The Da Vinci Code
Best seller by Dan Brown

This very popular bestseller has re-awakened an interest in Leonardo da Vinci all over the world.
But are we sure that everything written about Leonardo’s works is true?
The story is gripping and although it is fiction, it does refer to many real events.
Some of these references concern Leonardo and may mislead readers who may think that some or all of the material is factual.

1. Is it true that a murderer is hidden in the painting of the Last Supper?
2. Did Leonardo invent the Cryptex?

1. Is it true that a murderer is hidden in the painting of the Last Supper?
Perhaps not.

You can see the painting of the Last Supper in Milan, in the convent of S. Maria delle Grazie. The last restoration made it much brighter and “barer” than it was before. So much so that to see it as a whole, it’s easier to look at a printed reproduction.   Dan Brown referred to it in his novel "The Da Vinci Code” as proof of the fact that Leonardo wanted to send us a secret message. The apostle to the right of Christ has a somewhat feminine appearance and in the novel is described as Mary Magdalene.

1.1 Thirteen people at the table


1.2 But how many hands are there?


Here we have highlighted only the hands present in the fresco.   Like many others before him, Dan Brown quoted the legend based on the wrong number of hands. Look carefully and you’ll see that they all belong to their proper owners.

1.3 A table for thirteen, please!


Here we have highlighted each pair of hands and used a number to identify which of the 13 people they belong to.
1 Bartholomew, 2 James the Less, 3 Andrew, 4 Peter, 5 Judas, 6 John,
7 Jesus, 8 James the Great, 9 Thomas, 10 Philip, 11 Matthew, 12 Thaddeus and 13 Simon the Zealot.
  Where’s the mystery? Didn’t they say there were more hands than people? Look carefully and count again. They’re all there: Thomas has one of his hands immediately below James the Great’s left hand.

1.4 And what about Peter and John?


In this close-up we see two apostles who seem to be in conversation. Traditionally, these are understood to be Peter talking to John and putting his hand on his shoulder to reassure him.   Dan Brown implies that, in fact, Peter’s position, with a knife nearby and his hand on John’s neck, seems to mean he is saying something like, “Behave, or you’re dead!” But what if all it means is that Peter is saying, “Excuse me, but could you pass me that piece of bread over there?” What could be more natural than to have a knife in your hand when the table is covered with food?

1.5 Threatening or reassuring?


Peter is resting one hand on John’s shoulder to reassure him; his other hand, with the knife, is far away and anyway, at a table full of food, you would have a knife.   Dan Brown suggests that the position is threatening, but by the looks on their faces the apostles don’t seem to be nervous or terrified. On the contrary, they both look quite relaxed.

1.6 Preparatory studies


  Leonardo’s study for the Last Supper - Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice.
Preparation and digital composition of individual sketches.
Leonardo made many preparatory studies for his painting of the Last Supper. None of these show any sign of the mysterious and “dangerous” allegories or symbolism conjured up in Brown’s novel. The study of Da Vinci’s manuscripts is fascinating and he emerges as an even greater and more mysterious figure.
  The novel in question has the value of stimulating the curiosity of people who have never before had any interest in Leonardo, but such people must not be misled. The manuscripts are available to anyone who seriously wants to learn more and to study the real mysteries of this genius.

2 The Cryptex
Did Leonardo have a secret project?

These pictures represent the Cryptex, as described in the novel. Dan Brown writes that it was Leonardo da Vinci who had the idea of this miniature combination-lock strongbox. Indeed, the illustrated edition of the book includes a page from Leonardo’s manuscripts with a mechanism that appears to be similar to the one used for the Cryptex. The drawing in question is on a page from Manuscript B, folio 33 verso, to be precise. Leonardo’s design has nothing to do with the strongbox featured in the novel and there is no trace of this mechanism in the other Codices. So the author must have invented it. In fact, the drawings on this folio are: a means of wheeled transport, a cannon spindle and various mechanisms relating to a complex system with tip-up boxes of a size much larger than a lockable document box.


The page shown to readers of the novel is actually page 33v of Manuscript B. The machine described has nothing whatever to do with the Cryptex.

Manuscript B - folio 33 verso.

Leonardo’s drawings feature a great many more significant and mysterious mechanisms that deserve our attention: we would do well to study them closely. This is what L3 is all about. The fascination with the Cryptex and the confusion it has aroused is an indication of interest in a subject that should be approached with greater seriousness.

The design for the Cryptex is not by Leonardo.


The Cryptex described by Dan Brown is a little combination-lock strongbox for documents. It consists of a series of 5 rings set into a cylinder with a plug at the end. Each ring has a cut corresponding to a letter inscribed on the outside.
  If the rings are rotated so that the cuts/grooves are lined up, then the way is clear for the plug to be removed completely, revealing the contents of the hollow cylinder.

Mario Taddei (e-mail link)

via Monte Napoleone, 9
20121 Milano, Italy
T (+39) 02 79.41.81
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