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Food for thought

Local guitarist finds musical message in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper

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Could one blockbuster spawn another?

American author Dan Brown did OK with his little novel about a code embedded in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.

Now a Manitoba jazz guitarist and teacher, Jeari Czapla, believes he has found a musical code buried in the same famous painting.

He has arranged a 40-second composition based on the "notes" he sees in it, and he's hoping the world will beat a path to his door to buy the song, and soon the album, this discovery has inspired him to write.

In fact, the world has already come knocking. The YouTube video of Czapla's discovery, Dinner With Da Vinci, has garnered some 300,000 hits as of early February.

You can check it out by searching that title in YouTube.

Czapla posted it more than a year ago. It sat there, largely unnoticed, until someone, thinking it a joke, posted a link to it from the U.S. humour magazine website cracked.com.

It went viral on Jan. 25. But Czapla, who lives and works in St. Andrews, does not believe his musical da Vinci code is something to laugh about.

"I am absolutely certain he knew what he was doing," said Czapla, 44, who has studied music at the University of Manitoba and Grant McEwan College in Edmonton.

"Leonardo was also a musician. He worked for three years on The Last Supper. He had lots of time to think and plan it."

Czapla himself spent a year working on his theory. He first started focusing on the late-15th-century painting in 2003, deciding to produce an album, his third, named after his third child, Caspar Leonardo.

Studying The Last Supper, which depicts Jesus with his 12 apostles, he noticed the hands of the subjects lined up. So did the pieces of bread on the table.

All this gave him the clues to the placement of the five-line musical staff and each of 26 notes.

The painting also contains several references to the No. 3, which symbolizes the Christian Holy Trinity.

"The apostles are seated in groupings of three," Czapla said. "There are three windows behind Jesus, and the shape of the Jesus figure resembles a triangle."

This made him think that Leonardo's music must be written in a 3/4 waltz-like time signature.

Czapla placed the notes from right to left on the staff. The left-handed artist is famous for the backward writing in his notebooks.

The key to the arrangement, Czapla says, is the emotional reaction of the apostles to Jesus's impending crucifixion.

"My music and arrangement had to convey those same reactions," Czapla said, "so the listener could see and hear the painting in their minds."

By the way, an Italian jazz drummer, Giovanni Maria Pala, came up with a similar theory in 2007. You can find references to it as well on the cracked.com site.

Czapla insists the timing of their discoveries is coincidental. In fact, he had been in touch with Pala by email, but the drummer has ceased to be reachable.

"He went the route of writing a book," said Czapla, who is half Polish, half aboriginal. "I am confident that what I've found is the true version."

He admits to having encountered some skepticism.

In fact, "silly" is the word applied by Jim Bugslag, a University of Manitoba Renaissance art historian.

"The decoding of Leonardo has become a parlour game," Bugslag said via email after watching Czapla's YouTube video.

"One would have to ask exactly why Leonardo might have gone to such a hermetically baroque extreme of providing ingenious future art historians with a statement that only they could understand."

David Topper, who teaches art history at the University of Winnipeg, also ridicules the idea.

"Why would there be a correlation between notes and bread?" he asked. "Why not the placement of heads? Why not the plates on the table? I suspect that one could find 'music' in almost any horizontal image of a dinner table of numerous folk."

But Czapla's fellow musicians know him to be a talented jazz guitarist and a serious teacher. He grew up in Transcona, where he briefly studied guitar with Lenny Breau's son Chet, then moved to Edmonton to study and work.

He has gigged widely in Canada and the U.S. and has self-produced two albums to date, For Ella and Dolce, named after his two elder children. He and his wife, a nurse, returned to Manitoba in 2007 to be near his aging mother.

"It's well known that da Vinci liked playing with ideas," said Czapla's friend Robin Munro, executive producer of the Barrie Jazz & Blues Festival in Ontario.

"It's not beyond reason that he would do this."

As for Czapla, he's not going to let a few skeptics stop him. He's been eating, sleeping and breathing Dinner With Da Vinci since his video went viral.

He's under the gun to get his new contemporary jazz album ready to sell in the wake of the interest in his video. So far only the first single is available online. Sales to date stand at a modest 10 copies.

"I'm old enough to know that people go through three stages when they're presented with a new idea," Czapla said.

"The first is denial. The second is ridicule. But they finally come round to acceptance."

Remember, Dan Brown's first reviews weren't exactly stellar.

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2010 D1

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