In Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Mike Lankford sets his goal as stripping the halo from da Vinci and placing the reader across the table from Leonardo the man, dirty fingernails and all.

Many people rightly associate da Vinci with masterpieces such as “The Last Supper” and the “Mona Lisa,” his sketch of the “Vitruvian Man,” and perhaps with his polymathic notebooks. Or they’ve heard that da Vinci was a genius of the Renaissance, contemporary of Michelangelo. Lankford, while steeped in historical resources, dates, and places, doesn’t get bogged down in dry recitations of facts; he’s always trying to get at da Vinci the man, even if that means taking liberties as a novelist. Becoming Leonardo is not a romanticized biography. Lankford speculates, supposes, and makes assumptions about the impact and implications of da Vinci’s illegitimate birth to a woman who may have been a domestic servant (and possibly a slave), his distant father, and da Vinci’s sexuality.

Life in da Vinci’s time was difficult and often brief, with an average life expectancy of 40 years. Wars raged as did diseases like the plague and syphilis; a fall on the uneven streets of Florence might leave one crippled. da Vinci was always keenly aware of the fleeting nature of existence. Da Vinci’s talent for drawing and music became apparent early but in no way made his existence easy or secure. In 15th-century Italy, artists and craftsmen depended on the patronage of dukes and bishops and princes, who could be capricious, demanding, and cruel. Foul up or flake on a commission for a noble or the church, as da Vinci did more than once, and you might find yourself unemployable. Da Vinci’s existence was often tenuous.

For all his abilities — as a painter, military engineer for hire, sculptor, and dreamer — da Vinci was obsessed with his failings and limitations. “We think of him,” Lankford writes, “as a universal genius but his own intense self-perception was of his limitations and lack of knowledge. That was a hole he kept trying to fill and never could.”

What comes through Becoming Leonardo are da Vinci’s humanity, foibles, and imperfections alongside his gifts. In Lankford’s hands, da Vinci isn’t objectified. He is, as Lankford writes, “sitting across the table covered in ordinary sunlight.”


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