404 pages. $35. Leonardo da Vinci was the Orson Welles of the Italian Renaissance. Like Hollywood's perennial enfant terrible, da Vinci always promised more than he delivered. In fact, like Welles, da Vinci is known almost as much for what he didn't accomplish as for the tiny handful of works he left behind. According to Serge Bramly, his latest biographer, only 13 paintings by his hand have survived. In addition, we have seven others that he either worked on while still an apprentice in the studio of his master, Verrocchio, or that da Vinci's students painted according to his outlines.
"At the same time, he is seen as one of the most ingenious and prolific of minds," Mr. Bramly observes. "Set against the small number of paintings is the extraordinary [sometimes ZTC overwhelming] number of notebooks, revealing the dazzling activity of the man of science, the engineer, the writer [indeed the term 'Leonardo complex' has recently been coined]."
Complex indeed: Da Vinci has fascinated scholars with a taste for psychology because the one thing that his famous notebooks lack are introspective hints into what made him tick. Although he frequently commented in his notebooks on how love makes the world go round, he tells us almost nothing of his own emotional life. As a young man, he was brought up on charges of sodomy. From that episode, plus the fact that he never married, some historians conclude that, like Michelangelo, da Vinci was homosexual. Other critics dissent.
Mr. Bramly is persuaded by two clues: In his notebooks, da Vinci drew nude sketches of both sexes. But his pen was abstract when depicting the female anatomy, while his male figures, as Mr. Bramly puts it, are lovingly detailed "from the navel down." In later life, da Vinci adopted a young boy, who stayed on in his household, first as a servant, later as an apprentice, though he showed no particular talent. In his diary, da Vinci reproaches the boy for his misdeeds in terms that approach those of an injured lover.
He also had a weakness for overambitious projects. For years, he promised his patron, Duke Sforza of Milan, that he would honor him with an equestrian statue cast in bronze on a scale that no other artist had dared to try. When da Vinci produced a clay model, contemporaries were stunned by the living likeness of its finely detailed anatomy. Alas, the statue itself was never produced, for even his fertile mind never solved the problem of how to cast such a large figure.
Toward the end of his life, da Vinci seems to have realized that his particular genius could be as much a trap as an asset to an artist. Indeed, he left a trenchant analysis of the problem of creativity that could serve as an epitaph for the perennially fascinating da Vinci himself:
"Like a kingdom divided, which rushes to its doom, the mind that engages in subjects of too great variety becomes confused and weakened."