Leonardo's horse : a novel /
by R.M. Berry.
1st ed.
Normal, Ill. : FC2, c1997.
317 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
1573660310 (pbk.) :
More Details
Normal, Ill. : FC2, c1997.
1573660310 (pbk.) :
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A Look Inside
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First Chapter

Chapter One


Leonardo da Vinci is dying. From beneath the heap of sheets, blankets, rugs, comforts, skins, quilts, old coats and, to judge from the foul scent, perhaps even the bag used for butcher's offal--these barbarians having no notion of the fit use of anything--from beneath this mass of sundry bedclothes that has made the simple act of breathing a feat, Leonardo has managed to slide his one good hand tangentially to the downward thrust, much the way that in better circumstances two well-shaped gears might transfer work or motion, so that now his fingers dangle from the edge of the bed in the grime stirred up by his servant's--Mathurine's--ox-hide sabots each time she shuffles past on her way out the door. It hardly matters that spring has come and with it warmth and an end to the drizzle that all winter long has rattled Leonardo's teeth and bones. Leonardo, nevertheless, finds himself smothered beneath this witless attempt to encase the soul in vital heat and by sheer bulk keep it on the ground. None of this being, of course, Leonardo's doing. Three damp winters have passed since, already an old man, he crossed the Alps and, stepping for the first time onto French soil, walked apart from the royal escort, removed his velvet slippers and, holding them over the last hectare of Italian dirt his eyes would ever see, slapped the dust from their soles in dismissal of the world he believed in too easily or perhaps never revered enough or at least didn't understand, and so arrived here at last to end his days in this chamber where he realized at once the feeble strand of pale light would never illuminate the darkness into which he'd already begun to leak. The slate roofs, the ragged line of crenelations, the silver film of clouds or, what you really can't see from here, the river that is so idle Leonardo has counted the hairs of his beard in it-all this is darkness, and at each moment it threatens to soak him up like a wine sop and squeeze him out again onto the steaming stones of some Florentine loggia where boys' voices echo through the arches and sweating men in black gowns dispute the spelling of Latin prepositions in the Tuscan heat. It would be wise now, Leonardo thinks, not to know longing, but for no worthwhile reason he finds himself recalling the smell of clammy hands. Surely, if only the light were correctly placed, a man could slap his thigh once and soar from the slopes of Mount Cecero or gaze up at Venezia from the bottom of the sea or square the circle or sniff the vital sprite as it flutters from the ventricle of a pig's heart.

From beside his bed comes a rough sound like sweeping, and Leonardo mistakes it for the slovenly broom of Salai--his nemesis, irredeemable miscreant--on the workshop floor. Spruce chips rattle over the planks. School-children squeal in the piazza. The taste of flesh can be so pungent fools have fattened on it, and Leonardo marvels that the motion of Salai's narrow hips should trace the same careless parabola as the fir trees swaying above the Arno or the eels that glide through provincial streams. Surely the universe is an ingenious invention, and somewhere in its hollow rests a single idea that, if only you knew it, could release you like a flight of pigeons, though Leonardo has forever renounced this light or, at least, learned to live without it. But that was decades ago and in Imola, Fiesole, Pavia, Civitavecchia, Rome and, well, it's not the sound of Salai's broom, as Leonardo squints up through one eye at Mathurine's impossibly rotund face peering down from a platter of turnips and beans. The weasel Salai has hightailed it, God knows where, flown most likely to Milan to squat on a smidgen of ground he thinks will make him the honorable man his wits haven't. So fornicate, fart, and fair riddance! Well, if it's not Salai--this shuffling of Mathurine's feet across the filthy floor--then Leonardo has work to do. With his good left hand he twists his fingers back and upward, using the elaborate pulley mechanism of the wrist and elbow along with the shoulder ball-joint which, though imperfect in isolation, can altogether enable mortals to reverse themselves in the forward movement of their deeds, until he finally touches the sheep's tripe inflated and fastened to the underside of the ticking just where he positioned it two days before. With a little squeeze he makes sure the pressure's firm--no air leaks--and then uses his fingers to number the cords. All taut, all ready. Nothing's lacking now but the moment.

