It is somewhat shameful to admit this, but I have never read The Da Vinci Code. In fact, I have not read any of Dan Brown’s books. Maybe this is even worse, but rather than taking the time to read the novel, I have watched the 2006 film starring Tom Hanks. While fans of the book criticize the movie for its excessive length and Hanks’ awkward haircut, Dan Brown’s controversial drama captivated me on big screen. With the mystery revolving around the Mona Lisa and the controversy of a potential cover-up by the Catholic Church, the plot appeals to fans of theology and Renaissance art alike.
Despite that I knew I was coming to Europe for the semester, I never found the time to read Dan Brown’s bestseller. Even so, having watched the film, I anticipated the chance to visit the landmarks and see the works of art that inspired the author. My first opportunity to follow in the steps of the fictitious Professor Langdon came in early February when the Villa sponsored a weekend trip to Rome. Perhaps the most prominent Da Vinci Code visit of the weekend was spent exploring Vatican City. Although no scenes in the film are set in the independent state, the center of the Catholic Church acts as a prominent character in the plot line.
Fans of the book or the film know that the story concerns the Vatican’s alleged cover-up about Jesus Christ’s relationship with Mary Magdalene. Looking to prevent the secret society of the Priory de Sion from exposing this blasphemous revelation, a monk of the Catholic organization Opus Dei kills the Priory’s leader, thus serving as the catalyst for Professor Langdon’s European adventure. Even if there are no shots of the Vatican in the film, the many references to it and the Catholic Church immediately conjure up images of the pope, cardinals, and St. Peter’s Basilica.
While I was in Rome, I was fortunate to tour the Necropolis underneath St. Peter’s. The basilica was built on a pagan burial site, so the tour allows privileged guests the opportunity to see some of the centuries-old tombs, including the original site of St. Peter’s tomb. As I learned the history of the Vatican and saw the tombs of the popes past, I felt like Professor Langdon, wondering what secrets the Catholic dignitaries might have taken to their graves…
After the Vatican, it was on to another landmark in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria. This location is not mentioned in the Da Vinci Code, but rather in its predecessor, Angels and Demons. A visit to the church is worthwhile because it is home to one of the more controversial works of the Renaissance, Gian Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. In the novel, the sculpture is recognized as the third “altar of science” for the Illuminati group. While this idea is contentious, the statue has long been the subject of much debate. The Bernini masterpiece depicts St. Teresa’s encounter with an angel, which she details in her autobiography:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
The controversy surrounding the marble is whether Bernini chose to depict a moment of religious/spiritual ecstasy or physical/sexual ecstasy. In the book, Professor Langdon appears to favor the latter, saying that the saint is “on her back in the throes of a toe-curling orgasm.” While one can never be certain if Bernini intended to present an image of lust and sexual pleasure, the statue is overwhelmingly beautiful and exemplary of Italian Baroque art.
After Rome, my travels took me to the capital of France to explore the city of love, Paris. Of course, the main Parisian site to visit is the showcase of works by the book’s namesake, Leonardo Da Vinci, at the renowned Louvre Museum. Though home to some of the world’s most breathtaking and revolutionary pieces of art, the museum itself is a construction of genius and beauty. Fans of the book will remember that the museum’s architectural pyramids play a critical role in the conclusion, for it is in one of the small pyramids built into the ground of the museum that Langdon believes is the hiding place of the Holy Grail.
Spanning more than 60,000 square meters and displaying more than 35,000 items, the Louvre is important to Dan Brown’s novel because of its exhibition of The Mona Lisa and Madonna on the Rocks. Both pieces reflect da Vinci’s revolutionary style of painting and his great contribution to the Renaissance period. For Professor Langdon, the paintings hold the key (literally in the Madonna on the Rocks) to decoding the cryptic messages accompanying the murdered body that prompted the film’s action.
Among the Louvre’s 35,000 items, da Vinci’s works were my primary motivator for visiting the museum. The artist’s most recognizable work is the Mona Lisa, and considering its enormous fame, the small scale of the composition often surprises viewers. Like the debate surrounding Bernini’s work, the Mona Lisa is the subject of many theories as historians attempt to uncover the identity of the female sitter. Regardless of who she was, Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile remain a beloved icon of the Renaissance.
The Madonna of the Rocks is also a stunning da Vinci piece, depicting the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel along with the baby Jesus and the infant John the Baptist. In his novel, Brown argues that Jesus is depicted as praying to John, while Mary cradles an invisible phantom head that the angel slices at the neck. According to Brown, such details are the reasons why a second painting depicting the same scene was later commissioned.
Notably, the second copy of the Madonna of the Rocks is housed in the National Gallery of Art in London, and this city was the last leg of my Da Vinci Code tour. During my weekend rendezvous in the British capital, I walked by the site of Isaac Newton’s tomb at Westminster Abbey. His tomb was an important stop on Langdon’s journey to discover the Holy Grail. Though I went on another tour based on a book while in the city, Westminster was my only London stop as part of this unofficial expedition. Unfortunately amidst the rain and seeing Big Ben, there was no time available to visit the other prominent London site, Temple Church.
So while my time in Europe is coming to a fast conclusion and I have not seen all of the landmarks in Dan Brown’s work, the decoding will continue as I live in Washington, D.C. for the summer and attempt to follow in Professor Langdon’s footsteps of in The Da Vinci Code sequel, The Lost Symbol.