Sherwin B. Nuland’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) aims to find the course of the Renaissance intellectual’s vast curiosity and intelligence despite his lack of formal education. According to Nuland, a surgeon and historian at Yale, da Vinci is a difficult character to decipher because few materials of his time survive, but nonetheless he was “a modern mind, the first of its kind that posterity can look back on” (6-7) for his intellectual originality, his deftness at experimentation, and his desire to liberate himself and other thinkers from ancient sources. Approaching da Vinci as a precursor to modern scientific thinkers, Nuland produces a thoughtful, brief biography that does not paint a grand picture of a celebrated life, but a well-written analysis of a renowned intellect.
Nuland spends little time dissecting da Vinci’s early life, devoting a single chapter to his life until age thirty. An illegitimate child and grandson of an affluent landowner, da Vinci spent his childhood at first with his mother, who influence some historians claim was the root of his supposed homosexuality; Nuland handles the subject delicately, claiming that no conclusive proof of it exists though it is probable.
Indeed, da Vinci was charged with sodomy in 1476 but the charges were dismissed. (28-29) He gives some credence to Freud’s claim about da Vinci’s sexual orientation but adds that “the more unfashionable [Freud] has become in recent decades the more it is rejected.” (18) To his credit, Nuland does not fill the factual gaps with conjecture, instead confining himself to what is known about da Vinci’s early life, and he addresses these gaps clearly. Also, he does not take legend as gospel truth, alluding in places to common misconceptions about da Vinci’s life but spending little time debunking them, preferring to avoid what cannot be verified by contemporary sources.
Given an incomplete education before age fifteen (he apparently never learned classical languages), da Vinci apparently benefited from this, claims Nuland, because it left him without bias toward established sources of knowledge and allowed him to think and experiment more freely. Da Vinci moved to Florence in his late teens, where he was apprenticed to an artist, taught himself the sciences and architecture, and became involved with the powerful Medici and Sforza families. Moving to Milan at age thirty after several relatively lean years (he remained there until age forty-eight and returned to Florence), da Vinci became more intellectually active and productive, with his studies of anatomy (particularly motion and musculature) helping bolster his painting skills, particularly in The Last Supper (completed 1498), in which the apostles’ thoughts are vividly depicted on their faces. (48-49)
He clearly took a scientist’s eye to painting, claims Nuland, and applied something of an artist’s appreciation for creativity to his scientific and technical works as well. Nuland grounds this approach in his understanding of nature independent of religion:
It should not go unnoticed that he referred not . . . to “the infinite works of God,” but to those of nature. That which was of God, he left to the clergy; that which was of nature, he took to be in his domain. It was a statement worthy of a twenty-first-century researcher. (55)
In addition, says Nuland, the key to da Vinci’s intellect was his approach to experimentation, which matched that of today’s scientists: “Leonardo knew that the most direct path to truth is repeated personal experience with the phenomena and laws of nature. . . .” (63)
In the middle of the book, Nuland shifts from biographical facts to a deeper explanation of how da Vinci’s intellect worked. Da Vinci apparently took pride in being liberated from established thinking by his lack of formal education, calling it “an emblem of seeking to be uninfluenced by judgments other than those he had arrived at by his own unbiased observations.” (64) This, coupled with his own insatiable curiosity, is perhaps why da Vinci pursued so many intellectual fields with such energy and unbridled zeal. Without the burdens of dogma and established thought, Nuland claims, da Vinci was able to learn on his own terms and practice what is now called inductive reasoning without allegiance to any one else’s methods.
Nuland devotes several pages to discussing the Mona Lisa, particularly the figure’s enigmatic smile. Mentioning a variety of interpretations, the author partially concurs with Freud that da Vinci approached it with fond memories of his own mother, thus creating a “tribute to idealized motherhood, and . . . to his probably unconscious preoccupation with retrieving the early years during which he was the sole star in his mother’s firmament.” (81) As evidence, he uses the position and puffiness of the model’s hands, as well as her inscrutable smile, and his assertion does not seem at all unreasonable. (Nuland seems to take Freud with the proverbial grain of salt, conceding that his theories refuse to disappear because they hold some value.)
Nuland depicts da Vinci’s life as a busy one, punctuated by moves between Florence and Milan, with sojourns to Rome and France, and political intrigues that threatened to leave him without patronage. Indeed, says Nuland, his patrons were often slow to pay him adequately, and political turmoil in Renaissance Italy sometimes left him without a sponsor; only late in life did he find what Nuland considers “a patron worthy of his genius” (95) – King Francis I of France, who gave da Vinci a stipend and a home in Cloux, where he died in 1519. Some of the man’s personality emerges, such as his occasional inability to finish works (or, in the case of the Mona Lisa, to part with them) and his clashes with Michelangelo, a younger Renaissance giant who dismissed the elder artist’s work as too anatomical and scientific. However, Nuland does not speculate much about da Vinci’s personality, focusing instead on the factors that shaped and drove his formidable intellect.
By page 100, Nuland ends his cursory overview of da Vinci’s life and turns instead to his manuscripts, which totaled five thousand pages and are both loaded with visionary ideas (like his notion of what later became the tank) and difficult to read (due to da Vinci’s habit of writing from right to left due to his left-handedness). Here is the substance of Nuland’s work, since the author states at the beginning of the book that he aimed to understand his subject’s mind first and foremost. He sees in the texts a larger picture of a sophisticated scientist who showed an understanding of biological evolution rather than the church-based superstition that then passed for scientific thought, anticipating Lyell and Darwin over three centuries later.
Nuland states, “It was unpredictable nature that Leonardo saw as the creator of the ever-changing wonders of the earth, and he did not hesitate to say so,” (106-107), though he is careful not to condemn the Catholic church of the era, which was quick to identify and punish heretics. The careful approach that Nuland practices throughout the book manifests itself here as well. He also devotes two final chapters to da Vinci’s studies of anatomy, to which he applied his keen powers of observation (a tool that later became integral to modern science).
The book is concise and somewhat lean at only 170 pages, though this brevity makes Nuland’s work more approachable. He does not fictionalize or spend much energy on conjecture (perhaps because of his own scientific and historical training), instead looking at what is known about da Vinci without trying to propose any bold, novel theories about him. On the whole, this is a highly credible, useful overview of da Vinci’s life and intellect; though it lacks boldness or originality, it is a reliable, carefully-written source with the same appreciation for verifiable fact that its subject showed, centuries ahead of his time.