'Da Vinci Code' goes on trial and is found guilty as charged

Hundreds of people packed the town hall of Vinci, Leonardo's home town, for the trial this weekend of the bestseller whose claims have shocked the Roman Catholic church. Peter Popham reports

It is the publishing phenomenon of the new century: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the biggest-selling adult novel in history, a book bought by more than 18 million worldwide, argued about from high table to lunch counter, and which has enraged the Roman Catholic church as no book has done for decades.

It is the publishing phenomenon of the new century: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the biggest-selling adult novel in history, a book bought by more than 18 million worldwide, argued about from high table to lunch counter, and which has enraged the Roman Catholic church as no book has done for decades.

It has prompted family rows, lawsuits, tours of the key locations and a diet, and will soon be a film. Its claims have provoked no fewer than 15 book-length rebuttals, and super-charged interest in Leonardo himself, the man whose code and genius are at the book's heart. The people of Vinci, the small town outside Florence where Leonardo originated, might be thought grateful for all this attention. But they are livid. And, to show just how mad they are, this weekend they put the book on trial.

It wasn't a fair trial ­ Mr Brown and his book went unrepresented ­ but by the standards of Italian justice it was swift. And it galvanised Vinci. Hundreds turned up. To pack a town hall this tight in Britain you'd need conspicuously sited wind farms blighting every beauty spot in the county.

Dan Brown claims that the local hero was flamboyantly homosexual. The Mona Lisa, the painting Leonardo took with him everywhere, was a disguised self-portrait; hermaphrodites and pagan imagery lurked behind every fleur-de-lis; and the figure of John in the Last Supper was actually Mary Magdalene. Leonardo was head of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, entrusted with the care and perpetuation of the Holy Grail, which in turn was not a mere chalice but the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the woman he married. Jesus and Mary had children, the novel claims, and it was Leonardo and the descendants of Jesus who preserved the truth of the pre-eminence of the female principle. It was Alessandro Vezzosi, director of one of Vinci's two Leonardo museums, who made the case for the prosecution, deploying over 100 slides. Leonardo's homosexuality? The evidence, he said, was "total invention".

A striking sketch of two erect phalluses, one pursuing the other, flashed on to the screen: thought to be by Leonardo, it is in fact the work of someone else, Vezzosi claimed. Leonardo not only did startling, anatomically correct drawings of the female genitalia (another slide), he also littered his notebooks with doodles showing men chasing girls. QED.

"Another idea of Brown's that doesn't remotely agree with reality," Vezzosi said, is that Leonardo cranked out ideas for efficiently torturing people and invented horrible new weapons. The fearsome, scythed chariot that figures in one of his drawings, designed to slice anyone who came too close into small pieces, was not his invention, we were told, but an ancient device, and Leonardo set his mind to working out how best to protect oneself against it.

Yet despite all Brown's howlers and misreadings, Vezzosi had to admit that there was a grain of truth in the book. The androgyny of many of his portraits, for example, was a product of his fascination with the idea of synthesising masculine and feminine forms, which is a key idea behind Brown's book.

It was 11pm when Vezzosi sat down and two members of Opus Dei, the Catholic organisation, took his place. The most diabolical figure in Brown's book is the huge, homicidal albino, Silas, a devotee of Opus Dei who wears a spiked belt on his thigh to mortify his flesh, and who is determined to wipe out the only four people in the world who know the truth about the Holy Grail ­ the truth that threatens to blow the bottom out of Christianity if it ever becomes known.

"I've come here to tell you what Opus Dei really is," said Massimo Marianeschi, a businessman. "It's not a sect, it's not black, criminal, catastrophic ... I don't flog myself or mortify my flesh. It's a lay organisation with no monks ­ it's not Machiavellian, we don't assassinate people, we don't sanction any negative acts. And there is no difference in the treatment of men and women."

He might have been better advised to leave out the last claim. "There may not be discrimination against women in Opus Dei," said a voice from the floor, "but there is certainly separation." Scattered applause from the audience. Then, "I don't understand how you can stop people of my age sharing things with girls", said a young man with a pony tail. "We talk about everything together." Loud clapping. "What's the need," said a matron from the floor, "to follow Opus Dei or any other organisation? The church is one!" More applause. It took another local historian, Professor Romano Nanni, to steer the discussion back to Dan Brown's book. "The Da Vinci Code is a novel," he pointed out, "so there is no need to refute it historically. It's a thriller, and a crude one, because so much of it is unbelievable."

Yet some of it, he said, is true ­ including parts of the book that are most disturbing to Christians. There are, as the book claims, many accounts of Jesus's life rejected by the church, which deal with the Creation as the work of male and female principles. "This is the basic idea behind the book," he said. "And the truth of it is an open question."

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