Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mike Lankford
Melville House

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Utterly odd and unique and stunningly beautiful—and not what they asked for at all. The monks hated it. Completely.”

In a time of enlightenment and brutal death, Leonardo da Vinci was truly brilliant. Artist, scientist, mathematician, inventor—he existed to solve problems great and small in the world, while envisioning a future that would not come to fruition until centuries after his death. He is a historical figure that cannot be completely known or spoken of enough. Perhaps the term “Renaissance man” was invented to describe him.

Anyone who has spent time with brilliant people knows three things: First, no matter how clever and successful we are, we are not brilliant. Second, the brilliant are not like us, instead given to bouts of introspection so deep that they seem disconnected from their very environment. Third, they are a mystery, so expansive that their depths cannot be plumbed by regular people. Brilliant people rarely give us what we ask for, but instead what we should have asked for. The natural result is to assume that they walk among the immortals. Leonardo da Vinci was one such man, and given his creative output, who could blame us for hoisting him above others?

In his latest biography, Lankford tackles the conundrum of a legendary man who died five hundred years ago. Employing historical records, as well as Leonardo’s creative works and notes, the author reconstructs the legend, breathing spirit into the person, his motivations, and the key moments of his life. He accomplishes this with charm, wit, and a deft hand at research, all the while warning us that no one could truly know da Vinci—not even in his time. The genius was constantly riddling problems, while stretching the boundaries of known technique and convention. Although his acclaim would eventually be wide, his circle of confidants was small, if he ever actually confided in anyone. Delving into Leonardo’s personality, one is left with the impression that he took each task very seriously, but appeared to harbor an inside joke never fully revealed to us. So how does one get inside da Vinci? Lankford’s approach is to imagine Leonardo by employing time, circumstance, and the know record.

An exemplary moment arrives during the creation of The Last Supper. It’s a masterpiece of perspective and art, employing untested technique, which frankly did not hold up well over time and was further insulted by near annihilation during World War II. Even the painting is now an imagined thing. Although it was last restored during the 19th century, it is better understood by its reproductions, than the crumbling original in a convent near Milan. But we have clues within a 16th century reproduction, and we know from the artist’s notes and materials that he was under pressure to perform against challenging conditions. The wall was damp and given to erosion, and Leonardo was no master of fresco, requiring him to think quickly rather than his preferred method of meditation and revision. He gambled with technique to counteract these issues, and so it’s easy to imagine the pressure placed on him by himself and others. Lankford realizes this event with requisite intrigue and light.

The honesty in which Lankford reimagines Leonardo da Vinci is refreshing. The author devotes space on the page to suppose alternative realities while drilling down toward the likeliest possibility. The truth is that da Vinci was still a man and his life wasn’t easy, especially during an age of short life expectancy and the oppressive demands of an economically unbalanced society. Leonardo was never wealthy, counted on the patronage of uninspired aristocracy, and skirted the various deaths of the time to live to an unusual sixty-seven years of age. Who knows how much of his vast brain power was spent just to survive? While no exact records of Leonardo’s struggles exist outside of notes in his own hand, there exists post facto reflections of contemporaries and a parade of admirers through the centuries. His legacy is one of an enduring artist, creator, and visionary, and clearly his passion for learning and understanding has transcended time. Lankford sets all of this in motion in this quirky and utterly enjoyable depiction of one of history’s greatest figures.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Note: Each year, the Eric Hoffer Book Award gives the da Vinci Eye to books with superior cover art.

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