Burning Book Club: da Vinci Uncoded

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


Since the theme for Burning Man 2016 is da Vinci’s Workshop, the Burning Book Club now turns its attentions to the Italian Renaissance and our posthumous guest of honor. Yet despite Leonardo’s unassailable status as a Culture Hero, he is surprisingly under-represented in world literature. The quest for a good read on the man from Vinci often hits the wall at Dan Brown’s ridunculous da Vinci Code, with its pseudo-historical blather about the Priory of Sion. Or worse, it face-plants in a stack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics. The academically inclined can find any number of toast-dry biographies, but for the reader who prefers a juicy slice of historical fiction, the answer is Dmitri Merezhkovsky’s classic 1900 novel The Romance of Leonardo DaVinci.

5137kxB-WQL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Merezhkovsky, a nine-time nominee for the Nobel in Literature, was also known as a poet, dramatist, literary critic, and self-styled religious mystic. His prose style is as satisfyingly chewy as one might expect from a Russian writer with that kind of street cred, and The Romance is backed by considerable historical research, offering up richly drawn views of Florentine life on the trailing edge of the Middle Ages. And there’s no shortage of conflict here: alchemy vs. science, religion vs. humanism, with trial by fire and a bonfire of the vanities thrown in for kicks.

Given Leonardo’s habitual secrecy and the resulting dearth of historical insight into his inner life, it was probably a wise move for Merezhkovsky to tell the tale as a sort of oral history, focusing on the characters around the Master and their varied relations with him. The novel’s point of view shifts among his apprentices, patrons, and contemporaries, including an artfully drawn Duke of Milan, a sad-sack Macchiavelli, and a scenery-chewing Savanarola, the mad monk who tried to beat back the Renaissance with a cultural counter-revolution. The picture of Leonardo that emerges from these diverse views is that of a likable introvert with a dangerously modern mind, with decidedly Nietzchean views about the transcendence of ideals over conventional morality.

But that’s just my take. Read it yourself and let me know what you think.

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart Mangrum

Stuart is the director of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center and host of the Burning Man LIVE podcast. Since his first Burn in 1993 he has participated as a theme camp organizer, artist, and year-round staff member contributing to the Project's communications, education, and storytelling efforts.

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