March 28, 2017
How Becoming Leonardo became Becoming Leonardo
by Mike Lankford
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 botton, 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.
Without a thought in my head I must’ve reached for the keyboard. I do remember page three: little Leonardo falling off rocks and swimming in the creek, but before that, it’s all a blank.
Mike Lankford is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer, a memoir about his years as a white drummer in a black R&B band, and Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.