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Book Review: Becoming Leonardo

By (April 10, 2017) No Comment

Becoming Leonardo:

An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo Da Vinci

by Mike Lankford

Melville House, 2017

Mike Lankford, at the beginning of his beguiling new book Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo Da Vinci, advises his readers to keep a conventional, an un-exploded life of the great Renaissance artist at hand during the reading of his own book, and it isn’t many pages before his readers will see why he’d offer such advice. This is a strange, passionate, impressionistic biographical meditation. Each of its chapters begins with a bullet-pointed list of the real-world events taking place during the period covered by the chapter, but that’s just about the only concession Lankford makes to the process of a more predictable biography. Readers coming to this book for a stately, sequential consideration like what they would find in Serge Bramly’s Leonardo: The Artist and the Man or Charles Nicholl’s Leonardo Da Vinci: Flights of the Mind will quickly stumble into a craze of personal insights, philosophical speculations, and open-ended questions instead. Lankford has produced a reading experience far more similar to Sebastian de Grazia’s surreal life of Machiavelli, Machiavelli in Hell – and every bit as rewarding.

From what few primary accounts we have of the man (including his own), Leonardo was strange. And Lankford is not only fascinated by that strangeness but also refreshingly suspicious of all those primary accounts. He proceeds through the records of Leonardo’s life with one ear constantly cocked for what’s not being said, what’s notable for its absence, the impressions that things leave behind long after the things themselves are gone. For instance, we know that Leonardo was once arrested on a charge of sodomy, and Lankford is right to point out that most biographers gloss over the incident fairly briskly, treating it as an unavoidable nuisance of public life in sixteenth century Florence, where accusations were usually made anonymously. In conventional accounts of Leonardo’s life, this arrest is treated almost like a traffic ticket, but Lankford stresses that even for far less expansive natures than Leonardo, even the shortest time spent locked up can feel like an eternity – did it leave Leonardo hungrier than a normal man of his time for freedom? And did that hunger manifest itself in both his flamboyant personality and maybe even his reluctance to finish major projects for paying patrons?

It’s all historically untenable, this kind of guesswork, but it’s genuinely thought-provoking when it’s done by somebody as endlessly readable Lankford (an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate), who pointedly distrusts the records we have of Leonardo’s life and who raises unanswerable questions about their probity even if they’re entirely trustworthy:

Leonardo’s private life is a mystery to us. All the evidence points to a solitary man with many acquaintances, but few friends. It’s hard to say how “knowable” he was. Did he meet your gaze, or look away? Stand close or at arm’s length? Did he whisper or speak loudly? It was an age when you were rarely alone, so solitude meant something different than it does to us now.

He writes his book in an easy-going modern voice – Leonardo’s father is a “scumbag,” and his shop assistant Zoroastro is a “jack of all trades” – but despite how accessible this makes his narrative, he intriguingly suggests that the key to Leonardo’s appeal during his own lifetime was his aura of in-accessibility, and the ways each intimate seemed to believe they had breached it. And always at the heart of each chapter is the glorious, wretched age during why Leonardo lived, an age of “small cuts and bad smells and unfortunate puddles in dark streets,” as Lankford puts it, and age when “people limped and walked sideways and held their arms curled and still considered themselves blessed by good luck.”

Leonardo himself is memorably characterized throughout as a thoroughly flawed “improvisational personality” who saw everything and was “constantly calculating.”

And as for the most enduring Leonardo mystery of them all, how this enigmatic and not-very-productive Renaissance figure become one of humanity’s fundamental images of genius, a figure for posters and shower curtains and TV shows, a standard against which every towering intellect and chronic multi-tasker will forever be measured. For Lankford, this aspect of Leonardo is the same as all the others: a matter of not of what he himself was but of what others do with him, with the memory of him, with the idea of him:

So what happened? Since Leonardo finished so few commissions and was weirder than a three dollar bill; how did he end up one of the most famous geniuses in history? The facts are that after his death Leonardo was largely forgotten, then something amazing started to happen. This man who rarely completed anything was suddenly being completed by others. You could even say this book is an example of that.

Becoming Leonardo maintains throughout that air of semi-cynical detachment from its own current of inquiry, and it’s all the more invigorating for doing so. Lankford’s initial warning might be right: readers seeking a portrait of the portraitist of the Mona Lisa would probably do well to have a more conventional biography of the man at hand while reading this one. But our author’s modesty can only be allowed that far and no further; it’s not only advisable to see his book as a companion to the others – that’s also now imperative.