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.