all, as they are fictitious.) For this intellectual complexity, The Rule of Four belongs to the same genre of action writing as Foucault's Pendulum, although Umberto Eco's novel is even more learned and much more clever, proving as it does that conspiracy theories eventually create their own reality, a theory that has since been proved prophetic by the new-forged "link" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Foucault's Pendulum and The Rule of Four also share, unwittingly, a cultural arrogance that has always been the besetting flaw of most civilized traditions. After all, life and learning for most of human history have also happened outside Princeton, outside Florence, outside Umberto Eco's personal library, and without benefit of Y chromosomes--but you would never know it from this reading list.

Like Leonardo's Last Supper, The Rule of Four takes place over Easter, a season that began at the Passover seder. It is part of the essential conservatism of thrillers that both The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four still feel the need to dabble in religion without confronting it except as a murky paganism or a neatly symbolic way to mark time. (Foucault's Pendulum makes a similarly obligatory descent on one occasion into Brazilian Santera.) But religion will not be bought off so cheaply.

In August 1427, nearly seventy years before Girolamo Savonarola started spitting fire in Florence, a skinny, toothless Franciscan preacher named Bernardino da Siena delivered a sermon to a crowd packed into the Campo, Siena's gracefully sloping public square. A local weaver took down the sermon verbatim, as he had every day since Bernardino began preaching on August 15. "I have a relic today," the famous preacher announced. "It's not the arm of Saint Bartholomew, or the Virgin's sleeve; it's something much better. In fact, it comes straight from Jesus Christ Himself, and there's enough for every one of you." Even reading between the lines, you can feel the crowd's excitement at obtaining a piece of the Lord, and the way Bernardino stokes this excitement, drawing out the suspense to a pitch of high anxiety. When the tension seems unbearable, he finally cries out, "It's the Gospel!" And the crowd groans in disappointment. The weaver records their roar, and Bernardino's reply. "Oh, oh, oh, oh! O ye of little faith! You thought you would get an easy thing to carry around."

Bernardino knew how difficult the Gospels were to understand, and how difficult an enterprise it was to transform their teachings into a way of life. He spent his own life trying to make their meaning plainer to ordinary people like the burghers of Siena, in sermons that provide a fascinating mix of religious dedication, compassion, and bigotry, delivered with a homespun eloquence that drew from his refined literary education as well as his years on the road. Bernardino shows that it is the difficulty of the Gospels, not their simplicity, that made them so fascinating, and so compelling: the fact that only believers ever saw the resurrected Jesus, the impossibility of understanding how a human being could also be God, the way in which women had played an indispensable part in creating the story of Jesus and in spreading it.

The Gospels were as demanding in the fifteenth century as they had been in the first, with their threats to overturn society and to transform souls, and they remain the single most reliable key to Italian Renaissance art. They are the real Da Vinci Code, and at this hard, simple news the people will groan with the same disappointment as Bernardino's public all those centuries ago. (This is the point of the Protestant Darrel L. Bock's Breaking the Da Vinci Code, a book whose introduction is written by a Catholic.) Disappointment or no, the best guide to understanding Leonardo's Last Supper remains Bernardino's relic, for Leonardo surely began with the Gospel accounts of that portentous Passover meal in Roman-occupied Judaea when he formulated his composition, as did Andrea del Castagno before him and Caravaggio afterward. The secrets that this ancient story hides are the boundless promise and unfathomable frailties of human nature, the mixture of loyalty and treachery that we all share, the real mysteries that confront us.

These are the secrets that underpinned the apparent paganism of Botticelli's mythological allegories as well as his religious subjects (the Birth of Venus and the Primavera are also probably paintings about the Virgin Mary) and the friar's tale that is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Indeed, it was the very mixture of ancient fertility with Jewish mysticism and the Christian tale of resurrection that gave the Renaissance its beauty, and such civility as it mustered. Not necessarily stuff for an airplane journey or a convalescence, but nonetheless excellent sustenance for a sound mind and body.

The most compelling recent historical novel about religious strife in the Renaissance is a large novel called Q, written by a group of Italians who called themselves "Luther Blissett" for that occasion and are now known as "Wu Ming." (Like Monty Python's peasants, they actually are an autonomous collective.) If we really want to see what happens when religion drives believers to extremes, it is hard to do better than this vivid, terrifying portrait of a survivor of the Protestant Reformation, who travels through Europe watching societies, personalities, and every tie of civility breaking down as otherworldly certainties compel people to commit appalling acts in the here and now. The characters in Q bleed real blood, blood that was still soaking Europe in the trenches of World War I, and the firestorms of World War II.

Once again the tale revolves around a secret, but in Q it is a secret in the good old tradition of the Cold War novel: the secret of our own nature, at once so angelic and so diabolical, and so eternally out of control. Like The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, Q has clearly been written in response to the tumults of our age, but it suggests, unlike those books, that there is no secret code to make everything right. Instead, like Bernardino's Gospel, the answers to our woes lie plain before us, accessible to all, as they have always been: the arts of coexistence, complicated, controversial, and requiring not a code-breaker's insight but a citizen's constant vigilance, laced with a Good Samaritan's instinctive compassion.