LEONARDO by Martin Kemp


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Another stab at decoding the real da Vinci.

“The only fully valid source of knowledge, for Leonardo, was looking at real things and phenomena,” writes Kemp (History of Art/Trinity Coll., Oxford), who in six chapters examines just what it was Leonardo looked at, learned, and passed on to posterity. Leonardo’s notion of looking is encapsulated in the English verb “to see,” avers the author; it means both “to look at” and “to understand” or “comprehend.” Outlining Leonardo’s experimental investigations, such as dissections, observations of nature, and fortifications, Kemp links them to his extraordinary notebooks and paintings. The sheer weight of the artist’s ambition caused a number of problems. Far from being a genius who methodically produced one extraordinary scientific discovery or painting after another, Kemp demonstrates that Leonardo failed to finish several commissions and apparently never sold a painting; the observations in his famous notebooks were often brilliant, occasionally disorganized and haphazard. The weight of Leonardo’s ambition sometimes caused his graphic technique to collapse as his drawings recorded everything his fertile mind observed on a small piece of paper. Similarly, Kemp’s attempt to explicate the polymath Leonardo in a short book from time to time suffers from the weight of its ambition. The chapters on art (the author’s specialty) read much more easily than the ones on scientific issues, which make earnest but hard going as technical terms are tossed about as if a casual reader should understand them. But Kemp’s experience offers just as many pleasures and benefits; after a career spent researching the artist, he’s well suited to provide a personal account of Leonardo, enriched by anecdotes and contemporary analogies. At the close, he succinctly reviews why Leonardo is worth studying, using the Mona Lisaas a case in point and giving a marvelous description of the experience of seeing the painting out of its frame and bullet-proof case. It makes an exceptional finale.

A noble attempt to bring a legend down to earth.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-280546-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2004


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