[Review] The Real Leonardo Da Vinci by Rose Sgueglia

Leonardo Da Vinci was left-handed. That’s probably why he wrote backwards from right to left to avoid smudging ink on his hand as he made notes on his latest works and visionary discoveries. Words could only be read with the help of a mirror making it taxing for anyone but himself to quickly decode his handwriting. There are many theories exploring the reason why he kept using “mirror writing” in all his manuscripts. Some historians say that he was trying to make it more challenging for people to steal his ideas while others claim that it was a clever attempt to hide scientific findings from the intolerant Roman Catholic Church of the Renaissance. Whatever the logic behind this, the constant association with mirror writing and studies on the human body anatomy, made him one of the most enigmatic figures of his and then of our century. This biography investigates Leonardo and his different roles from anatomist to inventor, architect, painter, rumoured to be templar and scientific pioneer. Despite leaving several of his works incomplete, Leonardo managed to influence generations of artists and still today remains a highly regarded figure in both the artistic and scientific sector.

First of all I’d like to extend a massive thank you to both Netgalley and Pen & Sword books for giving me a copy of this book. As many of you know, the Italian Renaissance is my ‘jam’, particularly the era of the Medici in Florence and of course the Borgia in Rome. Of course you can’t love and study the Renaissance without at least having a passing interest in the great polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. This man has long been an interest of mine and if I spot a book on him out in the wild, chances are I’ll pick it up. I remember a few years back there was a Da Vinci exhibition at my local art gallery which turned me into an emotional wreck, so when I saw this book as being available on NetGalley, I knew I just had to read it.

Most biographies of the great Da Vinci can be, quite simply, overwhelming. More often than not they’re big enough to be doorstops and be quite dry – to someone like myself that isn’t exactly a bad thing, but there aren’t that many that provide an easy way in to the intricacies of this remarkable man’s life. Sgueglia’s biography offers that way in – it is an account of his life and his works, his friendships and his loves, his inability to stay in one place for too long and his relationship with other artists. The aim of this book is to give the reader an overview of his life without being an overwhelming read, and it does that. It does that in spades.

Sguelgia’s passion for this fascinating figure in Renaissance history shines through in every word and she takes the reader through his life, from the moment of his birth up until his death, in short sharp chapters. Again, these don’t overwhelm. At the end of the book is a chapter on the myths and legends that surround Da Vinci (in particular him being part of the Templars, but the less that I say on that the better. We can thank Dan Brown for really bring that one to light – let’s not forget that during Da Vinci’s life, the Templars had been disbanded for years and those left behind had been brought into other military orders. The idea just seems like a wild conspiracy theory, at least to me). There is also a section on the psychology of Leonardo and how the famous Freud would have viewed the man. We are also treated to a couple of interview that Sgueglia had with an art historian who has done a great amount of research in the Mona Lisa, and with the director of a film based on Leonardo’s life. These were certainly an interesting addition, the like of which is rarely seen in a biography.

But despite the many positives in this book, there were also many parts that made me sit back and go “hmm”. My biggest concern in this was the complete lack of references – this was particularly glaring to me in the chapter on Leonardo and Cesare Borgia. Sguelgia speaks often of the rumours surrounding Cesare and his sister Lucrezia, and of what he may or may not have thought about this ‘relationship’ between the siblings. This was not gone in to in any sort of detail, nor was the murder of the other Borgia sibling Juan. And there were no references to back any of this up. I would have liked to have seen quotes from Machiavelli backing up the fact that Cesare had little interest in the arts, but there wasn’t nor was there even a reference to back this up. What I would have liked to have seen is expanded points, not only in the Borgia sections but throughout, with sources to back them up. When it comes to expansion of points, I’d definitely have liked to have seen more analysis of Da Vinci’s letters (with quotes!) and more on his life in France – the point on him potentially meeting Anne Boleyn caught my eye, but again there was nothing to back this up which was a real shame. I’d also have liked to have seen a much larger bibliography – Da Vinci is a man who has been written about for centuries, a man who wrote his own notebooks, versions of which can be brought in most good bookshops these days. There are so many sources out there on his life, so it would have been better to see an expanded list of sources used. I was also slightly put off by the list of films included in the bibliography, as well as the list of websites consulted – many of these websites are ones I, and many historians, wouldn’t put any stock in.

These, however are really just niggles. This is an excellent way in to the history of one of the most famous polymaths that history has ever known. Da Vinci’s name is known all over the world and his history can oftentimes seem a bit overwhelming so this is a really good place to start if you’re new to learning about this fascinating man and this fascinating era. Overall this is an easy read and a satisfactory biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and one that should satisfy the itch of either wanting to get started, or learning a little bit more.

3/5