The venerable prize-winning Nicholl (Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91, 1999) examines one of the icons of Western culture.
For all Leonardo’s well-deserved reputation as universal man, Nicholl devotes his opening section to the artist’s (illegitimate, to boot) upbringing on a Tuscan farm, demonstrating the way many of Leonardo’s future interests and observations derive from this period and from the circumstances of his life (Freud’s interpretations are weighed regularly). Copiously researched, and enhanced by the author’s residence in Italy and his own observations, particularly, of the Tuscan way of life, the book makes logical deductions from scraps of source material. Nicholl gives us short vignettes, about ten to each of the seven broader sections. In each, he asks questions about Leonardo’s life: Why did he leave Florence, in 1481, for 18 years? Why was he impaziente of painting by 1500? He also follows the strings of Leonardo studies—from paintings to notebooks, jokes (dirty and otherwise), subpoenas, studio assistants, cryptic scribbles—and is led to deductions about Leonardo’s sexuality (be sure to read to the end), what he was trying to achieve in his paintings, and the question that seems to baffle all who confront Leonardo’s career: Why was he so successful if what survives of his work is so fragmentary and unfinished? Particularly fascinating is Nicholl’s presentation of the broad context of the era, outlined by one who has penetrated the layers of surviving hints about the culture. We learn about the contents of artists’ studios and of probate inventories, census and tax records, and museum curatorial files. Nicholl understands and decodes the shorthand jargon of Renaissance Italian and reminds us of the frequently autobiographical nature of Leonardo’s notebook musings. Details are compelling in a long book that defies skimming.
More decoding of Leonardo: a beautifully written, masterful biography of the great artist/scientist as person. (Illustrations throughout; plates not seen)