BOOK REVIEW / Last ripeness of the Renaissance: 'Leonardo da Vinci: The Artist and the Man' - Serge Bramly: Michael Joseph, 25 pounds

LEONARDO DA VINCI was cursed with abilities, but we need not envy him. Think of his restlessness as, twanging the strings of the intricate lyre he has designed, he worries whether to get on with his flying machine or his treatise on the behaviour of water, or those plans for a two-tier city; or, reluctantly, that painting over there, the one thing most likely to bring in the money.

And Leonardo needed the money. As an autodidact and the unprivileged son of a local dignitary, he had to outshine his specialist rivals. But the times were past when one single man could know everything. The man who in so many ways was ahead of his time was himself an anachronism. I even sense a hint, between the lines of his history, that his claims and schemes sometimes provoked the amusement of the Great and the Bad themselves.

Any one of these princes to whom Leonardo drafted letters (which after the usual preamble of cringing courtesies soon expanded into lists of what be could do to improve the city's drainage, equip the army with the latest in weaponry, sort out the traffic and celebrate the reigning thug with a dazzling pageant) could have transformed the history of art by giving Leonardo a lifetime job as a sort of Minister of Works. Fortune, however, made sure that Leonardo was thwarted in his several ambitions, for although he did get the occasional canal or armament consultancy, he was more often than not cornered into merely painting pictures.

Ever since Vasari's brilliant (and nearly contemporary) account in his Lives, Leonardo has been the subject more of extravagant and semi-fictitious biography than of sober chronicle. He has been the prime target for cranky theorists, among whom the prize for eccentric twaddle could well go to Sigmund Freud.

Serge Bramly tells the tale thoughtfully and well, showing how Leonardo ran the whole gauntlet of late Renaissance patronage. Starting with the Medici in Florence, he moved on to the Sforza in Milan, then to the Borgia and back to the Medici again (this time in the person of Pope Leo X, in Rome) before dying in the arms of the King Francois I of France, who had brought the old and partly paralysed sage to a last safe haven in Amboise. The nightmare of Italian politics in those fast-moving days is well sketched.

The best art, of course, is not always done in peaceful times: yet a little more stability would have given us, say, the great equestrian statue on which Leonardo spent more than five years of his Sforza period, resolving huge design problems and planning its complex casting. By the time the moulds were ready, bronze was wanted for cannons rather than monuments. 'Of the horse,' Leonardo noted, 'I say nothing, for I know what times these are.'

On this and other practical episodes Serge Bramly is informed and illuminating. Where he falls short is in his response to the art itself. A casual flip through the sparse and blotchy illustrations arouses suspicion. The (surely spurious) drawing of a bicycle heads one page. Another is given over to that cross between a chestnut and a red herring, the so-called Nude Mona Lisa, allegedly commissioned by a libidinous

Medici, which should rather stand as the first of that long gallery of Mona Lisa derivatives whose most recent manifestation is currently on show, complete with collar and tie, in a London exhibition of Lesbian Art.

Although the book is blurbed as having been 'five years in the making', Bramly still thinks the great Cartoon to be in the Royal Academy, which it left many years before he started writing. One must therefore doubt whether he has examined at first hand the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks, or the drawings at Windsor and the British Museum which he uses for his back and front covers. This also is a long tradition, for Vasari described the Mona Lisa vithout having seen it. But apart from a long description of the celebrated Turin self-portrait drawing, there is precious little active analysis of works of art.

Had the author been to the Royal Academy recently, he would have seen in the Private Rooms (which paradoxically are freely open to the public) one of its greatest treasures, the best and most contemporary of all the full- scale copies of the Last Supper. Painted by a pupil or pupils, its accuracy is such that it recently made a brief trip back to Milan to serve as a working guide for the restorers working on its all but vanished source.

To gaze at this replica is both to experience as near as possible what the original looked like, and yet to be agonisingly aware of what it did not look like. The wooden touch of the pupil lacks what one can still apprehend in the tenuous remaining flakes of paint of the ruined original: that risky magic which announces Leonardo's hand.

As an artist he walks the highest wire. On either side of him yawn vertiginous chasms. The smile of the Mona Lisa (if fame and familiarity have made it invisible to you, look at a reproduction in the mirror) is a hair's breadth from the simpering inanity of the mannerist imitators who were to follow. The haunted landscape behind her is inches away from the lunar playing fields of the duller Surrealists. The sfumato shadows, those smoky transitions trom dark to light, were soon and for ever to become in other hands a method of fudging the trickier passages of anatomy. This is the last moment of ripeness in the Renaissance, shared with that other great arm-chancer Raphael; the perfection of the fruit reached just before it drops.

Though Bramly provides none of the tension of looking, he communicates the span of a complex life in changeable times with unprecedented clarity. The art world of Italy at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries seems, with its vanities, power struggles, underhand dealings and quick shifts of reputation, all too familiar. Leonardo's sexuality is not brought into a spotlight, but treated as part of the fabric of his life. Bramly (rightly, I suspect) concludes that we cannot know how active a homosexual the artist was, though we may observe (with some art-historical regret) his sad knack of employing apprentices for their looks rather than their ability.

It is probable that no one will ever again be, as newspeak would have it, so 'vocationally challenged' as this man beset by doubt, who still had the insight to affirm that '. . . the painter who does not doubt himself will never achieve much'. His bitterness grew as each failed, abandoned, or never-taken-up scheme followed another. Yet unlike many such tales, it ends with redemption and consolation, in that scene at Amboise which moved the unsentimental Ingres so much that he painted it not once, but in three different versions.

(Illustration omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn