The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior by Paul Strathern
|The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior by Paul Strathern|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: An account of the connections between Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Leonardo da Vinci, and their combined roles in the history and wars of early 16th century Italy.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 480||Date: February 2010|
The interaction between three very different, not to say contrasting, personalities of the Renaissance period sets the scene for what promises to be an intriguing title. In 1502 the paths of Cesare Borgia, notorious son of the equally infamous Pope Alexander VI, Niccolò Machiavelli, the intellectual and diplomat, and Leonardo da Vinci, at the time best known as a military engineer though remembered today primarily as a great artist, were destined to cross.
During the summer of that year, Borgia seized Romagna, a region of northern Italy, through a reckless, ingenious blend of subterfuge and cruelty. As he was technically trespassing on Florentine territory, the government of the latter state sent Macchiavelli as an envoy to negotiate with him, using the utmost discretion. Borgia warned Macchiavelli that he had powerful allies behind him in the shape of his father and King Louis XII of France, and that If you do not want me as a friend, you will find me your enemy. As part of a strategy of appeasement, Machiavelli obtained for him the services of Leonardo, to help direct his military operations.
We see something of the characters of each. Borgia was wily, unscrupulous, ambitious and capable of great cruelty, while Machiavelli was cautious and scheming, and the vegetarian Leonardo was paradoxically a pacifist who abhorred war and the destruction of human life. It therefore seems strange that his calling resulted in him working for such a man as Cesare.
For a while, Cesare Borgia was successful in his campaigns, capturing one city after another. As Machiavelli noted, his efforts at conquest were accompanied by a unique good fortune, as well as superhuman daring and confidence that he can achieve what he wants. It evidently went to his head; with the death of his father and election of another pope, Julius II, in 1503, his luck ran out, and he was seized and taken prisoner. After escaping from captivity he joined another military campaign, but was killed in an ambush in 1507.
The other two men went on to create the contributions to art and literature with which their names will always be irrevocably associated. Although he became dissatisfied with painting for a living and wished to devote his time to the study of science, Leonardo created the 'Mona Lisa', perhaps the most famous portrait in the history of western art.
Though Macchiavelli was arrested on a charge of conspiracy and tortured, he survived and was released, going on to write and publish The Prince, his study of statecraft in which he took Cesare Borgia as a good example of a ruthless, amoral leader.
Altogether it is a somewhat convoluted tale. The author has helpfully added maps of Italy, a timeline and list of dramatis personae, but I suspect that anyone who does not have a thorough background grounding in the period might find it heavy going. Moreover, it is a lengthy book which I think could have done with a little editing. Knowledge of any characters from such a distant historical age is bound to be somewhat lacking, and sometimes there is a certain amount of novelised description, plus the odd burst of psychological analysis. Some of Leonardo's notebooks, for instance, being written up with great precision and detail, can be read as evidence of the repression of tumultuous emotion. While Strathern paints a vivid picture of the age and the characters, a little less of this would have resulted in a more taut and almost certainly more readable volume by keeping the narrative flowing better.
Our thanks to Vintage for sending Bookbag a copy for review.
If you enjoy this, why not also try The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester, or for relevant fiction, a novel with Leonardo as the central character, The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra.
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