Leonardo smiles. Only the dead anatomist, Marcantonio della Torre, could have appreciated these elaborate preparations. Only someone whose youth had passed through the ordeals of light, the sniffing and poking about in nature's bunghole, stings of the icy real, only an idol-smasher like Marcantonio, and perhaps even he lacked the sprightliness to grasp this last dimostrazione--though Leonardo recalls the heat of the candles, the unbreathable miasma in the Pavian night, and the knife's blue sheen teasing tissue from a cadaver's cheek: So much for beauty, heh? No, the anatomist della Torre probably died too young to grow curious about darkness, to suspect that in the endless night of the dissecting table, confronted with the certainty of sinew and bile, glottis and gum, the hard and the pulpy of creation's engine, that even there it was as much the silence, the black border of approaching day, that held them poised in the stench, not so much amazed as greedy, while layer opened onto layer and took them always deeper into what was probably never there at all. No, della Torre was too much the new man to feel this confusion, and so he'd probably scoff at Leonardo's last clutch for the veil. What's to be said of motion? he'd ask. You can't place it on the table; you can't pare its sections; what are the names of its parts? And afterwards, in the warmth of the Pavian sunlight, sipping goat's milk on the veranda, he'd be too merry, too ready to name what they'd seen, always quick to call Leonardo's silence flagging vigor. It wasn't wit that killed Marcantonio, but something more like embarrassment or fear: Pity the poor child who offers me her heart, he'd said chuckling. I'll carve her up on the altar.

The tripe is blue, the color of the afternoon sky over Lucca when the olive trees are nearly ripe and the grape vines twist up like thumbs. Leonardo worked the color carefully, mixing plant resins and Dutch oils, for he wants the spectacle to amaze Mathurine, not scare her, just like the Ligurian water that fills you with rich thoughts at evening near Rapallo. From where his head lies immersed in this pillow Leonardo can see that the woman has poised the platter of steaming vegetables at the apex of the mountain of bedclothes, and he calculates by sighting upward along the ridge of his nose that it rests nearly ten degrees westward of the heap's axis, so that if he twitches his shoulder in the manipulation of his wrist the red china bowl rattles softly against the goblet, a sound not unlike the chime of finger-cymbals or the faint trundling of a tambour. This threatens a ruinous distraction. The exterior ligament from the hinge of the elbow running dorsally to the pectoralis minor is a potential but not necessary agent in the mobility of the hand and, Leonardo determines, it will be possible given adequate patience to test the tripe's resilience and loosen the pin without troubling glass, china or cutlery--if, that is, the woman has even thought to bring cutlery. He's seen her feeding like a horse, face half concealed by the sides of her bowl. And, of course, all the above must be done dexterously and at the very last moment with dispatch. Mathurine waddles across the floor kicking up clouds of crumbs as she touches a cold andiron, brushes a vague hand against a tapestry, seems only to gaze sadly at a frame out of plumb, her position in Leonardo's household being nearer havoc's ally than its enemy. Her round back, as she hoists her girth onto the window ledge, still seems to conceal a memory of once-straight shoulders, and Leonardo thinks that years ago he might have tried to paint that, a lost figure in the amorphous meat, though the trick would have involved shade less than disegno, an outline so coy it couldn't be believed.

If Mathurine could comment on her situation, gazing as she does at nothing much, she'd say, si le maitre ne mange pas comme un homme, il va mourir comme un lapin--unless Leonardo starts eating meat pretty soon, he's going to kick-off like a bunny--which probably means a sixteenth century French peasant can feel as jaded as any savant. Despite her well-developed curiosity about occultism, kinkiness, freaks and gore, Mathurine figures she's already seen everything her life's going to offer. A wealthy courtier who lives on radishes and leeks is uncouth but not interesting. Ditto for Italians generally, artists, Renaissance engineers, natural philosophers, or any madman who ever tried to build a bronze horse weighing 120,000 pounds. She cooks and cleans for Leonardo da Vinci. So? Of course, if she were to complain to Leonardo about his daily affairs or his diet, about how long he's taking to die, or about the lackluster wickedness around here, Leonardo--whose French amounts to half a dozen tourist phrases--would assume she's commenting on the vast and hideously yellow engine that the ingrate Salai deposited in the courtyard, a phenomenon more disturbing to think on than Mathurine's boredom or the carnage and perversion required to relieve it. Leonardo, as a matter of fact, prefers not to think on Salai's engine--to say nothing of Mathurine whom, in three years, he's managed never to think about at all--and if only his chest were not pinned beneath this mountain of blankets and coverlets and goose feathers and what looks like from here the corner of a very bristly stable mat, he would dismiss the whole business of Salai with a peremptory snort, but when--in an instance of characteristic self-forgetfulness and without due allowance for the difficulty of even normal respiration under all this weight--he tries, all he manages is a feeble wheeze, which tickles his throat and provokes him to cough in earnest, thereby rocking the platter on his knees and threatening to bury his face in a cascade of garlicky beans. One ought not attempt the impossible. Leonardo sighs, droops his fingers in the muck, and with time to kill, decides to have a dream.

