The biographies in the Penguin Lives series share a mission to take a well-known life whose extant facts are obscured and bring it "to life" through an inspired matching of subject and author. That, and Penguin aims for brevity and narrative flair. Sherwin Nuland's LEONARDO DA VINCI is the fourth volume in the series I've read, and while I did not find it ultimately as satisfying as Carol Shields' JANE AUSTIN or RWB Lewis's DANTE, it is pretty darn good. Nuland, a professor of clinical surgery at Yale University and the author of the award-winning HOW WE DIE, took on a formidable challenge in Leonardo da Vinci. The man lived a long life, particularly for his time, and he was all over the map. He was an engineer, an artist, a scientist. He did nothing in linear fashion. He often started a project and lost interest in it; the finished products for which he is known are just the tip of the iceberg. Though he once spoke of writing 121 books, Leonardo never sat down to create one coherent manuscript; instead, his legacy was thousands of pages of notes in no particular order, that a few adventuresome archivists since his death have shaped into various portfolios here and there. Given that and the mission of brevity, it is too much, I suppose, to expect the book to touch all the bases. Nuland chooses a few major battles, among them what enabled the genius (revisiting Freud's thesis of homosexuality), and the genius revealed through Leonardo's anatomical studies. Particularly in respect to the latter, Nuland is highly qualified to instruct in just how accurate the drawings are and how far-sighted were the conclusions for their time. I wish Nuland had offered up some other information: What was the environment of a dissecting laboratory in those days? Has anyone ever investigated the possibility that Leonardo may have been ADHD or entertained some other disorder that affected his organizational skills but which also enabled the compensatory visual and intellectual skills? How exactly did he die? If he was appreciated for his art work in his own time, and known for being well liked, how was his death received? Where is he buried? Stuff like that.
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