When we use the appellation Renaissance man, of course it evokes that genius who could craft masterpieces out of oils, sculptures from clay and bronze while designing a silver lyre resembling a horse’s head, drains and even an eavesdropping system for his patron.
Yet in exile Leonardo da Vinci at the end of his life reflected on his work with all its wonderful ideas and acknowledged, as Michelangelo mocked, that he had finished little.
This novel charting Leonardo’s life from his birth as the illegitimate child of a teenage serving girl to his death, leaves the central character as an enigma: a genius so fascinated by the how of everything that he could study cats or fish for days and cut up corpses to study anatomy, yet whose very inquisitiveness leading him to investigate the new ensured he flitted from one project to the next.
With hints at youthful homosexuality, it is La Giaconda – Mona Lisa – in whom he finds perfection after three years of her sitting for him. Being a man of procrastination, when finally he decides to claim her for his own he discovers that she has died. That painting, to him always unfinished, stays with him until he dies; even the French King Frances I who purchases it, must wait until Leonardo’s end before claiming it.
For those of us who like history brought to life with a dash of imagination, a historical novel steeped in fact is a godsend. Unfortunately, the facts at times stifle creativity as the author seems loath to abandon any of his painstaking research, piling it in regardless of the narrative, so that at times the book appears more biography than novel.
Leonardo is placed firmly in his environment: the reader is presented with the infidelities of the Duke of Milan, his vanquishing at the hands of Cesare Borgia, the rise and fall of the monk Savonarola, the machinations of the Florentine republic and the court of King Francis, the spite of Michelangelo, the incompetence of Machiavelli and the success of the pedestrian Rafael. In short the fantastic landscape of Renaissance Italy.
Merezhkovsky was a Russian who published this in 1900, yet due in part to the excellent translator Ignat Avsey, it reads as a modern novel in the style of Tolstoy. He co-founded the symbolist movement and initiated a group fascinated by mystic
Originally conceived as the second part of a trilogy, Christ and Antichrist, this explains the focus on Leonardo’s religious beliefs, or lack of them, and the climate of religious hypocrisy surrounding him.
One sign of the era in which it was written is the concentration on flying machines, one of Leonardo’s unsuccessful inventions, for the turn of the 20th century was the beginning of human flight after a glider had been flown in Germany before the Wright Brothers piloted an aeroplane.
This novel is not for the faint-hearted. The 654 densely written pages examine at length everything from Leonardo’s art to the ineffectual Borgia Pope and his unscrupulous son Cesare – “one will not do what he says, the other will not say what he does”. Yet the author brings his many characters to life and above all demonstrates the genius of his hero.