Many American readers are busy these days solving puzzles and looking for hidden meanings in world famous works of art. The reason is a new suspense thriller called "The Da Vinci Code" that's been leading U.S. best seller lists since it was published a few weeks ago. Dan Brown's father was a mathematician, and his mother was a specialist in sacred music. He says both codebreaking and religion were part of his childhood, and both have played prominent roles in his thrillers. His three previous novels dealt with codes and riddles in settings as varied as the U.S. National Security Agency and Vatican City.
In his latest book, cryptic messages are buried in art works and architecture across Europe. "This has been a book many years in the making. I studied art history in Spain at the University of Seville. And one day our professor began the class by showing us the painting of The Last Supper, the famous fresco by da Vinci," he says. "And he began pointing out strange anomalies in the painting that I'd never seen, things like a disembodied hand clutching a dagger, and some other mysteries I won't mention here for fear of ruining the book. But I became fascinated, and knew at some point I would write a book about da Vinci."
The hero of The Da Vinci Code is Robert Langdon, a Harvard University symbologist, or expert on symbols. While on a business trip in Paris, he gets a late night call summoning him to the Louvre Museum. The museum's chief curator has been found murdered, lying flat on his back, with arms and legs outstretched. "Which Langdon, being a religious iconographer and somebody who knows a lot about art history recognizes as The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, the famous anatomically correct drawing we see on mouse pads and screen savers all over the place," says Mr. Brown. "And next to his body are scrawled some strange numbers and symbols, which Langdon deciphers. And they lead to a very strange treasure hunt of da Vinci paintings in which there are hidden codes."
Robert Langdon soon becomes a suspect in the case himself, which also involves two real life religious societies. One has a secret to protect. It's the Priory of Sion, a covert brotherhood nearly a thousand years old, whose illustrious members included Leonardo da Vinci, as well as scientist Sir Isaac Newton and writer Victor Hugo. Another group is seeking clues to those secrets. Its members belong to a conservative Roman Catholic organization called Opus Dei. The mystery dates back to the early days of Christianity, and the sinister intrigue that surrounds it has inspired complaints that the book is anti-Catholic or sacrilegious.
But Dan Brown says that wasn't his intention. "I'm fascinated with Christian history, and I wanted to build a thriller. It's a chase through Europe after the oldest and most famous and powerful secret that lives on today in popular culture," he says.
As characters close in on that secret, a new side of Leonardo da Vinci is also revealed. Dan Brown describes the Renaissance artist and scientist as someone who frequently created religious art, while quietly defying church authorities. "He had the unfortunate place in history of being born a modern man of reason in an age of religious fervor, when science was synonymous with heresy. But he really enjoyed his secrets. And his diaries, his paintings, his drawings, all contained hidden symbolic messages. Art historians probably know exactly what I'm talking about, but there's a reason the Mona Lisa has a smile. She's very amused at what is hidden in the painting," he says.
The Da Vinci Code also contains word games, math formulas and revelations about everything from the floor plan of the Louvre to the history behind familiar religious symbols. Dan Brown says he did all kinds of research to write his story. "The first place you start is Jean Chevalier's Dictionary of Symbols, which is just an enormous dictionary that tells us the origins of symbols that we see every day. And the example I think most people fixate on is the idea of the cruciform, the cross. When we see the symbol of the cross, most of us, Christian or non-Christian, think of a symbol of peace. And yet the word cruciform comes from the Italian 'cruciare,' which is 'to torture,' because it was a Roman torture device. And yet when a cross has equal arms, it is a symbol of peace. A cross built that way cannot possibly be used for torture," he says.
Dan Brown also traveled widely and interviewed art historians, scientists, and members of Opus Dei. He's now working on another novel featuring Robert Langdon. And since his hero specializes in symbols, Dan Brown believes he has enough material for many more exotic adventures. "There are so many ancient mysteries, there's so much about our past, that we don't understand. And clearly symbols--they're everywhere, whether you're talking about a swastika or the Nike swoosh. We live in a world of symbols, especially when you look at things like the Internet. We are learning to process information in new ways," he says. "And somebody who has a specialty in symbology doesn't necessarily just cater to those who want to know about the ancient mysteries. A symbologist or iconographer might be hired by a football expansion team or a corporation coming up with a new logo. Logos and symbols carry tremendous power."
While Dan Brown works on his next book, readers can keep solving Leonardo puzzles by logging on to the Internet at www.thedavincicode.com. Or they can go back to the original source. Dan Brown says some people have been spotted at the Louvre with his book in hand, taking an extra close look at Leonardo da Vinci's paintings.
The Da Vinci Code was published by Doubleday