Sunday, July 1, 2007

Leonardo's Shadow

Leonardo's Shadow (Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci's Servant)
by Christopher Grey
Reviewed by Melissa

Leonardo's Shadow is a quiet book. It's not flashy. It doesn't follow trends (unless writing about Leonardo da Vinci is a fad). It's not hip. But, to be any of those things would take away from the simple beauty that is this book.

Giacomo is a boy without a past, someone who became the great Leonardo da Vinci's servant by chance when he was young. Some time later, da Vinci was commissioned to do a painting of the Last Supper for the Duke in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie cathedral. Two years have passed since the commission, and little work has been done on the painting. The Duke, the friar, and da Vinci's creditors are all becoming restless and impatient with da Vinci. Because of his position as servant and assistant, Giacomo gets the brunt of the displeasure, and has to figure out a way to deal with the problems that da Vinci's delays are causing, and how to get da Vinci to finish the painting.

That's the basic plot, but there's so much more to this book.

The book is narrated by Giacomo, and as a result, the style is very chatty and conversational. It was a bit distracting at first, but grew on me fairly quickly. There were the little asides that Giacomo would insert into every conversation, especially the ones with da Vinci, things that you can just imagine a 15-year-old boy thinking. At one point, early on, Giacomo goes to the traditional fight between the servants and apprentices on St. Michael's day. He says:

It's not that I'm scared, not at all. Just shaking a bit. You would be, too.

But here I am now at the main square, where a huge crowd is already gathered.

What a sight! What a spectacle! I'll tell you all about it as soon as this giantlike gentleman standing directly in front of me moves to one side -- ah, that's better. The great Cathedral, whose facade is filled, nook and cranny, with statues and carvings, seems to have come alive with the light of the torches burning below. All around the square, sucking pigs -- dozens of them -- are roasting on spits above furnace-hot coals. It's a terrible thing, it is, to see a poor pig's head turning over and over, its mouth still open, as if it was in the middle of asking a polite question: "Excuse me, can you tell me the way to--?"

The book's full of historical tidbits, too, though I had to admit that I found myself wondering what was fact and what was fiction. In fact, the only complaint I have is that there's not much of an author's note at the end to answer my questions. Instead, Grey has a list of web pages, which upon investigation, did, in fact, answer my questions. It just would have been nicer to have it all without the extra effort. I particularly liked this description of Milan:

The Duchy of Milan is one of fourteen states that make up our country. We are usually at war with at least one of them. The Duke signs a treaty, and they become our allies. A month later a new state is threatening us, and we are at war again. There are only two certainties: the first is that we trust nobody outside Milan. The second is that nobody outside Milan trusts us.

But the real essence of this book is the relationship between da Vinci and Giacomo and the art. And in both areas, Grey excels. His da Vinci (I admit I've never read anything else about da Vinci, so I have nothing to compare it to) is a hard man, a difficult task master, a proud man, a genius, an absentminded man, and a pain and a joy to live with. His relationship with Giacomo is similarly troubled. Early on, Giacomo tells us:

Ah, we have had many arguments, the Master and I, since I became his servant, and they always end in the same way. He insults me.


Just because I delivered a letter for him to Messer Dianni instead of Messer Dianno. He has rotten handwriting.


Would you call eating fourteen hot cheese buns in one sitting "gluttony"? When Caterina is always at me not to waste food?


Who is the biggest idler: me, for taking off a sunny afternoon to go fishing in the canal with my friend Renzo – or my master, who has still not finished his most important painting for the Duke after two years, even though a messenger arrives every day asking for news of his progress?

The relationship between Giacomo and da Vinci progresses with the plot. There are moments when Giacomo wants to throttle da Vinci, to give it all up, but he sticks with it, with his Master, and it all pays off quite nicely in the end. I liked that even though Giacomo never figures out his past (which he really wants to do), he is able to come to peace with it, which provides some closure.

But the real treasure, for me, was Grey’s descriptions of the art. I was captivated by this passage about a painting (of the Duke’s former mistress, Cecilia):

"Master, you have captured her to perfection."

"It was the Duke who captured her; I tried to release her. In this portrait."…

She has started to smile, but the Master has turned it into an expression of loss, as if all delight in her youth and beauty has vanished and been replaced with a rueful acknowledgement that what was hers by right has been taken by another.

Now I study the ermine she holds in her arms, her slim, elegant fingers lightly grazing its back. The creature’s white fur and proud bearing serve to draw attention to Cecilia’s white skin and noble character. It is the ermine, rather than Cecilia, whose head seems to be turning to face me as I look.

"What does it mean, Master?"
"I want you to tell me."
Let me think, then.
"The ermine is incorruptible," I say.
"As is Cecilia."
"You have it boy."

Then it comes to me – this creature, hunted mercilessly for its magnificent coat, is the bravest of animals. It prefers to die rather than be caught and humbled. My master wants me to conclude that Cecilia has a spirit like the ermine’s, unbreakable, and that if a man – even such a man as the Duke – hunted her down, nothing could tame her.

But, nothing can compare to the passages about the Last Supper. I won’t copy them here (you have to have some reason to read the book), but it’s enough to say that they were incredibly moving. I’ve never seen the Last Supper in person (and the copies I have seen are not good, an issue that’s take up in the book), but I could vividly imagine the painting from the interpretation and the description Giacomo gave. I longed to see it (I even looked it up on the web after I finished, but it didn’t do much for me); it must be an incredible experience. And I think that came across vividly.

This book is one of those that is a pleasure to read, that stays with you after you close it, and you love to recommend to other people.

Read it.

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