Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Warfare, Terror, Murder and da Vinci: Paul Strathern's "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior"

Leonardo da Vinci is an artist whose name is instantly recognizable but whose artwork can seem so familiar to 21st century eyes that the actual paintings feel lost behind a veil of cultural expectations. Paul Strathern's new book, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, allows us to see Leonardo as a living man and artist shaped by his time, friendships and experiences.

Strathern's book opens with an epigraph spoken by Orson Welles' character, Harry Lime, in The Third Man.

From the vantage point of a ferris wheel high above Vienna, Orson Welles surveys the battered post-war city beneath him and says. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

A Brief Convergence

Paul Strathern who has a background in philosophy, and writes often on the subject, approaches the brief convergence of Leonardo, Borgia and Machiavelli as a sort of biographical/philosophical thought experiment. Like a good professor, Strathern asks questions:

"What was it precisely that made Leonardo agree to work for Borgia?"
What were Leonardo's "real intentions"?
How did Leonardo "become involved with Machiavelli?"

Paul Strathern defines his terms with background and analysis of the three major characters. Like Orson Welles, Paul Strathern uses a keen eye and a sense of humor to survey the events surrounding Machiavelli's Florentine diplomatic mission in 1502 which put Leonardo in the service of Cesare Borgia. Strathern vividly describes Renaissance Italy in the 1500's, which was not a unified country under the banner of Italy but instead a collection of constantly battling city states and principalities dominated by Milan, Venice, Naples, Florence and the pope in Rome. The book's narrative introduces us to da Vinci, Machiavelli and Borgia and then weaves, in a Rashomon view, their lives and the events surrounding them from three different vantage points. Strathern helps us see the vibrance and struggle of Renaissance Italy from the viewpoints of the artist, the philosopher, and the warrior.

A Visual Realm of Ideas

In a way that I find new to biographies of Leonardo, Paul Strathern concerns himself not only with the events in da Vinci's life, but especially in how Leonardo learned to think, ponder and dream. Leonardo da Vinci was born as the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci. Because of the circumstances around his birth, Leonardo was not allowed to receive a classical education and so did not learn Latin as a youth. How did the young da Vinci grow into such a deep thinker?

Strathern clearly shows that Leonardo's artistic and scientific investigations were prompted by his own curiosity and massive intelligence. Even without Latin, Leonardo was able to read the classics in translation. Through his study of the Roman author Lucretius, whose epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) sought to explain the world in scientific terms, Leonardo learned that accurate understanding derives from investigation and experience.

"Reflect that the most wicked act of all is to take the life of a man. For if his external form appears to be a marvelously subtle construction, realize that this is nothing compared with the soul which dwells within this structure."
- Leonardo da Vinci, from his notebooks

Leonardo cherished life so much that he became a vegetarian but at the same time he devised weapons and instruments of war. This conflict runs throughout Leonardo's adult life and Paul Strathern addresses this paradox throughout the book:
Leonardo "served with no apparent show of unwillingness (even in the privacy of his notebooks), as military engineer to the ruthless murderer Cesare Borgia, a monster whose name would enter history as a byword for infamy."

Perhaps an answer can be found in the zeitgeist of the era. As Strathern explains, the Renaissance prompted a more rational humanist outlook in the worlds of art and literature, but medieval fears and prejuidices remained strong. In troubled times, a collective mania could take hold. A similar, collective mania, took hold in the United States after the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

This collective mania was hidden in the richly nuanced shadows in Leonardo's paintings. Caught in the sfumato in "The Adoration of the Magi", now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, warriors on horseback battle. Lost to time, but remembered in Peter Paul Rubens' restoration and reworking of an Italian 16th-century drawing, horses lock forelegs and armored soldiers scream as they battle for the standard in Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari.


Like a figure from da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari, Cesare Borgia died on a battlefield.

After the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1510, Machiavelli was stripped of his Florentine citizenship, kicked out of his political office, fined 1,000 florins which left him almost penniless, banned from the city of Florence, and cast into an early forced retirement at his tiny family farm seven miles outside the city walls. At 43, Machiavelli had lost his career and his wealth. But he still could write:

"For four hours, I forget all my worries and boredom. I am afraid neither of poverty nor death. I am utterly absorbed in this world of my mind. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he remembers what he has understood, I have noted down what I have learned from these conversations. The result is a short book, called The Prince, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the subject of how to rule."

Leonardo da Vinci left a legacy of unpublished volumes, uncast sculptures, unrealized engineering projects, and unfinished paintings. Strathern theorizes that Leonardo's time with Cesare Borgia was brutish and caused Leonardo to doubt that humans were essentially good. Among diagrams and plans for weapons and machines, Leonardo wrote, "I will not publish or divulge such things." Leonardo saw the evil nature in men and did not trust humanity with his genius. A weapon, elegantly realized with a quill pen on a sheet of costly paper, becomes horrible when realized in the physical world and used to tear flesh and bone. Ultimately, Leonardo's discoveries lay hidden for centuries.

Leonardo's inability to finish his projects had aesthetic reasons as well. Since the classical age, unfinished artworks were cherished because they seemed to reveal the living thoughts of the artist. Leonardo da Vinci saw that an initial sketch captured the very instant of inspiration. Inspiration was valued as being more urgent and vital than a finished work of art itself. The initial idea or conception is what truly mattered to da Vinci. Once Leonardo had grasped the artistic idea, a finished work of art already existed in his mind.

Strathern's The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped lights a darkened era. From the smoky depths of sfumato glazes we peer into da Vinci's world of nuance and suggestion. In Leonardo's artistic legacy and Strathern's satisfying book we are left with existential questions, mere hints about our time on earth and the threads of history and influence that link us to the past.


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