Leonardo da Vinci: the best books of the last 500 years

His death was five centuries ago, but the artist, scientist and inventor still fascinates. Jonathan Jones recommends the best books to come to grips with the Tuscan prodigy

It’s 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died and almost as long since the first, and still most seductive, biography of him appeared. Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book The Lives of the Artists is still in print – and a great read. It’s full of strange tales, including the time the teenaged artist made a monster from lizards, bats and insects then painted it on a shield to terrify his father. The way Vasari tells it, you’re not quite sure if this was art or magic – it almost reads as if the monster came to life. Yet Vasari’s fabulism is threaded with nuggets from people who knew the polymath. They remembered his love of young men with long curly hair, belief in animal rights and “heretical” lack of religion.

One of the reasons Vasari’s blend of history and fairytale still works is that Leonardo and the Renaissance Italy that produced him are almost too exotic for scholars to portray. That’s why the most approachable introduction to the Tuscan prodigy and his world may be through Sarah Dunant’s well-researched historical novels. In the Name of the Family (Virago) is about the artist’s ruthless patron Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son who tried to conquer Italy. We encounter Leonardo working for Borgia as a military engineer – will his fortifications be ready in time or will he get distracted by some other invention?

A da Vinci study of muscle structure, now held in Milan’s Science and Technology Museum.
A da Vinci study of muscle structure, now held in Milan’s Science and Technology Museum. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Leonardo’s double life as artist and scientist is no myth. His notebooks are full of astounding designs and dogged investigations. Since they started to be transcribed from his mirror script in the 19th century it has become possible for anyone to dip into these phenomenal jottings. The handiest selection, Notebooks, is by Irma Richter, updated by Thereza Wells (Oxford). To read his own words interpreting fossils that peasants brought him or vowing to test a flying machine “which will fill the world with its great fame” is to get close to his boundless curiosity and inventiveness. To get still closer, you need to see the notes in their original context beside the wondrous drawings to which they relate. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist by Martin Clayton and Ron Philo (Royal Collection) makes this elegantly possible by setting drawings from the Queen’s unrivalled collection beside analyses that show how far ahead of his time he was. Not all his science is accurate and some of it isn’t even science as we know it – he believed in the medieval theory of the four elements and died before Copernicus dared suggest we orbit the sun – but he had a precocious grasp of scientific method. All knowledge has to be tested against “experience”, he insisted. His anatomical drawings are masterpieces of observation, in which he sees details no other scientist would notice for centuries.

He is not just an artist and scientist. He’s a celebrity phenomenon – an artist who’s been dead for five centuries yet holds the record for the world’s most expensive painting sold at auction. How can the complexity and subtlety of the real man get through the noise of art market mayhem, bestsellers and TV travesties? Martin Kemp, a Leonardo authority, enjoyably negotiates the “madness” in Living with Leonardo (Thames & Hudson), a personal account of his involvement in some of the biggest stories – including that of Salvator Mundi – that is also a summary of his research on Leonardo’s scientific mind.

• Jonathan Jones’s Sensations: The Story of British Art from Hogarth to Banksy is published on 22 April by Laurence King.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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