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Leonardo da Vinci (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – October 2, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Say what one will about Edna O'Brien's ravishing clip job of Joyce, Peter Gay's moderate Mozart or Edmund White's microcosmic Proust, the editors at Penguin Lives have a knack for matching up free-thinking meditators and their subjects. A surgeon and a writer about medicine, Nuland (How We Die) uses much of his brief bookAlimited in size and scope to the series's quick-take, authorially inflected formatAto explain the prodigal da Vinci as pioneering anatomist. The first 11 pages detail Nuland's personal obsession with da Vinci; the later pages describe da Vinci's concern with human and animal anatomy, and review the bibliographical jumble of his surviving notebooks and papers. Nuland's da Vinci is tireless, perhaps sublimated, in his intellectual and artistic activity, finishing few canvases (one the Mona Lisa, another The Last Supper) and almost nothing else during a long life largely financed, sometimes erratically, by patrons who indirectly supported an expensive retinue of friends, assistants and servants. He emerges as a compulsive investigatorAof geometry, optics, hydraulics, architecture, sculpture, painting, botany, biology, military mechanics and the flight of birdsAmoving from city-state to city-state in Italy, encountering ruler after ruler who sought to harness his gifts. Yet perhaps unforgivably, given the series's promise of New Yorker profile-like effervescence, da Vinci as personality slips away; what we get is a clean condensation of the facts. Only the final chapter, "Matters of the Heart and Other Matters," injects some of Leonardo's own fervor, in an in-depth look at one of his abiding obsessions, the structure and function of the human heart. Nuland's account is solid, but lacks enough of the flourish that its subject so effortlessly achieved and, that, on a much smaller scale, the Lives series seems to strive for. 4 illus. BOMC, QPB, History Book Club selections.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Scientific American

Artist, anatomist, architect, mathematician, military engineer-few have been as protean as Leonardo. Sir Kenneth Clark called him "the most relentlessly curious man in history." To Nuland, "he is also the historical figure about whom we are most relentlessly curious." In this brief life, Nuland summarizes Leonardo's achievements skillfully. Being a physician (clinical professor of surgery at Yale University), he is particularly interested in Leonardo's pioneering anatomical dissections and drawings. But to him as to other biographers, Leonardo remains essentially elusive. As the English critic Walter Pater said, "he seemed to those about him as one listening to a voice, silent for other men."



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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 2, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670893919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670893911
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,548,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sherwin B. Nuland is Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale University School of Medicine and a Fellow at Yale's Institute for Social and Policy Studies. He is the author of over ten books, including the National Book Award-winning, HOW WE DIE: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, an inquiry into the causes and modes of death that spent 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In addition he is a contributor to leading publications including the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have read all the Penguin Lives (except for Virginia Woolf; next on my list) and this one is the best of the series. It is such because it meets the perceived goals of these books.
Most of the subjects are mystical; persons with whom we hold an inexplicable fascination. Well, Nuland does an excellent job in explaining this fascination, which he clearly holds. His love of Da Vinci's life and works is manifest. Even though I have never read any of his other books, Nuland leaves me with this impression that this was the project of a lifetime.
Pengiun Lives are necessarily brief. The best ones leave the reader anxious to find out more. Nuland has succeeded with me on this count as well. (So did Edmund White's biography of Proust)
It is a pleasure to recommend this book.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept for a series of such studies. My only complaint (albeit a quibble) is that even an abbreviated index is not provided. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding comments of my own would be appropriate.
On Leonardo's "place": "Leonardo was not to be found in that place [Casa di Leonardo]. In fact, he is not to be found in [italics] any place. He is not a creature of places or monuments or even of permanence. He flashed across his time and was gone, leaving a vast body of work almost none of which except the paintings could be fully appreciated until centuries after his death, and far away from the house in which he was almost certainly not born. Quoting the famous statement of Freud, 'He was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while others were all still asleep.'" (pages 3-4)
On Leonardo's "humanism": "Though he has often been called the ultimate Renaissance man, there is much to be said for the argument that Leonardo was only in part a man of the Renaissance.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Andy Kaylor on April 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I was aware that in addition to being a master painter DaVinci was also a visionary scientist with ideas far ahead of his time, but I had no idea that he had made such remarkable leaps forward in the investigation of anatomy. This is a very interesting side of Leonardo that I'm glad to have learned more about. Even so, I don't know if it deserves to degree of focus this biography gives it.
This work gives a functional overview of the major events of DaVinci's life and dabbles a bit in the interpretation of a few of his more famous works of art. But it is first and foremost a biography of DaVinci the anatomist, to the detriment (it seems to me) of DaVinci the artist and DaVinci the mechanical engineer.
Beyond that, two things bugged me about this book. First, the author is a bit preoccupied with the idea of Leonardo's homosexuality and uses that as a tool to pschoanalyze many areas of his life. The speculations on his early childhood are almost exclusively retrospections guessed at by looking backward from an adult homosexual male.
The second thing that bothered me was the author's treatment of DaVinci's religious beliefs. I recognize that religion may not have been a central focus in DaVinci's life, but he does seem to have had a definite belief in God, whearas Nuland more or less apologizes for that fact whenever he is forced to bring it up and it seems that he would like to simply dismiss it as one of the areas in which DaVinci was a product of his times.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By fdoamerica on April 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Sherwin Nuland writes about the world's greatest genius in the same way a surgeon would methodically approach an operation. Sherwin Nuland is Dr. Nuland, Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale University, where he also teaches medical history. His writing is direct, scientific and unembellished and, when done, he has laid out the life and works of Leonardo before you.
Nuland addresses the personal life of this grand master in the first thirty pages. Nuland discusses the strong indications that Leonardo was homosexual and dialogues with many of Leonardo's previous biographers, including Sigman Freud. Leonardo was an illegitimate child, whose education was only until the age of 15, never married or had even one tryst with the opposite sex. Throughout his life he was subservient to the wishes of the patrons upon whom he relied upon for income. Interesting is the blemished reputation Leonardo had as an artist who started scores of works only to leave behind him a myriad of unfinished paintings, sculptures and drawings.
For Dr. Nuland Leonardo de Vinci's anatomical drawings were his crowing work. For thirteen hundred years before Leonardo the medical world had relied upon the medicine and anatomy of the second century Greek physician, Galen. The magnitude of the forward leap that Leonardo gave science was remarkable, and "remarkable" is an understatement. Leonardo de Vinci dared to think beyond the accepted medical orthodoxy of Galen. Nuland writes, "To question the magisterial Galen was to question the entire framework of medicine." Leonardo, dared to ask not `how' but `why'.
Leonardo was an extraordinary genius whose range of interests was vast. His perceptions and talents were matchless for his day.
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