Book Review: Leonardo, the Artist and the Man by Serge Bramly

Fine art painting, drawing, sculpting, inventing, architecture, engineering, science, mathematics, geology, music, military weaponry, hydraulics, botany, anatomy, map making – the list of Leonardo da Vinci’s skills reflects the man’s broad range of interests.

Born on 15th April, 1452 at Vinci in Florence, Italy, Leonardo was the illegitimate eldest child of notary Piero da Vinci and Caterina, who was classed as a peasant. The child lived mostly with his mother and grandparents, while his father went on to marry four times more.

Leonardo’s illegitimacy barred his entry into the guild of magistrates and notaries. For the same reason, he could not attend university or train for any “noble” career. However, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, painter by appointment to the powerful Medici dynasty, and so he began his training as an artist.

Leonardo did not keep a journal. Instead, he wrote a few words scattered throughout his large number of sketchbooks. Often cryptic and wide open to subjective interpretation, these are the main clues to his life choices, interests and activities beyond the surviving works themselves.

This biography aims to assemble the few verifiable facts about Leonardo da Vinci’s life and works. It looks at his surviving works, including his partially-finished projects and those which never made it beyond the planning stage. The text turns to the huge quantity of notebooks and sketchbooks which are crammed with Leonardo’s drawings, ideas, plans and fragmented quotes in order to generate a reliable account of his life.

There are six colour plates, plus numerous monotone plates.

Bramly aims to dispel many of the myths which have grown up around Leonardo. Instead, the author prefers to discover the intelligent, imaginative and cultured man beyond the mere legend, and looks at documented evidence and historical context on which to build his solid portrayal of Leonardo’s life.

Writer of factual and fictional books, a screenwriter and photographer, Serge Bramly was born in Tunisia in 1949. Having moved to France at the age of ten with his family, he studied modern languages at Nanterre then became a teacher of French in Brazil and Pakistan.

For his first novel, The First Principle – The Second Principle, Bramly won the Interallié Prize 2008. His 1982 novel, The Dance of the Wolf, won the Bookseller Prize in 1983. His 1986 non-fiction book, Leonardo da Vinci, won the Vasari Prize.

He has written about musician Man Ray, philosopher Rudolf Steiner, photographer Walter Carone, and collaborated on a book with his wife, photographer Bettina Rheims.

Bramly has written several film scripts, including Sade and La Lumière du Lac.

There is much to enjoy in this well-researched account of one of art history’s most romanticised characters. Bramly offers a detailed study of Leonardo da Vinci’s formative years and early training under Verrocchio’s roof, then explores his developing career and subsequent diverse areas of interest.

The author does not shy away from Leonardo’s failings, both as an artist and as a man. Was he a jack-of-all-trades who could have achieved so much more if only he had focused his attentions on just one or two areas? Leonardo himself seemed to think so in later life.

Leonardo’s career was littered with incomplete projects. Why was it that he left so much work unfinished? Was this due to a lack of self-discipline, distraction by his students who were allegedly chosen for their good looks rather than for their artistic abilities, or did Leonardo’s ambitions outstrip his practical skills?

I was surprised to learn that Leonardo da Vinci left behind only 13 paintings created entirely by his own hand, with another 7 completed in collaboration with other artists. Contrary to popular assumption he was not keen on painting, much preferring to invent mechanics and attempt to improve upon existing inventions.

He was fascinated by flight and may have built several prototype flying machines. While in Cesare Borgia’s employ, he invented new weaponry for the Borgia army.

I appreciated the author’s determined attempts to set aside myths and fantasy, and instead search out documented evidence of Leonard’s various commissions, trials and travels.

Life in a Bottega

I found Bramly’s description of how a typical artist’s studio, or bottega, worked in that time period, which is entirely different from how studios operate today. Then it was typically a ground-floor residence which opened onto the street, with finished items on display and the artists working in full view of the passing public.

The artists would accept all kinds of work, even seemingly humble commissions, so long as money changed hands. These were entirely commercial enterprises, with a totally practical approach to art. The master artist, his family and his apprentices lived and dined together above the bottega. Many master artists exchanged students or permitted them to benefit from each other’s tutelage.

An interesting book, not in the least bit dry or heavy-going for all its considerable size, Leonardo: The Artist and the Man offers a good introduction to the life of one of this world’s greatest creative minds.

Unfortunately, many of the monochrome reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s works are mediocre in quality. They are very dark and details are difficult to make out, and often also rather small. Perhaps the original works have deteriorated badly and this accounts for the quality of printing here? This is a pity, but this is why a rating of only four stars has been awarded to this book.

I feel the author’s easy dismissal of Sigmud Freud’s attempted analysis Leonardo da Vinci’s psychology was too quick. After all, the renowned Austrian psychologist had only the same surviving data to base his theories upon as did the biographer. Both conclusions are inevitably subjective.

The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:

  1. https://www.dhm.de/archiv/ausstellungen/inri/interview.htm
  2. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0104247/
  3. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Bramly
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Bramly