Leonardo's dream isn't very interesting. Everybody's accustomed to deathbed visions, especially those of famous men and women, to presentiments of future repute or infamy, moments of profound remorse, a final communication with an estranged lover, but Leonardo's dream concerns updrafts. More particularly, this one concerns the critical moment when any circularly augmenting torrent, by accumulation of superfluous force, undergoes a catastrophe and returns to quiescence. We possess whole libraries to disabuse us of our wonder at such spectacles, and even if we can't make sense of these libraries ourselves, we're confident that someone in California or Chicago can; so little need to find them amusing. However, Leonardo right now is feeling gleeful about what looks to him like a game of comeuppance nature plays in wind and water. Having already discovered the inseparability of aerodynamic push and shove and suspecting that human ambition is just a way of being blown, Leonardo traces with inconceivable enthusiasm the oscillating lunulae of a nubile boy astride a giant sycamore leaf, now zigging down a groundswirl, now zagging roundly upward in a thermal, neither air-toy nor wind's master but a kind of player in the atmospheric catch-as-catch-can: The purpose being just to stay afloat and not look stupid, so it seems. The boy zips down in a power dive, body leaning forward, then with hardly a movement, he shifts his weight, the leaf gives a ripple, they turn skyward and swirl out of sight again. This goes on for the dreaming equivalent of all afternoon. Boy, leaf, sky, earth: Zoooom down a cloud bank, bottom out, scoot up an air flume. Maybe Leonardo expects the repetition to yield a principle. He's probably after something technical, can't say what.

Which is what he was after in 1490 in Pavia--same Pavia but two decades before Marcantonio della Torre ever arrived there--when the not-yet-forty-year-old Leonardo saw nature equivocate. He'd been called in to advise the locals on a building project and, while rummaging the castle's manuscript library, had run into one Fazio Cardano, Lombard mathematician, jurist, celebrated know-it-all and a lunatic. Cardano had pressed on him--it had to do with some argument they were having about distance vision--a copy of an optics text by an Englishman, John Pecham, which Cardano had been glossing at the time, and Leonardo spent all the next day studying it. Leonardo thought he glimpsed a way to connect Pecham's perspective to Pythagorean number theory and scurried over to Cardano's home the next night eager to argue over harmonia, Golden Sections, the even and odd. But Fazio met him at the door half-naked in a scarlet gown, eyelids hopping, fingers a-flutter about his throat, and would hear nothing but that Leonardo dine with him and his guest, the ignoramus blacksmith. An inspired geometer! The last philosopher in Lombardy! Well, Leonardo made an effort but soon grew bored--chitchat about horseshoes with Cardano dancing on the chifforobe--and recalling urgent affairs, he escaped to the moonlit banks of the Ticino. The Platonists were maintaining at the time that the tiny eye could send out beams in an instant and bag distant planets like tigers, and in one of Pecham's illustrations Leonardo saw a way to refute them. He ambled along winking first one eye then the other, shifting his glance from his thumb to distant objects, trying to count the seconds required to fetch a faraway hitching post home or a furlong marker, and not having a whole lot of luck, when an inscrutable movement in the shadows drew his attention. It was a man who spoke no words.

In the distance he looked pretty scurvy, misshapen, and no higher than a nipple, and Leonardo followed him at first out of idleness and then for the twist of his nose, or for the flurry of knees and elbows that against all nature propelled him over the footbridge and past the lunga dimora, but finally followed him just because the moon was round and pandemonium was having its way. He followed him all the way to the brothel called Malnido, a squat fugitive from reason, where the women sprawled upon purple divans like corn-stuffed capons and a tubercular castrati plucked a chitarra and sang through his nose and huge white Persians flicked their tails upon the window sills, and where the man without words threw himself into space like a wind-driven dustball, appearing from beneath a staircase bearing cinnabar and cumin or powdered linens or vinegar-water for a douche, hovering in the air before the smiling concubines, his breath coming in hissing heaves, his pupils bobbing in a sea of phlegmy white. The women called him Jacopo when they were about their business and Il Poggio when they were weary from love, and whenever they lay upon a cushion scratching their fur with black-rimmed nails it was just: Where's the little fart? But Leonardo suspected that in his self-accumulation from under ferns and behind balusters and from within the wrinkles of a rug, this gathering of the human form was letting space speak its name, and Leonardo had wanted to draw that, the silent speech of twitching hip and foot and cheek and thigh. So through the subsequent evenings as his silver-point skimmed over the bone-meal leaves and the pet pheasant flapped noisily at the end of its tether and the cloying gum of female unguents stole across his fidgety skin, Leonardo again and again tried to discover the line of the mute's flight, tried to catch it in tangled strokes, flurries of corrections, in this scratch or the next one. But it was no use. Each time that he seemed on its verge, Leonardo saw the figure attenuate and snap or turn prosy and still, saw himself tumble from near recognition into nothing at all.

And so one morning Leonardo da Vinci roused the mute from the rag box where he coiled like a spring and, calling him teacher, offered him dinari, then scuzi, and finally a Rhenish florin to compose himself upon the roof before Leonardo's eye while the sun rose from the gable to the chimney's edge so this hieroglyph could be deciphered in purest light. But the man without words said no. That is, he said nothing, merely scrambled up the steps onto the flat housetop, cocked his head, slurped the morning air into his nostrils, hissed it out his teeth, sliding his eyes both left and right in a tic Leonardo mistook for annoyance or fear, and spinning upon a foot like a weathercock upon a swivel, flew toward a terra cotta half-wall that divided the building. Over the top of the tiles Leonardo could see the steaming valley of the Po, the lazy curve of a goshawk hanging in the sky, could see no facade or tile or spire, no destination, no place at all and so was astonished when the little fart--with his shoulder lowered and head tucked in--didn't slow, didn't veer, simply smashed his small sack of flesh and bones directly into the wall, lunged forward and bounced off, staggering back, recollected himself roughly, only to fly at the obstacle again, once, twice, refusing to stop, three times. Leonardo waved his arms, bellowed: This wasn't what he had in mind! This was ...was madness! But each time, Jacopo or Poggio--or whatever he was called--remained furiously stupid, impenetrable, persisted in his pointless suffering, until with his sleeve torn and the thin muscle of his shoulder beginning to redden he seemed to draw himself up, gazed sharply into Leonardo's eyes and, flying a last time past the horrified young painter, had aimed his outstretched skull directly at the wall's face, sought out its clay edge as if to lay a final sacrifice there, his flight seeming to refuse the bare fact of stone, and with something less than a shiver, a kind of hitch in his spine that would always lie just the other side of recall's horizon, that would cast its shadow over Leonardo's notes and games, the man without words opened himself to the wall's uncompromising geometry. And vanished.

Sixteen years would pass before Leonardo would know what he'd seen. He'd return to Milan, begin to erect the colossal horse and see it destroyed, flee Lombardy with the charlatan Pacioli, roam Mantua, Venice, find himself one morning with Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia's troops overlooking a decapitated torso in Ceseno's muddy piazza, return to Florence, botch the great canal to the sea, abandon his last chance to become the painter everyone expected, and would end up standing between two merchants' stalls on the Old Bridge one afternoon during the spring runoff where, happening to glance down into the Arno, he'd notice an eddy spin once, twice, three times into a frustrated vortex and then simply vanish! Enter a fissure in the current! Become its own absence! As if all along this pattern had been waiting for someone curious enough, lost enough ... well, not until then would Leonardo realize that Jacopo il Poggio had already possessed the secret of updrafts--the little fart!--and that if only Leonardo had accepted Jacopo's gift, or been able to bear his own bewilderment, that is, if Leonardo had been ready to die, then he might have told Marcantonio della Torre--twenty years later in that same Pavia--why knowledge moves and so have understood his own surprising fate. Statues crumble, walls peel, in the vast accumulation of words and still more words even legends lose their way, and Leonardo wishes he'd said to the young anatomist, della Torre, on their last evening what he wishes four days ago he'd had presence of mind to tell Salai but didn't actually get around to telling anyone until yesterday when he told the aristocratic simpleton, Francesco Melzi, who stood there with that dewy-eyed, beatific look of his and, of course, understood not a word: Only a dullard gets to the end of something. A scandal to Aristotle but then, tuff tutu, he wrote in Greek.

It's partly as a respite from these frustrations that Leonardo's dream delights him. The naked, amber-skinned lad straddles a huge platan leaf as it sails along currents of air, steered by the lightest nip and tug, until whipped into a swirl of clouds, it tucks up under itself and, with the boy hugging sky and vapor, puffs right out again like cream squeezed from an eclair. Lying here beneath this crushing mound of smelly bedding Leonardo finds physics' inversion of effort and success a remarkable game, something a clever man might play, the gleeful flip-flop of nature and destiny, and so begins to giggle softly down in his throat setting his nose to wheezing and his gullet to gurgling, a sound enough like the death-rattle to bring Mathurine clambering up from the kitchen, her hips rising and falling like the rocker-arm of a waterwheel, the half-formed question on her lips: Is it now? Of course, what she says is more like: Let this be the last time I ever have to climb these God-forsaken stairs! Or actually: Mon Dieu, s'il vous plait, kill him--Leonardo having reassured her just three days ago that she'd receive a certain black velvet house cloak upon his passing, a tactical blunder if ever there was one, inasmuch as Mathurine's job is to postpone that passing as long as possible. But then, Leonardo's never been especially savvy in his dealings with persons not spectacularly wicked or covetous on the grand scale.

Leonardo hears what she says, but having long ago decided that everyone in this country is trying to speak Italian and doing it badly, he concludes that she's announcing Salai's return for the garishly yellow contraption in the courtyard, another of her fabrications or flat-footed solecisms or, at any rate, a simple indication of the boundless ineptitude with which she manages Leonardo's affairs. No, he explains to her, Salai can't have returned because Salai is in hell, where he's obliged to suffer hideous torment for having rendered the past unintelligible, or if not in hell then in Italy, but either way he won't arrive here except with a good deal of clatter, and when he does, he's not to be allowed to fling himself tastelessly upon Leonardo's chest declaring that he always worshipped nature or anything as low-life as that. Leonardo feels pleased with this statement but can't understand why Mathurine has slipped off her house dress and started zig-zagging toward earth on a giant sycamore leaf. Her face is turned rapturously toward him with the wan eyes, curls, opalescent cheeks of a Florentine ephebos, and Leonardo demands that she dismount from his dream at once and remind Melzi about the eighty-seven books on astronomy that Leonardo intended to write next spring and Marcantonio della Torre about the aortic valve that traces the very outline of this giant sycamore leaf's descent or--if she can't manage straightforward tasks--then at least have the decency to sweep this floor and get undressed in the kitchen. Mathurine, however, isn't about to sweep this or any other floor, leaning as she is about four inches from Leonardo's face and thoroughly aggrieved at what she sees there--a smirk, possibly annoyance and, without a doubt, breathing--and as she raises her hands heavenward in protest at one more injustice done her by malign stars and Italians who won't eat horse steak for dinner, she vents her frustration in a muttered litany of the fornications, sexual parts and products of elimination to be stepped in around any Touraine farmyard. But alas! For the rising knuckles of her left hand slam at this moment into the far edge of the platter balanced upon the fulcrum of her master's knees, catapulting the goblet and cutlery over her head, muddling her words in the clatter of breaking glass, and inundating Leonardo in turnips, onions, leeks, garlic, a bay leaf, and half a kilo of white kidney beans. At this point Leonardo wakes, decides the sensation is extraordinary but not death, and gazing up through the glutinous film of boiled carrot drippings, says: No, Salai will be riding a horse.

May 2, 1519 at the Clos-Luce in Amboise on the Loire, and Leonardo da Vinci is dying. Twenty years from this day King Francois premier, who has brought Leonardo to France just to talk to him, will declare in front of the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini that no other mortal ever knew so much, and though Francois himself probably understood about a tenth of what Leonardo told him, next week when he learns of Leonardo's death, the King will sob. Isabella d'Este, who could boss Correggio and Mantegna like chambermaids and managed Ariosto as deftly as a suitor and who has been trying much of her life to trade anything short of her reputation for a smear of Leonardo's paint, will within two months of this day make one of his forgotten doodles the centerpiece of her studio, and though Florence, Rome, Milan were never sure what to make of Leonardo alive, tomorrow they'll make a legend of him: The most beautiful man Tuscany ever saw; able to bend horseshoes in his bare hands; a singer with an incomparable voice; Cesare Borgia's personal military engineer; the best verse improvisor of the quattrocento; architectural rival of Bramante; true author of Luca Pacioli's great mathematical treatise; an irresistible orator; according to Paolo Giovio, the ultimate authority on matters of beauty; for Raffaello another Plato; in Castiglione's Courtier, the first among the great painters; to Lomazzo, a critic of preternatural insight ... and on and on and on. After awhile the hyperboles become cloying. Giorgio Vasari probably speaks for the age when he says that, in order to explain Leonardo, one must speak of God. And yet how puzzling all this seems to anyone standing here in Leonardo's death-chamber, surrounded by grime and gewgaws, in the spring dampness, with the odor of hair, sweat, vegetables, urine, as an illiterate housekeeper complains in an unintelligible tongue and wagons creak past in the street. What's unforgettable here? In Rome on the same day, young Raffaello Santi finishes the splendid papal corridors that bear no mark of Leonardo's passage through them. In Florence Michelangelo's David guards the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio where Leonardo's botched Battle of Anghiari awaits obliteration. Before the Castello Sforzesco in Milan the cartwheels of silk merchants roll over clay pebbles that are the only remains of Leonardo's colossal horse, and as the monks chew their bread at Santa Maria delle Grazie, the plaster peels off Christ's nose. As of tomorrow the miracle of Leonardo da Vinci will amount to several thousand jumbled, unnumbered pages of backwards notes, sketches, outlines, jokes, revisions, titles, studies, chimeras, drafts--herein the nine essentials of painting, painting has only five parts, the art of painting can be reduced to thirteen constituents, painters should know the seven elements of which the art consists, painting comprises exactly three--all mixed in with grocery lists, expense accounts and allusions to works that, except in these pages, don't exist.

The puzzle is less Leonardo's life than our involvement with it. Others who achieved more matter less. And though the stories of youthful promise prematurely blighted have an understandable fascination, Leonardo da Vinci lived in reasonably good health to sixty-seven years old. His grip on the imagination seems more like a dream we know better than to believe in, or like a childhood humiliation, something maturity ought to get over but that at moments of half-wakefulness returns with its original horror still intact, rousing us to sit bolt-upright, almost to shout: This time don't do it! Perhaps he was Europe's most talented man; he was certainly among the most curious; he was learned, though probably not as learned as his contemporaries believed; it has been argued that he was Europe's greatest painter and also that his stature has been absurdly overrated; he made no contributions to science; his most famous inventions were borrowed; he hardly read Latin. But the world has never known a failure to match him. No one else ever imagined so extravagantly, planned in such detail, possessed the needed facility, mastered both theory and practice, went so far toward realization, and left so little behind. A dozen paintings, perhaps a baker's dozen, badly preserved or damned in the materials used to make them, often altered or hinting at clumsy collaboration, many of these unfinished, some of doubtful authenticity, most quite small, no disciples worth mentioning, no school or movement, no buildings or sculpture, no engineering projects, no family or children, few close friends--this, plus accounts of lost masterpieces, hints of improbable deeds, unverifiable tales, more beginnings than sanity can account for, and always plans, plans, plans. How to take seriously a sixty-year-old who's still deciding what to do with his life? The barrage of explanations that preserve Leonardo's fame may merely protect us from the statement his life makes. May 3, 1519, Leonardo da Vinci will be dead as dust. What does such a man imagine when he can't imagine tomorrow? At the moment when a life becomes equivalent to its deeds, when everyone has forgotten the reasons for what happened, but no matter, because intentions don't count, when the perpetual worship of light has brought you to a land where each day is the color of raw wool and out your window you can see nothing you remember and behind you stretches a series of missed opportunities that stagger the mind and the fact that you may have once been right amounts to nothing at all--at this moment does the force of so much futility come rushing back and, seeing yourself trying to refine a superior fresco material from walnuts or spending years revising a cartoon that will never know paint or diddling with fantastic wooden birds four centuries too early or seeking to unriddle the entire universe just to persuade a 120,000 pound bronze horse to stand, does such a man shudder, sit bolt-upright, shout: This time don't do it!!?

