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Book Review: Leonardo by Martin Kemp

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Writing this review, with Leonardo Da Vinci as its centerpiece, demanded a great deal of discipline as it could have easily careened out into multiple directions. Indeed, I could have, and was tempted to, approach this in any number of ways.

Let's not complicate things here. Writing a review is not like Leonardo's Comparison of the Heart with its Major Vessels on a Germinating Seed. Nonetheless, I could not shake the feeling that Leonardo's shadow and spirit were looking over my shoulder demanding I use every ounce of my abilities in writing this review.

I could just imagine the inner pressure Martin Kemp must have felt in gathering his facts and thoughts in order to write a historical biography of one of humanity's greatest figures. It is not enough to merely collect and construct a timeline of his life. In order to fully understand Leonardo's majestically complex inner-workings, one must remove one's self from contemporary conceptions about him.

For this, Kemp is to be commended. How does one convey such an elusive and magnificent mind? Less an autobiography and more a personal (both of the author and Leonardo himself) quest, Kemp carefully examines and treats the essence of a Renaissance giant with historical care. Filled with insightful quotes and passages from Leonardo himself, the reader takes a special journey into the realm of a man endowed with staggering observational powers.

Many interesting quotes are presented and I have selfishly selected one – if anything because it seems quite fitting and applicable to us today.

"…truly it is impatience, mother of all folly, which praises brevity."

Lucky for Leonardo he is not present to witness the catchall and short-attention spanned zeitgeist of our times. Had he been around, it is not hard to see how he would feel (or react) about the modern alchemist who uses media to a profiting advantage while circling around like a vulture waiting to prey on humanity's vulnerabilities.

Today, we rush to get our studies, research and ideas out. The rigourous and painstakingly long efforts Leonardo employed are the exception rather than the norm in a society that wants a 'quick-fix' and even quicker answer.

Kemp does his best to shelter Leonardo from pop culture in exploring what the legend is all about. He succeeds in building a case that removes Leonardo from popular conceptions and places him back into his proper context. Kemp can rest easy in knowing he at least did his best to provide a proper intellectual service into Leonardo's life and times.

The book is all the more relevant given the social phenomena of The Da Vinci Code. Usually, historians and academics shy away from what is going on in the fish bowl known as pop culture. Kemp does not run away from this. He meets it straight on and offers his thoughts and opinions. While he does not condemn it, he does confirm that there is an inherent danger in accepting fiction as fact. Or put another way, where we embrace myth as fact.

In the special case of Leonardo, it is all too easy to play games with the missing facts of his life. History is like laying bricks. It's how we treat the gaps that determine our intellectual honesty and integrity. In this light, he does a service to anyone who needs to be reminded of such things.

There are no simple answers with Leonardo. It is all too easy to pull something out of context or use a snap shot of a history to espouse a view. Leonardo is like a piece of music. You must listen to what is not playing. You must be attentive to where the music would like to take you. Like jazz is, Leonardo is.

In my final comment, given the sheer gargantuan aura of the man, the book is valiant in its respect for what it was up against. If readers want something more than the prevailing idea of whom Leonardo was, or as I put it in the 'Code's Image', then this book should be considered.

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About Alessandro Nicolo

  • Nice review, “shadow and spirit” and all. Sounds like a fascinating book.

  • Thanks, Gordon. It was an interesting book. If anything, for the times we live in. I like stuff that keep things in proper context and thought. It was a hard book to review but was worth working on.

  • Congratulations! This article has been selected as an Editors’ Pick.

  • Thank you.

  • Yes I found the book interesting,so much so I have sent my new discoveries within Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces The Mona Lisa ,The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John and most of all The Lanscape of the Arno Valley.

    The new discoveries I have sent Martin Kemp are the perpendicular reverse mirror imaging process and the optical illusion all found in new discoveries within Leonardo’s works.

    Leonardo’s secret ” code” may have actually have been hidden in plain sight but only deciferable outside the origanal borders of the paintings,using a ” perpendicular reverse mirror image process”.
    Leonardo'(actually Lionardo)was a man of formidable intelect and talent but most importantly a man of curiosity who observed truth” in his envierment in all of it’s forms….physical..mental and religious by the politics and relions tenents of his day.

    Being a man of science as well as art,one of the most inventive of all time, he appears to have used his art to challenge the dogma of his day and sought to pass on his science and “truths using a process that only “mathemitisios” or scientist might discover.

    Lionardo da Vinci “Pictures Within Pictures” a new dimention within the masters works discovered for the first time in 500 years by ,Michael W. Domoretsky researcher in the U.S.A.

    Yes, discoveries made within the above masters works, as in the true name of the model in the paing called The Mona Lisa, found in this process of optical illusion to be on the left sleeve of the painting facing you the name “Mary”,and also the Chalice and Angel,the Masonic Symbol/compass and square and new discoveries within the Landscaope of the Arno Valley all seen by the new discovered masters works.

    Michael W. Domoretsky

  • Interesting, Michael. I’ll check it out.

  • Boston Globe on Saturday December 16 th., page 3 of the Living Arts section, da Vinci/Mona Lisa, The Chalice, discovered by Michael W. Domoretsky.

  • Question,how many books can the same people write about the same thing over and over agaon,a new approch to a great artist.

  • ” Make your work carry out your purpose and meaning. That is when you draw a figure consider well who it is and what you wish it to be doing.”
    Leonardo da Vinci
    As I reflect on Leonardo’s words, it is apparent to me Leonardo would with out a doubt follow his own words.”
    Michael W. Domoretsky

  • Da Vinci’s Secret, The Masonic Symbol

    Some of the most significant findings to date are symbolic in nature. We have identified many instances of symbolic constructs being created when the Reverse perpendicular mirror technique is used to view the edges of several of da Vinci’s works.

    One of the most important, intriguing and clearly identifiable symbols to have been discovered in Leonardo’s works is that of the Mason’s Symbol. In The Virgin and child with St. Anne and the infant Saint John the Baptist when a reverse perpendicular mirror image is constructed, a clearly discernable Mason’s compass and square is visible as part of the interwoven series of symbols and images that comprise a collage extending from top to bottom of the drawing. The precise meaning of these constructs is still under investigation, however due to the discovery of this very important symbol in several places within Leonardo’s works there is little doubt that da Vinci placed these symbols in the works for very specific reasons. The Mason’s symbol in the Virgin and child with Saint Anne and the infant St. John the Baptist is the single most visible constructed element in the drawing and it is interwoven with a short stem goblet.
    The compass and square, and the organization for which they stand, are universal in nature, crossing lines of heritage, race, national borders and time. It has always been a contention on the part of the Masons that Leonardo was one of their own. However, with no real documented proof it has been just that, a contention and no more. da Vinci was a master builder and architect so the discovery of encrypted masons symbols within da Vinci’s works is likely to bolster the claim by the Free Masons that da Vinci was indeed a mason. In fact it is likely that he may well have been the grand Mason, and leader of all masons of his time. There is no absolute proof but his use of the symbol in repetition may end up being as close to absolute proof as any one will ever get.