Ten years ago Ron Brown’s Da Vinci Code was hailed as “the bestselling adult novel of all time within a one-year period.” This pseudo historical detective thriller was to create a whole new publishing genre. But in 1980, long before Brown even dreamt of his pot boiler, Erudite Italian author Umberto Eco pioneered this literary format with his first novel The Name of the Rose. On the surface these two works have much in common, a protagonist detective and a plot that combines elements of fiction with church history.
But here the similarities end. Eco, a prominent scholar, bases his story on fact; using numerous historical references and characters. Brown begins his novel with a claim that his work is rooted in “fact” and that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Yet this past decade has seen hundreds of books and articles, mine included, doing a brisk business refuting almost every one of Brown’s claims.
In The Da Vinci Code the protagonist is said to be a professor of “symbology” a discipline Brown apparently invented; while Eco, who is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, created his hero, William of Baskerville, based on the historical figure William of Ockham (of “Ockham’s Razor” fame); Who is part Ockham, Francis Bacon and Sherlock Holmes, hence the reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Hound of the Baskervilles.
After upon securing the film rights director Jean-Jacques Annaud and Eco agreed that the screen credit would read ‘A palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel’, (palimpsest being a Greek word meaning a manuscript that has been erased so that a second text can be written over it, but with traces of the original text remaining beneath.)
Naturally Brother William of Baskerville is played by Sean Connery. This sage-like Franciscan monk and his incredibly youthful protégé Adso (played by 15 year-old Christian Slater in his debut) have traveled to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy from a debate among Benedictines, Franciscans and Papal delegates over the vows of poverty. “The Franciscans favor helping the poor, the rest believe in helping themselves.” The battle of the Franciscans versus the Benedictine can be read as a metaphor for the modern conflict between Socialism and Capitalism.
The year is1347 “one of the darkest periods in Christendom with the threat of the Inquisition hanging over all Europe. It is a time when knowledge is suppressed by the Church with most books being hidden in monasteries because they contain heretical doctrine. F. Murray Abraham (fresh from his Oscar winning performance as Salieri in Amadeus) is perfectly cast as the despicable Head Inquisitor Bernard Gui. Of course the young Edso has the perfunctory sexual encounter with a comely peasant girl played by Valentina Vargas.
Arriving at the monastery the Connery, and Slater, his young ‘Dr. Watson,’ are called upon to solve a mysterious death of one of the monks—the first of four murders of members of the library staff. The film focuses on the labyrinth-like library with its interconnected stairways that resemble those in one of Piranesi’s famous prison engravings. There are many interwoven themes, conflict between the Emperor and the pope, church corruption, and clerics committing sexual indiscretions of every variety. The solution to the murder mystery hinges on the text of a lost volume of Aristotle’s Poetics which exhorts the power of laughter.
The film is darkly lit; and filled with a grotesque cast of “Fellini-like” characters such as the hunchback Salvatore, brilliantly played by Ron Perlman. Annaud, a scholar in his own right who read classics at the Sorbonne, took great pains to find actors that were “Breughel-like”; who had faces resembling the roughhewn peasants that populate the paintings of the great Renaissance master. It does not just explain the Dark Ages, it actually takes us there. The look of the film is for the most part historically accurate; with one exception. A Madonna and Child statue that was the object of great veneration in the abbey church looks clearly out of place, since it resembles figures of Luca Della Robbia some one hundred years later. (I wasn’t the only one who noticed this; Annaud received over 1000 complaints about the Madonna and Child)
The Name of the Rose was a critical and box office flop in the US; It was, however, a smash hit in Europe, and most of the rest of the world.