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Leonardo Hardcover – November 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews


"A serious book filled with fresh thought.... Kemp has succeeded at something that is possible only after years of reflection."--A. Richard Turner, Los Angeles Times

"Leonardo seen from the inside out.... A series of intense, learned meditations on Leonardesque themes.... Kemp tries to define what Leonardo thought he was doing, and why. He argues, convincingly, that Leonardo was constantly searching for a universal system of proportion--not merely a system of aesthetic proportion, like the famous Golden Mean, but a system of proportion that would explain, as Newton's inverse-square rule of gravity did, two centuries later, the fundamental workings of forces."--Adam Gopnick, The New Yorker

"A leading authority on Leonardo da Vinci, Kemp attempts to set forth a succinct, understandable, unified account of da Vinci's creative and intellectual life.... Fascinating, enlightening, well written, and easy to read."--Library Journal

"Excites the reader's admiration for the restless vitality of the man and his ideas.... Kemp is at his best when elucidating Leonardo's scientific investigations.... The heart of his book introduces us to some of the investigations that kept Leonardo from finishing paintings, ranging from optics, anatomy and engineering to geology and hydraulics."--Washington Post Book World

"Kemp, an eminent Oxford art historian and Leonardo scholar, has condensed what he calls Leonardo's 'strange career' as an artist, engineer, and musician into a series of key moments."--The Economist

"A noble attempt to bring a legend down to earth.... Kemp's experience offers just as many pleasures and benefits; after a career spent researching the artist, he's well suited to provide a personal account of Leonardo, enriched by anecdotes and contemporary analogies. At the close, he succinctly reviews why Leonardo is worth studying, using the Mona Lisa as case in point and giving a marvelous description of the experience of seeing the painting out of its frame and bullet-proof case. It makes an exceptional finale."--Kirkus Reviews

"If Martin Kemp's book is as widely read and discussed as it deserves to be, a new image of Leonardo will supplant that of the indecisive polymath. This new Leonardo will be seen as a consummate quester, one whose curiosity took him everywhere."--St. Petersburg Times

"Kemp is a recognized authority on Leonardo and has some more substantial things to say about him. The illustrations, the thumbnail gallery of the paintings and the biographical timeline also make this a concise and useful reference book."--San Jose Mercury News

About the Author

Martin Kemp is University Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, Trinity College. The author of The Oxford History of Western Art, he is an eminent art historian who has carried out extensive research into the art, science, and technology of Leonardo.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805461
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 1 x 5.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,276,131 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By STEPHEN PLETKO on April 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover

This book by Oxford University Professor of Historical Art Martin Kemp gives the reader the opportunity to "grasp the essential nature of Leonardo da Vinci, both as himself and as a historical phenomenon." Kemp, who has investigated Leonardo for over thirty years, does this through historical documents and through studying mainly Leonardo's drawings and paintings.

A highlight of this book is the inclusion of letters not only written by Leonardo but those written about him or his works. For example, consider this letter from another artist written during the last years of Leonardo's life:

"[The King], being enamoured to such an extraordinary degree of Leonardo's great talents, took such pleasure in hearing him talk that he would only on a few days deprive himself of his company...I cannot resist repeating the words I heard the King say about him...he said that a man had never been born who knew as much as Leonardo, not only in the spheres of painting, sculpture, and architecture, but in that he was a very great philosopher."

This book contains almost twenty-five reproductions of Leonardo's drawings peppered throughout. My personal favorites are Leonardo's engineering drawings and anatomical drawings. There are also twenty mainly color plates (in two sets of ten plates). These consist mainly of reproductions of Leonardo's paintings. My personal favorites are the "Mona Lisa" and the "Last Supper." There is also a "Gallery" of his paintings at the end of the book. This gallery consists of nearly twenty-five reproductions.

The very last section of the book has "Leonardo's Life in Outline." It traces his life from when he was born in 1452 until he died in 1519.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By RompingStallion on November 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent historical biography on Leonardo da Vinci. The book is solid facts one after another, mostly taken from surviving documents such as financial transactions and Leonardo's notebooks. The downside is that if you are reading this book for the sake of reading a good book, it can be a tad boring. The writing style is not fluid, perhaps a little choppy at times, since it is so fact-oriented. If you want to know the cold hard facts about Leonardo, this is the book for you (like for a research project). If you are looking for a good read that is a little more subjective you might not like it as much.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Los Angeles reader on December 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Based on other reviews and the author's status as an Oxford professor of art history who has spent years studying Leonardo, I was looking forward to this book. What I found instead was an easy read that is neither fish nor foul. The author waxes sentimental over his stay in "Mona Lisa's room" and takes jibes at Dan Brown fans. His chapters on Leonardo's science describe Leonardo's ideas in detail, with great reverence for Leonardo's intellect, but it would be more interesting to hear Leonardo's ideas assessed according to modern perspective: do today's geologists agree about the previous existence of lakes? Were his math solutions or water treatises worth anything as science? Kemp's book is neither a full, warm biographical portrait, nor an academic assessment of Leonardo's contributions to art and science, but it is short and double-spaced. Beware frequent typos and homonym errors such as "raised to the ground."
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By DH on October 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was looking forward to this book based on Professor Kemp's reputation and some of the glowing reviews this book has received.

Unfortunately I tend to agree with what another reviewer described as Kemp's "not fluid" writing style. I would add that I found the book a "dry" read, almost technically put together, in an academic sense. It reminds me of a college textbook.

I do not for one minute doubt Kemp's credentials and knowledge of the subject.
Where he failed is to recreate, as every good biographer should, the nuances of the subject's personality and effect of his surroundings on him and vice versa.
Kemp goes into much technical detail about what he perceives as Leonardo's approach and philosophy, exhaustively details his various surviving works, but provides far too little in terms of what a biography should be; it fails to recreate in the reader's mind Leonardo's world, interactions, passion and the aura of the great Leonardo da Vinci. It gets to the point where I get the feeling Leonardo was a prolific machine, not a passionate artist.

5 stars for Kemp's effort minus three for failing to do Leonardo justice.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on July 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Highly recommended for any reader who simply wants to be exposed to the essence of this genius who lived five hundred years ago.

Martin Kemp has written a short book with much information and many keen insights. Only an extremely knowledgeable and highly capable writer could have produced a book on this topic in such a pleasing and compact format. For those who wish to delve deeper, a good list of additional books to read is provided.
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Kemp's approach to the study of Leonardo offers a unique and insightful perspective into the man, that I haven't found elsewhere. When I've looked at some of Leonardo's works I have wanted to know what and how he saw, and then processed, the world around him. Kemp's delving into those creative processes, whether artistic, scientific or in his note-writing, gives me a better idea of how the artist accomplished all he did. In fact, Kemp's approach to Leonardo is a bit like Leonardo's approach to his creations. A well-written read for those who want to better understand how Da Vinci worked.
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