Books: What is all the fuss about Leonardo? Martin Kemp and Charles Nicholl try to decipher the master

Two books try to shed new light on why Leonardo continues to exert a fascination for scholars, art historians and the public


Artist, scientist, inventor and engineer: the breadth of Leonardo’s creative imagination matches the scale of his legendary reputation. Yet little is known about the circumstance of his life or career. Less than two dozen paintings exist today that can be said to come from his hand or to be closely related to him. Yet among that number are some of the stars of the collections of major museums and galleries around the world. And of this number, none is more famous than the Mona Lisa. Given how little we actually know about the painting, the sitter or the artist, one might well ask, what is all the fuss about?

In Leonardo, Martin Kemp sets out to answer this question, and embarks on an unusually personal quest to illustrate Leonardo’s unique vision of the world. Drawing on his considerable knowledge and experience of Leonardo’s famous notebooks and their copious drawings, he attempts to illustrate the creative processes of the artist’s mind. Leonardo believed that in order to be equipped to “remake” the natural world, the artist needed to understand it. “To see” necessitated “to understand”, and drawing was the primary method of investigation of an infinite variety of visual forms. Through Professor Kemp’s penetrating analysis we learn how, for Leonardo, a series of underlying principles was thought to govern all natural forms. In his drawings, the artist explored the ways in which similar systems of proportion governed a variety of disparate forms, such as the human body, the structure of trees and architectural design. The motion of human hair and the swirling waters of swollen rivers were seen as symptoms of the same inexplicable natural forces, and so were frequently studied on the same page. From this uniquely close observation of the interconnectedness of nature arose the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, where the human body in particular could be seen as analogous to the wider world. The silting-up of rivers provides a basis for understanding the effects of ageing on the circulatory system of the blood and the subsequent blocking of arteries. In this succinct analysis, Professor Kemp successfully illustrates Leonardo’s natural philosophy and, in doing so, provides a useful framework for understanding the range and variety of the artist’s creativity. He illustrates how works as different in type as the celebrated flying machine and the Mona Lisa, result from the same process of scientific inquiry—both are Leonardo’s “remakings of nature”. Professor Kemp provides a corrective view of the “Renaissance genius” by highlighting the extent to which Leonardo’s thinking was conditioned by the intellectual and philosophical traditions of his own time by pointing out that what makes him unique is the unparalleled creativity and extraordinary range of his all-encompassing vision and that it is these aspects of his work that will ensure his enduring appeal. While the events and circumstances surrounding the Mona Lisa are likely to continue to elude us, Professor Kemp’s analysis brings us closer to understanding of the processes of the mind of its creator.

In Leonardo da Vinci: the flights of the mind, the historian and biographer, Charles Nicholl, sets out on a search of a different kind, as he attempts to define the persona of the man behind the popular image of the “bearded sage” as seen in the so-called self-portrait in the Biblioteca Reale, Turin.

In this substantial volume, Mr Nicholl draws on an impressive range of sources, including contemporary and posthumous accounts that have in the main been treated with a good deal of caution. This historical research has been combined with a careful reading of Leonardo’s famous mirror-image scripted notes in order to trace the course and events of the artist’s life and gain insights regarding his state of mind.

Undaunted by the lack of documentary evidence, time and again Mr Nicholl pontoons over the altogether numerous gaps in our knowledge, weaving fact and speculation into a virtually seamless account. Mr Nicholl is fully aware of the dangers of these elisions and maintains the integrity of the work by historical accuracy and by conceding the frequently speculative nature of his more imaginative excursions.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr Nicholl’s work is his attempt to flesh out some of the less well known members of Leonardo’s constantly changing entourage, such as the fascinating Zoroastro (Tommaso di Giovanni Masini)—vegetarian, jester, magician and engineer—and the light-fingered Salaì (Giovanni Giacomo di Pietro Caprotti)—a mischievous workshop assistant with a weakness for unguarded wallets and silver-point drawing pens.The author explores the nature of Leonardo’s relationships with those around him, and explains his generosity towards Salaì as an indication of affection on the master’s part for his young apprentice. While such assumptions are not beyond the bounds of possibility, the nature of such relationships can, however, never be known in the absence of written testimony, and, in his eagerness to reveal the heart of this unknowable aspect of Leonardo’s life, Mr Nicholl falls from his delicately balanced bridge between fact and fiction into the murky waters of Freudian analysis, a lapse that does little to enhance the integrity of the work.

This is, none the less, a brave attempt to humanise the legendary figure and Mr Nicholl conjures up a fresh image of the artist as a man who loved a good joke, had a penchant for luxurious clothes and a reputation for generosity. Despite reservations about its speculative flights, the book makes a valuable contribution to Leonardo studies, particularly by drawing attention to the importance of aspects of the artist’s career that are frequently overlooked or under-emphasised, such as the designs for courtly spectacles and theatrical productions, for which little evidence survives, but which we know were creative activities in which Leonardo was keenly and repeatedly involved.

This book is a useful reference work as it contains a wealth of information such as details of technical and institutional artistic practices, the subsequent fortunes of Leonardo’s paintings after his death, and the current state of research regarding the artist’s surviving paintings. With a comprehensive bibliography and beautifully illustrated with colour plates and black and white reproductions of drawings, this is a book that no student or scholar of Leonardo should be without.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'What is all the fuss about?'


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