Q: You’ve written several historical novels in addition to The Secret Supper. What appeals to you about blending fact and fiction?
A: Before writing my first novel, I published two nonfiction books about historical and scientific mysteries. I did my best with them to reveal unexplained facts to my readers, but to be honest with you, I could not propose answers to those mysteries without entering the dangerous field of speculation. With literature, things are essentially different: I can use facts as a sound basis for my novels, and my imagination to explain those unsolved mysteries that historians cannot clarify for themselves. That is just what I did with The Secret Supper.
Q: How do you strike a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and taking liberties to make the story original and interesting?
A: One of the difficult tasks in my documentation work is to locate what I call the "black holes" of history. Those are intriguing facts -- controversial, not at all explained or clarified by the experts, but absolutely real and often full of wonderful details -– which I use to develop a story. I always first try to do an accurate description of the facts, and then suggest a new interpretation for them, based on personal beliefs of the characters never studied by the historians. Like millions of people around the world, I am sure that many of the "official versions" of history that we study in school are, to say the least, questionable. Researching historical mysteries allows me more freedom and independence of thought, enabling me to build my own criteria regarding what happened and to search for my own answers to the truth.
Q: When did you first become aware of the religious contradictions and enigmas in The Last Supper? What appealed to you about using this premise as the basis of a novel?
A: When I went to see The Last Supper in Milan, I was surprised because that painting was created as a sort of game of illusion for the human eye. Leonardo wanted to confound the observer by painting portraits of ordinary men, not saints. It was difficult for me to distinguish between what was actually on that wall at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and what should have been. What should have been painted was a Holy Grail, or the Eucharist in the hands of Jesus, or lamb on the table...but none of these were there! That was the moment when I discovered the story I would write about.
Q: Are any of Leonardo da Vinci's other works believed (like The Last Supper) to contain hidden symbolism? If so, can you provide an example? Are other artists also thought to have done this?
A: Yes, of course. For example, while painting The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo used a forbidden book entitled Apocalipsis Nova as his main source of information. It was written by a heretical Franciscan monk called Amadeo de Portugal, and in it he explained that the main characters of the New Testament were the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, not Jesus. And that’s exactly what Leonardo painted in The Virgin of the Rocks. The hidden symbolism of that painting is connected with Amadeo’s heretical treatise.
This evidence taught me that Leonardo was open to heretical ideas and that he even obtained forbidden books of his time.
Q: What was your reaction when you first saw The Last Supper? Did it seem, as Father Agostino states in the book, as if it "breathed life"?
A: Absolutely. Leonardo painted The Last Supper to suggest to the viewer that he was seeing a real scene. Everything in the painting has to do with the place where the mural is. The light, for example, was painted as it was entering through the windows of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in that precise moment. The tablecloth and the dishes in the painting are the same as those used in the fifteenth century by the friars there...Leonardo wanted to paint not a sacred scene, but a real, almost a physical one. I am convinced that The Last Supper was a first attempt to create what we today would call a "virtual reality."
Q: Are the details you use to describe Leonardo Da Vinci—writing from right to left, always wearing white, never eating meat—based on historical fact? What documented evidence is there that Leonardo da Vinci was a Cathar?
A: None! There is not a single document which states that Leonardo was a Cathar. And for sure he wasn´t. What I think is that Leonardo sympathized with those persecuted last Cathars who take refuge in Concorezzo, a little village close to Milan. Many of the ideas of the Cathars were appealing to Leonardo, such as their fight against the Pope. The Cathars considered the Pope to be the real traitor to the spiritual message of Jesus. And if you pay attention to The Last Supper, it is easy to see how Leonardo deliberately confused the portraits of Judas and Peter, suggesting that Peter (that is to say, the Pope) was the real traitor in Jesus’s statement, "One of you will betray me."
About Leonardo, it is true that he refused to eat meat, like the Cathars, and even dressed in white, like some of them.
Q: What can you tell us about the myth surrounding the Pope Joan tarot card?
A: It is accepted that the Cathars were probably the creators of the first tarot deck. It was designed not for purposes of divination, but for purposes of instruction. During the Middle Ages, in the area of Southern France where the Cathar influence was strong, there were "troubadours" who used cards and designs to tell others their stories. The tarot cards were used as a tool to teach unorthodox ideas to the people. And the Pope Joan card was one of the most powerful of that deck. It showed that a woman could be also a minister of God, a priest—something that the Cathars accepted, but not the Vatican.
Q: Oliverio Jacaranda is an antiquarian dealer whose "work consists of rescuing from oblivion those things that our ancestors left beneath the earth" (171). Is there evidence that the recovery and sale of antiquities was in fact facilitated during this time? Could people like Jacaranda be considered archaeologists of a sort?
A: The rescue of antiquities started shortly before Jarcaranda's time. During the fourteenth century, the inhabitants of Rome noticed that those old stones that they could see everywhere in the city were of great value. They started to rescue statues, columns, inscriptions of the Roman Empire and even ancient Egyptian obelisks, surprised at what they believed were the remains of a lost "Golden Age" of humanity. And some artists began to imitate those wonders. It was the first step into the Renaissance. Later on, the translation of lost books received from Greece and Egypt did the rest. In a way, all of these people could be considered "archaeologists of culture," in that they brought back to life the classical teachings of the remote past.
Q: You have stated that you were inspired by Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, in which he makes use of historical and rare books as part of the storyline. In what ways is this reflected in The Secret Supper?
A: In the way that all the bibliographical references mentioned in The Secret Supper are absolutely real. The key information in my novel is based on facts: the Cathar movement was a real one; disciplines such as "the Art of Memory" were also real. And books like Apocalipsis Nova or Da Varagine’s The Golden Legend existed, and were very influential in their time. Umberto Eco was the first novelist to widely use these kinds of real references.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Secret Supper?
A: They will learn for certain that art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance could be read. Art was then not just an aesthetic matter, but a way to communicate political and religious ideas, secrets or beliefs. I offer in The Secret Supper a code to read not only Leonardo’s works, but other masterpieces of the Renaissance. How can someone then avoid the temptation of applying such reading to other works of art?
Q: When you wrote The Secret Supper, did you expect it to become the international phenomenon it has, published in more than 30 countries? Has anything about readers' responses surprised you?
A: When I finished my work on The Secret Supper, I thought: "This novel works like a Swiss clock, with everything in its exact place," but that was all. I never imagined the success it would have, although I was sure that the secret revealed in my book would be of interest to the world.
Q: What is your next project? Are you writing another book?A: To be precise, I am researching for my next book. While working on the promotion of The Secret Supper, I am studying Near East history for my next project. I want to solve another old and intriguing mystery...But I should keep it secret, for the moment!