Cape £25

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior, By Paul Strathern

A gifted historical novelist struggles to unify this account of Leonardo, Machiavelli and a Borgia

In June 1502, Cesare Borgia, son of the infamous Pope Alexander VI, captured Urbino with a characteristically audacious stratagem: he announced that its Duke was dead (which was a lie), and installed himself in the duke's palace. Cesare was attempting to conquer the whole of the Romagna, which stretched from Bologna to Ancona. His exploits during the military campaign were, according to the young diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, "accompanied by a unique good fortune, as well as superhuman daring and confidence that he can achieve what he wants".

Machiavelli had been despatched by the government of his native Florence, on whose lands the Pope's son was trespassing. "You must pledge to support me," Cesare told him, "If you do not want me as a friend, you will find me your enemy." Borgia had powerful allies (his father and the King of France) and Machiavelli had been instructed to appease him. As part of his charm offensive, he offered Cesare the services of the celebrated Florentine military engineer, and myriad-minded Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci.

Borgia enthusiastically enlisted Leonardo as the technical guru of his military operations. Meanwhile, Machiavelli was instructed to keep a watchful eye on Cesare during what was to be a triumphant Romagnian crusade. So it was that the artist (Leonardo), the philosopher (Machiavelli) and the warrior (Borgia) of the title of Paul Strathern's interesting but flawed book, passed the autumn and winter months of 1502-3 together, talking and scheming their way across the Romagna, as city after city fell to Cesare.

Strathern deftly interweaves the narratives of his three main characters and successfully evokes their odyssey, drawing principally on Machiavelli's dispatches, which offer a chorus-like commentary on the unfolding drama. It comes as no surprise to learn that Strathern is a prize-winning novelist, as he has a sensitive ear for memorable phrases and a keen eye for striking detail. With considerable panache he serves up the scenes of murder, pillage, treachery and hedonistic excess with which the name of Borgia has become synonymous, and, in crisp and elegant prose, he explains the intricacies of 16th-century diplomacy, and keeps us up with all the entertaining court gossip.

Such, indeed, is Strathern's flair for vivid description and snappy dialogue that you can't help wishing, as you get a little way into this book, that he had written it as a novel. That reflection is also prompted by a consideration of the meagre historical evidence that has survived from the Romagna campaign, and of the way the author uses it. In a bid to cover up the gaps in the record he is often forced to stretch his flimsy facts to breaking point – and sometimes they snap.

For example, while he cautiously tells us on page 112 that Leonardo's notebooks contain three sketches that are "widely thought to be of Borgia", only a few pages later he confidently cites them as evidence of Cesare's brooding character. By page 317 his confidence has become certainty: he imagines Da Vinci "drawing those three portrait sketches of Borgia as he lay stretched out in his chair before the fire", before going on to deduce from them the artist's attitude to his master and to "the evil nature of men" in general.

Strathern frequently tries to flesh out the indistinct historical outline with this sort of pseudo-psychoanalytical speculation. Throughout, he recklessly attempts to decipher Leonardo's intimate thoughts and private feelings from his notoriously cryptic notebooks. "The very precision," he claims of certain notebook entries, can be read as evidence of the repression of tumultuous emotion. Given Sigmund Freud's spectacularly poor record on Leonardo – much of his famous analysis of the artist's life and the work is demonstrably wrong – the author should perhaps have taken him as a warning rather than as a model.

It leaves you wishing that Strathern had gone the whole hog and invented imaginary conversations. The fictional form would have allowed him to shape his narrative, which is unwieldy, over-long and often loses its momentum. There are too many extraneous and unconnected facts, and a number of repetitions – of scenes (Machiavelli's first encounter with Borgia), phrases and even of illustrations. A judicious edit would have made The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior a readable, though average, work of popular history; only a bold decision to cast it as fiction could have transformed it into something worthy of its gifted author.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific