August 28, 2013

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (#71b)

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern

What I said when I got it:

I've been really interested by the concept of this one since it first arrived: basically, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia all knew each other, and at a certain point they all travelled together. This non-fiction book examines that moment in time and what it meant to each man's career. Now it's out in a paperback, there's really no excuse to put off having a look.

What I say now:

I was reading this at basically exactly the same time as the enclave in the Vatican was choosing the new pope (yes, that's how far behind I am with my book reviews), and the timing was perfect. Reading about how Cesare's power-hungry father Rodrigo shamelessly bought the papacy and used its power in a grab for real estate made the rituals and solemnity of the modern Vatican seem absolutely ridiculous. I can't imagine anybody learning about the sordid history of middle ages Catholicism and remaining devout (sorry, Dad).

That aside, this was a fascinating peek into an era of history which is hugely important (in so many ways, Renaissance Italy shaped the history and culture of Europe, and thus had effects still being felt today), yet about which I knew very little. The book rotates chapters, focusing in turn on da Vinci, the brilliant artist and engineer who designed increasingly elaborate instruments of war; and Machiavelli, the young diplomat who would become the most radical political thinker of his age; and Borgia, tyrant and murderer, rampaging through Italy trying to claim a Kingdom with the sword.

Luckily for Strathern, Machiavelli kept meticulous journals, and his notebooks lay out exactly how the men met, and how they reacted to each other. Borgia loaned da Vinci from his Florentine masters to aid him militarily; Machiavelli was sent by the same men to divert Borgia's attentions away from defenceless Florence; the two Florentines (da Vinci nearing the end of his career, Machiavelli at the beginning of his) met in Borgia's train and struck up a brief friendship.

Strathern charts their time together during Borgia's campaign, and how their meeting affected each of their subsequent careers, in particular the effect that the charismatic (yet psychotic) Borgia had on the other two. Da Vinci, horrified by the realities of war, stopped designing weapons. Machiavelli, inspired by Borgia's ruthlessness, applied that ruthlessness to the world of politics, writing his famous tract The Prince using Borgia as an inspiration. Strathern's writing is clear and succinct, and doesn't have the grinding density of some non-fiction.

But despite Strathern's best efforts, it's da Vinci who makes problems for his book, remaining stubbornly a mystery: the man himself didn't keep any journals of his own, and the scraps of thought left in his notebooks are more likely to be shopping lists or reminders of chores than anything else. Whenever he and Machiavelli are apart, Strathern is left in the field of conjecture, prefacing a lot of his statements with phrases like 'da Vinci must have felt ...' or 'da Vinci surely saw ...' or 'da Vinci certainly would have been aware of ...' It lends those portions of the book an insubstantial air, which is unfortunate. That's a pretty small quibble, though, in a thoroughly researched and extremely readable history.

Cheers, JC.

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