The runaway best seller of the past several years is, of course, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Brown’s thriller, among other things, promotes the idea that Leonardo was one of a line of keepers of Holy Grail knowledge and objects as a member of secret society, the Priory of Sion.
Leonardo, Brown’s book further postulates, painted clues about hidden facts of Jesus’ life, primarily in The Last Supper.
Now comes Charles Nicholl’s new comprehensive biography of Leonardo that explores every nook of the great artist’s life and works with detective-like tenacity, a book that would be attractive to The Da Vinci Code fans.
What does Nicholl say about Brown’s theories?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Professor Robert Langdon, Brown’s fictional sleuth, would be quite disappointed.
That’s not a fault of the biography. The lack of a shred of evidence that Leonardo had contact with the priory or possessed any special knowledge about Jesus apparently led Nicholl to decide that the book millions of people associate with the Renaissance giant was not worth mentioning.
That is despite the fact that Nicholl describes other Leonardo research and curatorial activity as recent as 2004 in his 622-page biography.
That aside, Nicholl’s book must be considered against the pile of previous Leonardo biographies. In that regard, Nicholl’s effort shines brightly.
Nearly all books about Leonardo basically are rewrites of the original biography by painter/historian Giorgio Vasari along with episodes lifted from Leonardo’s notebooks and observations about his art and scientific endeavors. Some books focus only on one aspect of his genius, like his studies on flight or his anatomical activities and drawings.
Those approaches leave big gaps and make Leonardo’s life difficult to visualize. Nicholl, however, not only brings new evidence from previously unpublished historical sources, he fills in the gaps to take the reader through Leonardo’s life (1452-1519), practically season by season and year by year in Vinci, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome and France.
Nicholl does not fail to generate his own controversy. The biographer proposes new paintings and other artworks that Leonardo either executed or had a hand in its creation.
Leonardo is now widely acknowledged to have been homosexual, although some historians prefer to consider him as asexual. Nicholl emphasizes the evidence suggesting homosexuality. Nicholl also presents new evidence, however, that for one brief period, when Leonardo was 57, he may have had an intimate relationship with a woman, perhaps the model for his nude “Leda and the Swan” painting that is now lost.The lone weakness in Nicholl’s biography is the brevity of critical analyses of Leonardo’s art. Otherwise, the genius and humanity of this Italian master glow as never before.