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REVIEWING

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

By Mike Lankford

Published by Melville House

Reviewed by Larry Baker

Mike Lankford

My Friend, Mike

Here’s what most people know about Leonardo da Vinci: He had some secret code that had been ignored by the Western World until Dan Brown uncovered it. I suspect that a lot of people have never even heard about the paintings of Mona Lisa and Jesus breaking bread for the last time with his merry pranksters, i.e. “The Last Supper,” but, they probably think that those were done by Michelangelo.

How do we determine da Vinci’s true fan base? Of course, we turn to Facebook, where two pages bearing his name have a total of 2,498,338 “followers.” Even if we deduct 98,338 of those followers as still being a bit blurry about the difference between da Vinci and Michelangelo...a reasonable guess...the Florentine artist has a respectable fan club of 2.4 million.

Me, I have three—my wife and two children. But that’s probably a lot more than Mike Lankford has right now. But, dammit, Mike, a long-time reclusive friend of mine, is about to become more famous than I, and Leonardo da Vinci is the reason.

A year ago, Mike sent me a manuscript of a new book he had written. Thing is, Mike and I have corresponded regularly for years, and the common thread is our writing. I thought I knew about everything he had been writing. That’s what writers talk about...themselves, their work. But, out of nowhere he asks if I would read his latest...about Leonardo da Vinci. Three hundred pages, as if immaculately conceived and dropped into the world, how do ya like my new baby?

Excuse me? Who? What? And, where did this come from? Me, I have always thought that Mike was a rare talent who was invisible on the publishing radar screen. I think he lives in a cave in Bend, Oregon. Who knows?

He published a brilliant memoir, Life in Double-Time, twenty years ago, about his life a white drummer in a black band on the road. And then, nada. I have read his other manuscripts over the years, one of which I hated, and I even read that one twice. I read his stuff because Mike Lankford has what is best described as an “electric” voice. The prose crackles and jolts. The Twain concept of lightning versus the lightning bug. Mike is lightning. (His real voice, oddly, is best likened to that of Shelby Foote.)

So, he said, “I just finished this about da Vinci and I’m not sure what to do with it. You wanna read it?”

Truth was, I did not. Truth is, I was wrong.

***

I read it because Mike wrote it. I had zero interest in reading anything about Leonardo da Vinci. But, Mike wrote it, so I printed out the first fifty pages and began. And then fifty more. Three hundred pages, and then I read it again.

***

Imagine Mark Twain with a PhD in Art History, or perhaps Will Rogers? American wit and erudition digs up a Renaissance genius? Mike Lankford made Da Vinci real to me, but more than him as flesh and blood, but him as the consummate left-handed artist in a world populated by Michelangelo (that bastard seems to be everywhere) and other renowned artists, a world of the Medici’s and Machiavelli and the Borgia’s, a world of pestilence and war and murder. A world of daily death and disease.

Trouble was, I knew zero about the real da Vinci. Mike is a great stylist, but he might have been pulling facts out of his ass, for all I knew.

But Mike had anticipated skeptics like me. In a recent posting on the Melville House website (his publisher), he explained:

“Over the years I’ve fallen down one rabbit hole after another when it comes to studying amazing personalities (it started with Tolstoy), where I’ll read everything they’ve written, and then everything written about them, before wearing the subject out and moving on to the next rabbit hole (Van Gogh in my case) and doing the same all over again. Typically, I’d spend a year or two on a person before they’d start to seem familiar to me and even kind of ordinary and obvious, and then I’d move on. After a while, these serial obsessions led to a core conviction that, given their various circumstances, people are rather more alike than they are different, even among the most gifted. People are people, after all.

“Then along came Leonardo. Everything about the man seemed reversed and counter-intuitive and a complete enigma — and, the more I’d read, the deeper and more complex his mystery became, for me and (apparently) for everyone else. What was going on? After three years and more than twenty biographies (many read multiple times, spines broken) the questions had only multiplied in my mind (along with my fascination), but, by then I’d realized something important: because so little was known about him, all these books I’d pondered and marked up were all built on the same three dozen facts, the rest was spin and conjecture. Expert spin, usually, but essentially still a strong wind blowing from one direction or another, puffing up Leonardo.

“But, at bottom, I think the reason I was still so vague after all this time was the odd way these fossilized stories about Leonardo seemed to obscure rather than reveal him. Like reading a fanzine article about a rock star, everything becomes oversized and extra good and slightly unreal after a while. This was my sense about Leonardo — he’d been buried under the rhetoric and adulation. And, recognizing this, I suddenly became aware that (if looked at from a slightly different point of view), like the rock star, Leonardo could still be seen, hiding in plain sight.”

The genius of Mike’s book, the brilliance of his achievement, might be overlooked even though it is right there in his own explanation, so I’ll repeat it here: “All these books I’d pondered and marked up were all built on the same three dozen facts; the rest was spin and conjecture.”

So, an obsessive writer absorbs thousands of pages of scholarly research, extrapolates from those three dozen facts that had been kneaded and pummeled by a thousand other writers, funnels all that though his own unique voice, and creates a new genre: creative scholarship, which is not to be conflated with creative non-fiction.

***

Mike’s Becoming Leonardo is more than a study of da Vinci. It is an exposition of how a creative mind works. Critics, who actually know a lot more about Leonardo than I do, have discovered the contribution of Mike to the world of da Vinci scholarship:

“With scholarly research and a novelist’s ability to zoom in and paint a truly intimate portrait of one of the greatest creators in human history, Becoming Leonardodoes what historians long to do, and novelists often struggle to achieve: a book that has the pace, elegance, and authorial omnipresence of a novel, but which will enlighten, rather than annoy, the astute historian.”

Noah Charney, best-selling author of The Art of Forgery

Art? That which makes the familiar unfamiliar. Art? That which takes something we think we already know and makes it new in our eyes.

A year ago, I suggested to Mike that he use the title Da Vinci Uncoded. Mike was unimpressed. “I don’t want it to have anything to do with that shit.” And, it hit me, where his book came from. Mike has created a da Vinci that is both real and imagined. The difference between Mike and Dan Brown is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. It’s the same difference between da Vinci and the other artists in his world.

You’re not interested in a book about Leonardo da Vinci? Neither was I. But I took a chance. My reward? A hundred insights about the creative process...not just art or writing or music or painting, but how the mind takes experience and reconfigures that “sensation.” Near the end of his book, Mike, whether consciously or not, aligns himself and other artists with Leonardo:

And by some internal process he found his way, this left-handed dyslexic, uneducated country kid, who might well have had Asperger’s—somehow, out of that unorganized swirl of sensation, Leonardo recognized a way to make sense of it for himself. And, he did it by trusting his own instincts, finding his own connections. Modern hagiographers like to imagine Leonardo as the total man, utterly complete in mind and body, whereas the evidence, objectively considered, suggests someone who was terrifically lopsided and as defined by his shortcomings and disabilities as well as his strengths. If anything, his shortcomings defined him more.



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