cover image Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Sherwin B. Nuland. Viking Penguin, $19.95 (170pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89391-1

Say what one will about Edna O'Brien's ravishing clip job of Joyce, Peter Gay's moderate Mozart or Edmund White's microcosmic Proust, the editors at Penguin Lives have a knack for matching up free-thinking meditators and their subjects. A surgeon and a writer about medicine, Nuland (How We Die) uses much of his brief book--limited in size and scope to the series's quick-take, authorially inflected format--to explain the prodigal da Vinci as pioneering anatomist. The first 11 pages detail Nuland's personal obsession with da Vinci; the later pages describe da Vinci's concern with human and animal anatomy, and review the bibliographical jumble of his surviving notebooks and papers. Nuland's da Vinci is tireless, perhaps sublimated, in his intellectual and artistic activity, finishing few canvases (one the Mona Lisa, another The Last Supper) and almost nothing else during a long life largely financed, sometimes erratically, by patrons who indirectly supported an expensive retinue of friends, assistants and servants. He emerges as a compulsive investigator--of geometry, optics, hydraulics, architecture, sculpture, painting, botany, biology, military mechanics and the flight of birds--moving from city-state to city-state in Italy, encountering ruler after ruler who sought to harness his gifts. Yet perhaps unforgivably, given the series's promise of New Yorker profile-like effervescence, da Vinci as personality slips away; what we get is a clean condensation of the facts. Only the final chapter, ""Matters of the Heart and Other Matters,"" injects some of Leonardo's own fervor, in an in-depth look at one of his abiding obsessions, the structure and function of the human heart. Nuland's account is solid, but lacks enough of the flourish that its subject so effortlessly achieved and, that, on a much smaller scale, the Lives series seems to strive for. 4 illus. BOMC, QPB, History Book Club selections. (Oct.)