I have never read a biography before that was not connected with some form of school assignment. I’m sure Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln were a part of my elementary school years, but for the most part my readings have consisted of plays, novels, and lit crit. So Charles Nicholl’s biography on Leonardo da Vinci was certainly out of the norm for me. I’d been doing a bit of research on da Vinci and, to be perfectly honest, just grabbed the nicest-looking biography off the shelf.
When I got it back home, I was a bit concerned as to what I’d gotten myself into (as I had determined I was going to finish it - for no apparent reason whatsoever). But I soon found myself entirely surprised. Nicholl tells an incredibly compelling story. Of course, Leonardo’s life was full of intrigue and motion, but Nicholl refrained from keeping it just facts. He created for the readers the world of da Vinci - what the streets would have looked like, the smells, the tenor of the world in which he struggled and painted. Attention is given to the documented facts. Attention is given to those who wrote about da Vinci very shortly after his death and their accounts are compared with each other as well as with political documents and other known facts. And then Nicholl does not fail to leave out the apocryphal stories - the little bits of ambiguity that give such detail to Leonardo’s life. Whether true of false, they stand as windows into a mind that at times is so hard to fathom.
Nicholl’s beautifully rendered account leaves in the jovial as well. In one passage, Nicholl relates “I am tempted to say he arrived wearing a pair of blue spectacles - a marvelous image: Leonardo in shades” (460). Excelling at creating a real person out of the facts and fragments of a life, Nicholl does justice to the torment, the procrastinator, and the genius that is Leonardo da Vinci. Extremely informative as well as emotionally moving, Nicholl managed to both inform and challenge me as the reader to not only learn more, but to think outside the box of traditional stories told of Leonardo and others who came across his path (and learn Italian as I spent about a quarter of the book trying to translate). This has also been the only work of literature that has made me want to visit a place so badly. For not having any photographs of Italy, his descriptions were so vivid that I’m very much interested in visiting when I get back to the UK in the fall.
I am looking forward to finding more books of his over the summer as Google has kindly told me he has written more biographies.
Nicholl, Charles. Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004. Print.