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Our own da Vinci code

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Cerca, trove" (search and you shall find) is the legend. It was painted on a tiny flag in a fresco, a battle scene, done decades after Leonardo da Vinci, by the painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari. The Vasari fresco's message hints at something hidden beneath it.

Researchers now think there's a da Vinci painting underneath. The Italian phrase on that little oriflamme, or battle banner, is what reporters say inspired today's search by contemporary engineer Maurizio Seracini. Dr. Seracini is a National Geographic Fellow.

Seracini is a scholar from the University of California, San Diego, and he is on a hunt for da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari," a mural from the 1500s. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the leading example of that protean figure we call "the Renaissance Man." Painter, architect, scientist, military engineer, da Vinci was a Giacomo of all trades, and master of all.

My friend Morton Blackwell is inspired by da Vinci, too. He displays at the Leadership Institute in Arlington a print of a design for a bicycle done by the Italian master. O, easy for you, Leonardo!

Centuries before we had bicycles, da Vinci conceived of them. Helicopters and submarines, too. Morton's point is a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to conservatives who love to quote Richard Weaver's "ideas have consequences." They do, Morton says, but only if someone acts on those ideas.

My wife and I had our own brush with Leonardo's genius. Though we have never been to Italy, we did go to France. There, in 2004, we visited the magnificent Loire Valley chateau Chambord. The classical beauty and stately elegance of Chambord alone would make it one of the architectural wonders of the world.

Even more, Chambord contains within a work of surpassing genius, also the handiwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Our French guide took us to the double spiral marble staircase. She invited us to ascend and descend this structure -- which seems light and airy for all its massive weight of glistening white marble. When it was built, this staircase was a tribute to the Art of Courtly Love.

The French noblemen would climb up one side of the staircase. The ladies would go up the other side. The windows would permit the gentlemen a peekaboo glance at the fairer sex. They called it coquetterie. This was an age when the Madonna was still "The Madonna."

At ground level, our guide asked us to step back and survey the staircase. What did it look like? I whispered to my wife: It looks like the double helix of the DNA molecule to me, but what do I know about architecture? I was hesitant to speak up with the more knowledgeable tourists in our group.

Our guide, an imperious 6-foot-tall lady, pulled it out of me. "Yes, monsieur, it is the double helix."

I laughed out loud. How gauche. I couldn't help myself. We had seen all this hoopla in America about the blockbuster novel called "The Da Vinci Code." It purported to tell all the dark secrets about the Catholic Church and to expose eons of skullduggery. Of course, it sold millions. And I told friends I would surely read it -- right after "War and Peace" and "The Iliad."

What struck me as incredibly funny was that here at Chambord we had uncovered the real da Vinci code. I could imagine the scene: The Almighty whispering in the genius' ear: Do it this way. Fashion it as a double helix, Leonardo. They won't get the joke for 450 years. We have time. We can wait.

Perhaps those researchers were inspired by those words -- "Seek and ye shall find." I sure was.

Robert Morrison is senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.

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