Well, Leonardo da Vinci is thinking of paper lilies. They have been attached with thread made from a horse's tail to the blue sheep's tripe, and right now as Leonardo edges his hand around Mathurine's sabots and back up under the tick again, he wonders if he has arranged the strings of flowers so that they will not catch upon the posts of the bed and prematurely stop the inflated tripe in its upward trajectory. Actually, this is a vast simplification. Leonardo's last dimostrazione has to do with ultimate things--nature, fidelity, a cave's dark mouth--and it consists not of this single balloon made from a mutton's rubbery innards but of a whole roomful of them, thirty-nine to be precise, and a truckload of paper carnations, irises, roses, who-knows-what-all, that only a Leonardo--whose self-abstraction can be monumental--could have colored and folded and fluffed for an entire night with a single good hand and the inept, sporadic assistance of his baffled servant, Battista de Vilanis, who nodded off somewhere around four in the morning, all this only three days before the afternoon that will be Leonardo's last. To tell the truth, if Marcantonio della Torre were here right now, he'd think Leonardo is a colossal nut. From the blue tripe pinned to the ticking and dangling the lilies like a kite's tail run seventeen cords which each pass over pulley-wheels equipped with primitive wooden rollers--the forerunners, someone will one day claim, of the modern steel bearing--located at the four corners of the bed, thus enabling the cords to pass around angles without sacrificing the greater part of their work-efficiency to friction, and from there up to the canopy and along the molding to the tapestry on the left of the fireplace and the two sets of curtains adjacent to the south window--which is the only one worth looking out of--and to the west one, through which all you can make out is the stone wall across the street and the hill behind. The effect of all this is to connect every surface and corner of the room to a wooden trigger beneath the mattress and beside Leonardo's index finger. It's hopelessly intricate, of course, and even Leonardo suspects his dimostrazione won't come off, not at the right time. Nevertheless, its intricacy hardly flirts with the machinery that drives the universe along, and if it should erupt in a dazzling illumination, a comeuppance, or just a muddle, there may still be much to observe, much to learn. After all, the point's not to know what's ahead or win honor or ape God; the point's to ... well, the point involves Salai.

Copyright © 1997 Ralph Berry. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-01-01:
Readers who deify Leonardo da Vinci, view the Renaissance as a time of unparalleled enlightenment, or believe that those tumultuous times offer no glimpses into our own will be challenged by this novel, which is as complex as its protagonist. Leonardo, as viewed by historian-turned-novelist R___, is history's garage, his work a collection of fascinating but uncompletable projects. Berry presents Leonardo's story from his deathbed and R___'s from his position stranded on the freeway inside his 1955 Buick while authorities attack AIDS protestors with chemical weapons. Just as Leonardo had finagled various rival aristocrats to bankroll his projects, R___ and his monkey-wrencher "not wife" have created a fraudulent second life on paper to survive in a world seemingly bent on social and environmental destruction. This may sound overly abstruse, but earthiness, vivid characterizations, and dark, ironic humor (like the "Windfall Taxes Chainsaw Massacre") make this a delightful experience for sophisticated readers. Highly recommended for medium to large public and academic libraries.‘Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, January 1998
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Main Description
On May 2, 1519 at the Clos Luc in Amboise, Leonardo is dying. He no longer cares about art or science. He wants only to answer a simple question about his life: why did he abandon his colossal equestrian statue in Milan? Meanwhile, R-, a 20th century historian writing a novel about Leonardo, meditates upon the same question in the midst of an apocalyptic traffic jam, as military helicopters fill the air with tear gas, AIDS demonstrators run amok, and a hospital evacuates its patients onto a nearby sidewalk. Berry's stupendous novel is a fitting response to the close of a century obsessed with the "end of history." This book is a big masterpiece of a kind rarely dared in the contemporary novel.
Unpaid Annotation
On May 2, 1519, at the Clos Luce in Amboise, Leonardo da Vinci is dying. He no longer cares about art or science. He wants only to answer a simple question about his life: why did he abandon his colossal equestrian statue in Milan? Meanwhile, R --, a twentieth-century historian writing a novel about Leonardo, meditates upon the same question in the midst of an apocalyptic traffic jam, as military helicopters fill the air with tear gas, AIDS demonstrators run amok, and a hospital evacuates its patients onto a nearby sidewalk.Berry's stupendous novel is a fitting response to the close of a century obsessed with the "end of history". This book is a masterpiece of a kind rarely dared in the contemporary novel.

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