Here we go again…

I have this on my desk at work

Another year, another extraordinary claim about poor old Leonardo. I picked this one up from Doubtful News, which quite frankly is a real goldmine for this blog. I’ve covered several instances of this in the past, including the ‘Last Supper’ debacle, which continues to bring most visitors to these pages (sadly).

The really obvious problem this time is that the painting is by no means certain to be Da Vinci’s. Until and unless it is authenticated as such, it’s pretty pointless to try to look for hidden meaning where there may well be none (even if it were a Leonardo). This is a practice that is fraught with difficulty in any case, as any ‘code’ would be indistinguishable from the false patterns one could read into just about any work of art (or natural feature, cloud, cheese sandwich, or book, for that matter).

If you need any more of a warning, the author of the new book (and yes, there’s a book to be sold, and no, it’s not written by an art historian), has serialised it with…you guessed it…the Daily Mail (purveyor of such stories as this).

The ‘similarities’ that they point out (here) are just that; artistic conventions of a certain style and period. I’m not an art historian either, but the second toe being longer than the first is a genetic trait, not just a Da Vinci one. It’s also another artistic convention dating to Classical times (check out Graeco-Roman statues – short winkies and long second toes are pretty much de rigeur). The fleur de lys is a massive red herring, since the Priory of Sion was essentially a hoax. The symbol itself is widely used outwith the ‘Priory’, and oh look, it’s one of the Virgin Mary’s symbols. Talk about cherry-picking meanings.

As for the rest, this is the Leonardo that the author/paper claim is so similar; see what you think. Note however that all of the specialists consulted are either pretty equivocal about it, or outright state that it may be Da Vinci’s school, but do not attribute it to the man himself. The ID of Mary Magdalene is suspect because the Madonna with baby Jesus and young John the Baptist is a massive trope of Christian art. How is this any different? Reminds me of the claims that the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel depicting plants and ‘green men’ are somehow definitively ‘pagan’, when in fact the natural world was important to Christians too. If you ignore the bigger picture, it’s easy to fool yourself into seeing significance where none exists.


More Hidden Music?

My scepticism as to the ‘hidden’ music of Rosslyn Chapel is well-documented. The same people have also tried to show hidden music in planets, plants, and even the DNA of customers. Now it’s the turn of artwork by, and you can probably guess this one, Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (not, as the Daily Record states, ‘The Musician’), and you can see the inscription of interest in this hires version of it.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s actually some musical notation on that piece of paper. However, there’s no actual claim in the article that they’ve managed to decipher it. They are ‘…working on trying to find a piece of music which fits…’. And we all know where fitting the facts to the evidence leads. We also know that these guys did not find the musical notes in question. They were uncovered in 1905 after restoration work, and have been plainly visible since.

Finally, there’s the claim that the first word (but not, apparently, the second) of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ appears backwards on the same part of the painting. All sources I could find state that the text reads ‘CANT. ANG.‘, for ‘Cantum Angelicum’, a work by the supposed subject of the painting, Franchino Gaffurio. Even if that interpretation is itself highly speculative, I can’t see the letters resolving into ‘AGNUS DEI’ any way you cut it. You can just make out the letters in this zoomable version of the painting, and this Wikimedia version. I thought I’d have a bash at mirroring it myself. Here’s the original;

You can see the large capital ‘C’, and then what has traditionally been read as ‘ant’, all one discrete word. There’s then a space, and a very clear capital ‘A’ followed by the ‘n’ of ‘ang’, with a horizontal line below. You can just barely make out the lower case ‘g’ that follows it (look for the tail in faded, brown ink if you’re struggling).

Now, here’s the mirrored version;

The only way in which I can see what they’re seeing is if I ignore what is now the first bit entirely, and take the ‘A’ as the first letter of ‘Agnus’, ignore the gap and then interpret the next letter as ‘G’ by ignoring the horizontal stroke of the ‘t’, keeping the ‘n’ but calling the ‘a’ a ‘u’, and then somehow taking the reversed ‘C’ as an enormous deformed ‘s’.

See what you can see.

Lawks-a-lordy, it’s more Da Vinci cobblers!

The Leonardo Da Vinci Memorial Publicity Machine just keeps cranking them out. He must have more posthumously released material than TuPac. In a quite stunningly unoriginal but nonetheless headline grabbing effort, another Italian “computer technician” (this time also a musician) has combined August’s claim of a hidden image in da Vinci’s Last Supper with the concept of hidden music as claimed for Rosslyn Chapel. In doing so, he’s made it easier to slip under the radar as “plausible” – even a museum keeper is quoted saying as much. Without either a critical approach to the claims or musical expertise (and even with the latter), one could be forgiven for thinking his claim is proven. But as the same museum chap points out,

“There’s always a risk of seeing something that is not there, but it’s certain that the spaces (in the painting) are divided harmonically.”

“Where you have harmonic proportions, you can find music.”

In other words, if you look hard enough at a pattern that is neither wholly random, nor necessarily arranged with purpose in mind, you can find whatever your wishful thinking allows you to find. As Rosslyn showed, there’s a lot more to music than a sequence of values, and you can build a listenable composition around virtually any such sequence – honest musicians will describe the result as “inspired by”, not as an ancient hidden composition.

In this case, Pala has drawn five lines across the painting, treating it as though it were a musical stave. These he positioned by drawing a pentagram (naturally) “over the scene between Jesus’ face and the tablecloth”. He’s then chosen, based upon selective biblical significances, objects such as the loaves of bread and hands of Christ, and assumed them to be musical notes. Finally, he’s read the notes from right to left, following Da Vinci’s “mirror shorthand”, which makes sense if you assume that there is indeed a code to be found in the painting. This selective fitting of the evidence to a preconceived and closely-held hypothesis is where so many fall down.


Like the Rosslyn music and the Last Supper image, this idea could be perfectly true. But, at least from the press coverage, there is no objective evidence that Leonardo intended elements of his painting to be read as a piece of music. The semi-random distribution of the notes could just as easily be co-incidence, and the imposition of the five line stave is Pala’s, based upon his out-of-thin-air belief that a pentagram has anything to do with the painting. What other assumptions have been made? How many other aspects of musical composition have been applied by Pala to make this resemble any kind of tune, and on what basis has he selected these? What other interpretations exist of exactly the same evidence, and how many of these would pass muster in the way that Pala’s arguably facilitated interpretation seems to? Even assuming original intent by Da Vinci, to what extent could the final composition be considered his?

If you’re still undecided, Pala’s further imaginative reachings are truly out of left-field, and pretty much speak for themselves. Which is no doubt why they have been left out of the vast majority of press reports on this “discovery”. Thanks to Michael C of the JREF forum for pointing out the following quote:

“At this point I was totally into this puzzle,” Pala said. “I placed the nine letters of the ancient Hebrew text one on top of the other, following an ascending path, which is the direction of the hands of the first six Apostles. The result was a strange image.”
He noticed that on the table, to the right, Leonardo painted a piece of bread split in half.
“I thought of this as a hint to duplicate that image,” Pala said. The resulting image — nine letters stacked on top of each other and duplicated — was the chalice.”

Well, quite. Hopefully it goes without saying that chances are high for this being nothing more than wishful thinking. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned and driven in large part by sincere interest and intentions, but it’s still just creative Pareidolia. Plus, when you have a book to sell in the run-up to Christmas, this kind of publicity can’t be bad, right? To say nothing of the column inches and webpage-space it allows the media to fill with the minimum of journalistic effort.