June 21, 2006

Da Bomb

I haven't actually read The da Vinci Code -- well, no, lose the "actually" -- but I'm amply persuaded by Geoff P's catalogue of Dan Brown's stylistic vices, not to mention the complaints of any number of critics, that the book is chock-a-block with literary and linguistic howlers. On one count, though, Brown has gotten a bad rap. In enumerating the book's lapses, as Mark noted a while ago, critic after critic has remarked that the title itself is in error -- referring to the artist as "da Vinci," they say, is like referring to Jesus as "of Nazareth" or to William as "of Orange" or to Lawrence as "of Arabia," or whatever. Mark traced that comparison through its various avatars in pieces by Adam Gopnik, Jay Nordlinger, Charles Moore, and various bloggers, most of them giving due credit for the quip to other sources, though Mark Steyn simply stuck it in his lapel uncredited, as if it were a flower he'd plucked from his own garden.

But whatever Brown's other derelictions, the comparison of da Vinci to "of Nazareth" and the like isn't apt. As solecisms go, referring to Leonardo as "da Vinci" is a pretty venial error in Italian, and to call it an error at all in English is simply misplaced pedantry.

True, da Vinci means "from Vinci," and Italians generally refer to the artist simply as Leonardo, or a bit more pompously, as "il Leonardo." Still, even literate Italians use da Vinci by itself on occasion. On the same day a few weeks ago that I was reading Mark's post (from Rome, as it happens), I ran across Beppe Severigni's column in Corriere della Sera, which said:

Mi sembra quindi che Da Vinci abbia voluto esprimere nel modo più forte possibile il concetto nella divinità di Gesù. "So it seems to me that Da Vinci wanted to explain the concept of Jesus' divinity in the strongest possible way."

And a recent story about The da Vinci Code from the Italian news service ANSA, for example, contains the sentence:

Per esempio racconta che da Vinci, nella sua celeberrima "Ultima Cena", essendo a conoscenza della "vera" storia di Cristo, avrebbe dipinto, a fianco di Gesù, Maddalena più o meno camuffata. "For example he tells how da Vinci, in his celebrated 'Last Supper,' aware of the 'true' story of Christ, painted Mary Magdalene next to Jesus more or less in disguise."

A Nexis search turns up other examples from the Italian press. And there's scarcely a major Italian city that doesn't have an Albergo da Vinci or a Ristorante da Vinci. So if the usage is a solecism, it's hardly on the order of referring to Jesus as "of Nazareth," which no English-speaker, literate or no, would ever think of doing.

If many Italians are tempted to refer to Leonardo simply as da Vinci, in fact, it's because the rule here is by no means as obvious or cut-and-dried as Brown's critics make it out to be. There are plenty of people who are routinely refered to as "da X" in Italian, either because the connection of X with a place name is obscured, or because the da-phrase is felt to have become a family name. Italians are comfortable using "da X" form by itself when talking about the writer Valerio da Pos or the painters Angelo Dall'Oca Bianca and Antonello da Saliba, for example.

But you can hardly expect English-speakers to consult an inner Italian gazetteer when deciding whether it's acceptable to use "da X" alone in referring to a person. And in fact the English writer who chooses to refer to Leonardo simply as da Vinci can point to some pretty authoritative precedents. In volume I of his classic Renaissance in Italy, the Victorian critic and poet John Addington Symonds wrote:

The April freshness of Giotto, the piety of Fra Angelico, the virginal purity of the young Raphael, the sweet gravity of John Bellini, the philosophic depth of Da Vinci, the sublime elevation of Michael Angelo, the suavity of Fra Bartolommeo, the delicacy of the Della Robbia, the restrained fervor of Rosellini, the rapture of the Sienese and the reverence of the Umbrian masters, Francia's pathos, Mantegna's dignity, and Luini's divine simplicity, were qualities which belonged not only to these artists but also to the people of Italy from whom they sprang.

The 1876 catalogue of the Corcoran Gallery of Art spoke of "that galaxy of genius whereof Ghiberti, Da Vinci, Angelo, and Raphael were fixed stars." "In such a man as da Vinci," wrote the redoubtable Monroe Beardsley in his 1966 Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present. And there are other references to Leonardo as da Vinci in the Columbia Encyclopedia and a 1985 article in The New York Times by Jan Morris, who wrote:

Great minds have been fostered entirely by staying close to home. Moses never got further than the Promised Land. Da Vinci and Beethoven never left Europe.

So the objections to Brown's title and the analogies to "of Nazareth" and the like are a kind of bungled pedantry -- they manage to betray not just a limited knowledge of Italian, but an unfamiliarity with the English-language critical tradition. Or at least I assume that Nordlinger and Steyn wouldn't have dismissed the da Vinci usage with such airy condescension if they'd encountered it in Symonds or Beardsley. Brown's critics should have left bad enough alone.

[Ben Zimmer drew my attention to a post at Tensor that provided some other defenses of the "da Vinci" usage.]

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 21, 2006 03:04 AM