Screenwriter Myers’ debut novel illuminates the life of Leonardo da Vinci, depicting him as a painter and inventor driven by curiosity about the world around him.
The Barbera Foundation’s Mentoris Project publishes novels and nonfiction celebrating great Italians and Italian-Americans. This volume begins in Tuscany in 1459: As an illegitimate child, 7-year-old Leonardo isn’t allowed to attend school, but he educates himself by paying attention to the natural wonders around him—and he’s interested in everything he sees. This becomes his motto: “To be a painter, one must be a great observer not only of people, but all of nature.” At age 15, he moves to Florence to be an artist’s apprentice, and soon, church panels and nobles’ portraits are his bread and butter. But his interests also extend into science and philosophy: He’s fascinated by a solar eclipse, investigates anatomy and the mechanics of flight, and even questions the nature of the soul. He moves among Milan, Florence, and Rome, serving as a court painter for King Louis XII and as an architect for King Francis I, both of France, during the Italian Wars. Truly, this was the epitome of a Renaissance man. His idealism and curiosity get him into trouble, however; he’s briefly a military engineer but is so appalled by battles that he deserts from Cesare Borgia’s army. When Pope Leo X threatens him with excommunication for dissecting corpses, he replies, “I think it is right to study the works of God.” In this novel’s most rewarding scenes, readers see Leonardo’s famous works in progress: The Last Supper mural for a convent (which starts peeling months later, due to his experimental paint) and the portrait of silk merchant’s wife Lisa Gherardini with her “mysterious smile”; the Mona Lisa remains unfinished for years because of his struggle to convey her “wordless wisdom.” Myers also manages the sweep of time well, particularly via the use of characters’ letters. Occasionally, though, he resorts to lines such as “More years passed.” Oddly, this book most resembles a biography of a saint: Leonardo speaks in profound sound bites and hardly seems to have any flaws, except perhaps a reluctance to finish projects. A bit more earthiness might have been truer to his character and the time period.
An evocative but excessively adulatory fictionalized biography.