The popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" has been a mixed blessing for Leonardo expert Martin Kemp. On the one hand, his services are in high demand. On the other...

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The popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” has been a mixed blessing for Leonardo expert Martin Kemp. On the one hand, his services are in high demand. On the other, he gets asked a lot of stupid questions about the thriller by best-selling author Dan Brown.

“The problem with Brown’s ‘Code,’ ” Kemp writes, “is not its invention of ‘truth’; but that it has been taken seriously by those who cannot recognize fiction as fiction.”

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“Leonardo,” a lay introduction to Leonardo Da Vinci, won’t resolve dinner-table disputes over “The Da Vinci Code,” and it doesn’t try to.

Kemp, an Oxford historian, is out to show that Leonardo’s life and work are interesting enough on their own terms, that Leonardo’s story doesn’t need the fog of myth to keep our attention.


by Martin Kemp

Oxford University Press, 286 pp., $26

The book is a marvelous guide to the hard facts of what Leonardo left behind. While the first biographical chapter reads a bit like an extended résumé — Kemp describes it as “a sober counterweight to the accumulation of legend” — the core chapters, a thematic journey through Leonardo’s multifaceted genius, are delightful.

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci (hence, Da Vinci) to an unwed mother. Over his career, he bounced around Italy and France, from one fresco commission or king’s consultancy to another. By his death in 1519, he had completed only about 20 paintings — far fewer than his peers Michelangelo and Raphael.

What did Leonardo do with the rest of his time? Mostly, he filled up notebooks — probably 30,000 pages worth, of which 6,000 remain. The notebooks were Leonardo’s way of querying the world: his laboratory, drafting table and workshop.

Leonardo believed that by looking long and closely enough at any phenomenon, he could find its truth, its connection to universal patterns. His notebooks reveal strands of inquiry stretching over decades, tying together nature drawings and engineering designs and culminating in his paintings.

Take water. Leonardo devoted “huge amounts of speculation and observation to the motion of turbulent water.” He filled notebooks with drawings of whorls and vortices, wrote essays on catastrophic floods, conceived of subsurface hydrology, and laid out a plan for a 15-volume water treatise. He advised Venice and Florence on erosion control and river diversion.

And then he made art. Seeing a connection between the swirls of a whirlpool, the curl of a woman’s hair and the drape of a sleeve, Leonardo represented nature in art, as if from first principles.

In sketches for his lost painting of Leda and the Swan, Leonardo draws the curls of Leda’s hair not just from the front, the angle he would later paint, but from many perspectives, as an architect might draw a house.

“Being Leonardo, he feels that he has to design the rear of the wig, for understanding to be complete,” Kemp writes. “He always feels that he has to answer questions beyond those that directly inform the practical needs of composing a particular picture.”

Kemp is up to something similar. By the time he gets around to the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper in the last quarter of the book, we have a wraparound view of Leonardo that makes his masterpieces all the more compelling.

Martin Kemp tried to write an honest book about Leonardo that was still a page-turner. He succeeded. And if the pages of “Leonardo” don’t turn quite as quickly as those of “The Da Vinci Code,” well, so be it.

“At least I am confident that Leonardo will continue to exert his spell,” Kemp writes, “whether I have done a good job or not.”