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Flights of the Mind

A-LeonardoDaVinciLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) completed few paintings, yet his notebooks offer an unusual glimpse into his "mysterious greatness as an artist, scientist and philosopher." Drawing on Leonardo’s musings, Nicholl leads us through the day-to-day details of this Renaissance genius’s life, including his illegitimate birth, apprenticeship to a sculptor, his stint as a military engineer in Milan, and difficult production of The Last Supper. He also sheds light on Leonardo’s personal life (addressing questions about his sexual orientation) and pathbreaking studies in anatomy, flight, and hydrology. Nicholl depicts Leonardo as a charming, complex, and lonely man who reacted to his rapidly changing world by trying to find similar patterns in art and nature.
Viking. 640 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 0670033456

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[Nicholl] does a superior job of fleshing out someone who will essentially remain a mystery but who has left his soul behind with his legacy of ideas and inventions. … But it is in the consideration of da Vinci’s creative processes that this history is most riveting." Lisa Jennifer Selzman

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
Like one of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings that shows the heart from various angles, Nicholl’s biography gives us a richly detailed look at the man and his time from many viewpoints. … We hear him making proposals to build military weapons, share his anger over poor treatment by a patron and read the plea of a wealthy collector trying to persuade Leonardo to do a painting for her." R.M. Ryan

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is a brilliant and comforting book. … [Nicholl] defiantly bathes his hero in a fine romantic light, without disturbing the dark shadows and transcendent mysteries, or the melancholy glory of Leonardo’s death: so much done, so much undone." David Gelernter

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"The lone weakness in Nicholl’s biography is the brevity of critical analyses of Leonardo’s art. Otherwise, the genius and humanity of this Italian master glow as never before." David Hendricks

Critical Summary

Forget Dan Brown’s fictional Da Vinci Code ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2003); here’s the real deal. Award-winning author Nicholl draws on Leonardo’s notebooks to delve deep inside the mind of the beloved Renaissance icon. Celebrating Leonardo’s life and projects with contagious excitement and putting his achievements in the context of the Italian Renaissance as a whole, Nicholl considers Leonardo’s inspirations and influences. If we learn little new about Leonardo’s most famous works or his competition with Michelangelo, we gain valuable insight into the "cool, interior, ungraspable" creative process that raised Leonardo head and shoulders above his peers in most fields. Even with the spate of recent books on this master, Leonardo da Vinci stands out. It "isn’t merely a lovely book; it’s Leonardesque" (New York Times Book Review).

Supplemental Reading

Leonardo| Martin Kemp (2004): Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar, places the artist-scientist-engineer in his times. He also stresses the overarching relationship between Leonardo’s pursuit of art and science and desire to find a unifying thread binding the world.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (2 vols.) | Leonardo da Vinci, compiled and edited by Jean Paul Richter (1956): Leonardo left his notebooks a mess when he died, and his heirs cut and pasted his words at will into new volumes. Richter’s reconstructed (and translated) volumes reveal Leonardo’s diverse thoughts on painting, architecture, anatomy, music, theater, hydrology, military engineering, geology, mechanics … you name it.