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The Secret Supper Hardcover – March 21, 2006
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The Da Vinci juggernaut rolls on, this time in the capable hands of a bestselling author in the Spanish-speaking world. The Secret Supper has been ably translated by Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading, that delightful revelation that squiggles on a page are words, and words make stories. Set in 1497 Milan, at the time of the painting of the Cenacolo, or The Last Supper, in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Sierra has created a tale of religious fanaticism, betrayal, murder, Church politics, artistic chicanery and mystery to confound the reader.
Fra Agostino Leyre, a Papal Inquisitor, is sent to Milan to confirm--or not--the messages of the "Soothsayer," who alleges that Leonardo Da Vinci is a heretic and has hidden heretical messages in his painting of The Last Supper. Leonardo is a figure larger than life, literally. A blue-eyed, tall, handsome man, always dressed in white, he is surrounded by faithful students and friends who are his acolytes. His brilliant mind, ranging over a multitude of ideas, has gained him a reputation for "hiding heterodox ideas in paintings apparently pious."
What Father Agostino follows is a labyrinthine path through alliances and rivalries, differences of opinion about Leonardo and a discussion of the heresy of the Cathars. They are a fascinating sect, more extra-Christianity than Christian heretics. Their practices are based on a belief that certain deprivations--primarily food and sex--will purify and make them worthy. Sierra is a very fine guide, taking the reader through palaces and monasteries rife with intrigue and typical of the flowering of intellect that came after the Dark Ages. It is a time when "Suddenly, from one day to the next, Plato's Greece, Cleopatra's Egypt and even the extravagant curiosities of the Chinese Empire that Marco Polo discovered seemed to deserve greater praise than our own Scriptural stories." Dangerous for the incumbency.
A compelling case is made that Leonardo's heretical beliefs are there for all to see in The Last Supper, if only we know how to find them. Sierra gives us the key--and keeps the suspense going right up to the end of the book. It isn't necessary to believe any of it, or even care if it's true, to enjoy this pilgrimage through another time and place. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Set in the late 15th century, Sierra's first book translated into English revolves around a papal inquisitor's investigation into Leonardo da Vinci's alleged heresies and offers a new way of interpreting The Last Supper. After receiving a series of cryptic messages from "the Soothsayer," who warns the 15th century church that "art can be employed as a weapon," the Secretariat of Keys of the Papal States dispatches Father Agostino Leyre on a twofold mission to Milan: identify the Soothsayer and discover what, if any, messages da Vinci is hiding in the painting. Leyre, who narrates, views the in-progress Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie and becomes fascinated. He makes a series of sometimes muddled discoveries about the painting, leading up to his interpretation of the painting's true meaning (not revealed until the last line of the last page). Those not well versed in Catholic history may have trouble following the many subplots involving factionalism and dissent within the church. The combination of code breaking, secrecy, chicanery within the Catholic Church and a certain artist is by now a familiar one, but Sierra's book, already a bestseller in Europe, is a fresh contribution to the da Vinci industry. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Leonardo da Vinci is completing his painting on a wall at the Santa Maria Monastery in Milan, so it can't be moved or changed, while the Church is trying to decode his "blasphemous" message, which introduces the spiritual church replacing the
temporal church and all its controls. The interesting history and practices of the Cathars is woven into
the story. Also, after reading this book you will want to have the painting to study. I ordered mine,
a 30x40 of the original painting from Great Big Canvas as a decal, so I could attach it to my wall for the
proper effect, making sure to have the one with the knot on the tablecloth. After reading this story,
and listening to the DVD (my favorite version) you will never look at this painting in the same way.
Saying that, I was disappointed in this book.
Brief summary, no spoiler:
This is the story of Agostino Leyre, a Papal Inquisitor who is telling the story of his assignment to investigate Leonardo DaVinci, and his painting of The Last Supper (the Cenacolo).
This was a time of religious intrigue and violence, and anyone who opposed the Catholic Church was deemed a heretic and subject to horrible punishment. In order to express their beliefs, many artists used symbols in their works, both as messages to their followers and future audiences.
This book does a good job of explaining some of the mysteries surrounding the Last Supper. You learn a lot about the Cathars, and about what life was like in the time of DaVinci.
However, perhaps partly because this is a translation, I found this book slow-going. I had to push myself to finish, even though I was curious how Sierra was going to resolve his "puzzle".
I ended up thinking that Sierra gives an interesting and enlightening interpretation of what he believes DaVinci was trying to say in his masterpiece; but the puzzle was very convoluted and there is no way the reader could've figured it out on his own.
Overall, I am glad I read this book. I learned a lot. But I was often bored, and thought the hype surrounding this book didn't serve it well.
Recommended for those who enjoyed the DaVinci Code. This book's denouement is just as clever, if not more so - but the ride getting there isn't nearly as much fun.
The first few chapters are not the smoothest stylistically, and I kept wondering what it would been like in the original Spanish, but somewhere around the third chapter, things start to kick in and the plot takes over.
While I always thought that Brown was taking me for a joy-ride, I became convinced that Sierra actually was drawing on some historical foundation for his interpretation of the Last Supper. His depiction of Leonardo was particularly persuasive.
A good summer read.