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The Secret Supper: A Novel
ISBN 0743287657 / 9780743287654 / 0-7432-8765-7
Publisher Washington Square Press
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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 [via]