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Paul Strathern, an English historian and novelist with a number of books to his name, on a moment in 1502 when the lives of three geniuses–an Artist, a Philosopher, and a Warrior–intersected.

TitleThe Artist, The Philosopher, and The Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and The World They Shaped, by Paul Strathern

Completed: March 17, 2012 (#19)

Recommendation: Entertaining and informative, albeit a bit heavy on the Freud

There are certain historical periods that are simply so engrossing that a popular history is bound to benefit. Periclean Athens, Tudor England, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Second World War are all candidates. Perhaps first among equals is the Florentine (and more broadly, the Italian) Cinquecento, when so many strands of renascent Classical thought, art, and techne combined with some terrifically nasty, brutish, and short political lives. Mr. Strathern’s book, which chronicles a brief moment in 1502 when Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia were in close and continuing contact, is no exception to the general rule that a rising tide floats all ships.

In 1502, Cesare Borgia was busily attempting to knit together the various principalities of the Romagna with the cooperation of his father, Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli found himself assigned to represent his native Florence as a diplomat in Borgia’s peripatetic court, and da Vinci, Renaissance man extraordinaire, was drafted into service as Borgia’s chief military engineer, designing various siege engines, diverting rivers, reinforcing battlements, inventing destructive new projectiles, and generally applying his fecund imagination to the martial arts. Much is known about this period as relates to Borgia and Machiavelli, whose dispatches to Soderini in Florence exhaustively report on Borgia’s plans and movements, and Mr. Strathern synthesizes the historical materials into an enjoyable and accessible text.

If the book suffers from a flaw (other than its unnecessarily oversold title), it is Mr. Strathern’s strenuous efforts to work da Vinci into the story, which one presumes is a reasonable marketing ploy given the popularity of all things da Vinci these days. Leonardo is a famously enigmatic character who left behind a relatively spare record for future historians, despite the thousands of his notebook pages that have survived. Where the record is silent, Mr. Strathern invents and speculates. For the most part, his suppositions have the ring of plausibility–perhaps Machiavelli would have learned thus-and-such from Leonardo at this time, perhaps this well-known trait of Leonardo could have been provoked by his time spent in the employ of the famously cruel Borgia.

On other occasions, Mr. Strathern indulges in the strangely anachronistic intellectual tic of applying Freudian psychology to an individual who lived half a millennium ago. Exhibit A:

The fact that both these adoring stepmothers would die when he was still young doubtless caused him sorrow, and may have contributed to the reserved self-possession that he began to display.

This claim is delivered as though it were self-evident that deaths of beloved stepmothers lead ineluctably to “reserved self-possession.” While A Superfluous Man is not as versed in the history of the period as Mr. Strathern, one imagines that there is not a single scrap of notebook written in Leonardo’s mirror script that states, “Whilst I am generally inclined toward a sunny and outgoing optimism, due to the unfortunate loss of my stepmothers, henceforward, I shall keep my thoughts to myself more.” Biographers surely should be given some license to plumb the depths of their subjects’ unknowable psyches, but Mr. Strathern pushes into dubious territory more than once.

Exhibit B:

Partly in self-conscious assertion of his own exceptional abilities, and partly in bravura compensation for his illegitimacy, Leonardo had developed into something of a dandy.

Indeed, one of those reserved, introspective dandies, no doubt. We all know the type. You know, the sort who broods over the deaths of his stepmothers but paints the town red on account of his biological mother’s promiscuity? Tale as old as time.

Naturally, as good Freudians, we must attribute as many personality traits to Dear Mother as possible. We learn, for instance, through analysis of da Vinci’s supposed fingerprints (lifted from his notebooks), that it is possible that he had Arabic or Middle Eastern blood, which explains why his mother was named Caterina (a popular name for Arab slaves), which in turn explains why da Vinci was interested in building a bridge across the Golden Horn in Istanbul for the Sultan. Occam’s razor might conclude that perhaps the age’s preeminent engineer wanted to try his hand at a fascinating engineering problem, but yeah, sure, maybe he wanted to reconnect with mama’s roots.

Da Vinci’s most famous work does not escape psychologizing:

Could this [i.e., the Mona Lisa] have been his attempt to capture some childhood vision of perfection—the young Caterina, his mother, motherhood? This might explain why Leonardo never finished his greatest work, keeping it in his possession throughout his ensuing travels, all the while returning to work on it for brief periods.

Perhaps A Superfluous Man is simply dense, but is this causal connection really so apparent? Is it true that paintings of mothers are more difficult to complete or only subject to brief and infrequent periods of work? Whistler’s Mother is not amused.

The book’s greatest flight of fantasy speaks for itself:

Leonardo’s recent biographer Charles Nicholl has noted that on occasions when Leonardo was likely to have been deeply moved, a certain repetitive tic is noticeable in his notebook entries. Thus, when his recently widowed mother Caterina had traveled all the way to Milan to live with him when she was in her mid-sixties and near to death, the entry recording this moving event reads: ‘On the 16th day of July. Caterina came on the 16th day Of July 1493.’ … The quasi-poetic form of this entry would seem to be no accident.

Even typos indicate even typos indicate even typos indicate how much this sort of thing bothers A Superfluous Man.

Part of the difficulty here, no doubt, is that it is virtually impossible to fill a book with thoughtful comments on artistic or musical geniuses. That Leonardo was an extraordinary man is apparent from his work–any amount of blather ex post facto is just so much spilled ink. Nevertheless, and while this review has had some fun with a few passages, Mr. Strathern’s book is definitely worthy of note–when he sticks to pure political history, his writing is certain to edu-tain.

Let us then conclude this review by allowing the three Geniuses to have the last word.

 The Artist:

And the Philosopher, writing about the Warrior:

Nasce da questo una disputa: s’elli è meglio essere amato che temuto, o e converso. Rispondesi che si vorrebbe essere l’uno e l’altro; ma perché elli è difficile accozzarli insieme, è molto più sicuro essere temuto che amato, quando si abbia a mancare dell’uno de’ dua. Perché delli uomini si può dire questo generalmente: che sieno ingrati, volubili, simulatori e dissimulatori, fuggitori de’ pericoli, cupidi di guadagno; e mentre fai loro bene, sono tutti tua, ófferonti el sangue, la roba, la vita è figliuoli, come di sopra dissi, quando il bisogno è discosto; ma, quando ti si appressa, è si rivoltano. E quel principe che si è tutto fondato in sulle parole loro, trovandosi nudo di altre preparazioni, rovina; perché le amicizie che si acquistano col prezzo, e non con grandezza e nobiltà di animo, si meritano, ma elle non si hanno, et a’ tempi non si possano spendere. E li uomini hanno meno respetto a offendere uno che si facci amare, che uno che si facci temere; perché l’amore è tenuto da uno vinculo di obbligo, il quale, per essere li uomini tristi, da ogni occasione di propria utilità è rotto; ma il timore è tenuto da una paura di pena che non abbandona mai.

[Trans.: Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.]

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