Renaissance man.

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Dmitri Merezhkovsky: The romance of Leonardo da Vinci.
Michael White: Leonardo, the first scientist.
Irving Stone: The agony and the ecstasy.

Irving Stone: Lust for life. ( Literary biography of Vincent Van Gogh )

Lost knowledge, scientific and moral progress, and universal education.

It may be bad practise to review together works of biographical fiction and non-fiction. But to be objective about a man's life is perhaps as much a fiction as to treat him subjectively in a novel. The biography of 'the first scientist' can be compared to the dissection of corpses to understand the living body.

The study of anatomy was da Vinci's forte and White concentrates on this experimental work, in laying claim to his achievement as a scientist. For all his artistry and operational skill, unsurpassed till modern times, Leonardo didnt discover the circulation of the blood. He did make considerable advances in refuting wrong theories of light and sight.

Every specialist is allowed his enthusiasm. To claim Leonardo as the first scientist is understandable. Scientists claim Galileo as the first recognisably modern scientist. All White is doing is to push the genesis of modern science back somewhat to Leonardo's investigations.
H G Wells, and more recently, Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, go back further still, to Roger Bacon as the prophet of a distant future of technological marvels issuing from the scientific method.

If we are going to have exaggerated claims, they dont come any more heroic than that the history of Western science is a foot-note to the work of Archimedes. This remark was quoted in a BBC Horizon program on the re-discovery of a mathematical manuscript by him, actually a palimpsest. It will take long to decipher but already it has been discovered that Archimedes was much closer to modern methods of the calculus than previously realised.

Had his work been available in the renaissance, it would have been a real boost to mathematical science. Suggestions were made that man would be on Mars by now, and such like. Similar forecasts were made on finding, in an ancient Greek ship-wreck, a model planetarium, using differential gears, not re-discovered till the seventeenth century.

Archimedes is reputed to have used burning lenses as a weapon in defense of Syracuse. A book, by Robert Temple, called The Crystal Sun, knows of well over two hundred lenses from antiquity languishing in museums, unrecognised for what they were. More than likely the telescope was a lost invention. The author characterised this, in Sherlock Holmes fashion, as the case of the disappearing telescope. The problem is that ancient records get translated according to what the ancients were only supposed to know.

One such classical translator was only located in retirement in a nursing home. When he was put in the picture, he gladly re-translated a puzzling passage, without having to worry about what its author could not have known.

For all that, we cannot be sure that this lost science and technology would have meant greater progress for mankind. As H G Wells, a prophet of science, said: moral progress has not kept up with scientific progress. An even greater imbalance between the two might have plunged civilization back into another dark age. Indeed the abuse of technological power is raping the planet, which is heading for ecological collapse.

The Archimedes of his time, most of Leonardo's researches were also lost to mankind -- a considerable set-back to the revival of science. Eventually, about half of his volumes would be traced.
But grievous tho this waste was, the truth is that vast opportunities are being lost all the time, because most of mankind goes without education, basic facilities or teaching to any worth-while standard of competance. Much greater progress depends on much greater justice, in allowing all people to contribute their native talents.

In april 2002, the World Resources Unit reported that forty per cent of the world's remaining intact forests could disappear in 10 to 20 years, at the current rate of destruction, due to mining, illegal logging and urban sprawl.
At the same time, Oxfam claim the European Union and other industrialised countries swindle poor countries out of $100 billion per year, with unfair trade laws. Among their supporters was former British Labour government minister, Mo Mowlam.

In march 2002, Mexico, world leaders, including US president George W Bush, signed, at the UN conference on finance for development, to alleviate poverty and make education available to all. International aid groups were unhappy at the lack of deeds, as well as words.
The internet makes universalal education a realistic goal. Whereas a sustainable ecology must become the priority to sustain civilization.

Western politicians have recognised the need to tackle world poverty as a defense against violent disaffection. All the same, President Bush wants a vast new missile defense shield. But rockets may be as costly and as obsolete, as battle-ships became, when naval powers were still building ever grander models.

Leonardo and 'the romantic agony'.

Leonardo, like Archimedes, was much concerned with developing 'secret weapons'. They featured in his letters of introduction to ducal employers. He appears to have had scruples against revealing his plans for submarine warfare. Nevertheless, Merezhkovsky's novel creates a tension between the gentle Leonardo and the monstrous armaments designer. One of his apprentices finds this Jekyll and Hyde clash too much to bear.

The vegetarian Leonardo buys caged birds from the market to release them. He also wishes to release mankind into the air with flying machines. The carpenter of flying machine plans is also their 'test pilot', characterised as another victim of apprenticeship to Leonardo. One of his models was recently built for display. It is too heavy to fly. Michael White merely comments he came no-where near to flight.

White doesnt discuss one respect in which Leonardo is rather too much like modern scientists, dependent on state or corporate funding for their research, namely as an ingenious servant of those in political power. Tho, he wanted to establish his independence to follow his own investigations.

Leonardo appeared to have that unattractive modern scientific out-look, that hides expedience behind detachment. Excuses can be found for him from his personal life. Being illegitimate, he did not have full parental recognition or rights. Any loyalty he might have had to Florence must have been quashed by the prosecution for sodomy.

He was acquitted but left the city. An Italian art critic suggested he had to leave in a hurry. It is just as likely that he shook the dust off his feet. Merezhkovsky dismisses the charge, refusing to hear any wrong of his hero. Michael White reckons Leonardo was homosexual. His evidence is by association and inference. Maybe he is right. But other characterisations are possible and just as likely to be false.

Of attractive youths among his companions, Leonardo himself was reputed to be of out-standing beauty. Merezhkovsky characterises these relations as fatherly. Perhaps he was giving parental affection, that his illegitimacy had denied him. Reaction to an inferior birthright explains his aristocratic pretensions and the dandy's care for his appearance.

It is worth remembering that male may love female and pine for her company without sexual desire for her. Heterosexual love might be the natural concomitant of such an attachment but is still distinct from it. One has to be careful about jumping to conclusions, however obvious they may seem.

Merezhkovsky strikes just the right ironic note in suggesting that a man of Leonardo's universal interests must surely have included carnal knowledge in his strivings to encompass all experience.

Michael Angelo faced the charge against Leonardo from someone he refused sketches to. Michael Angelo regarded the prior Bichiellini as the only saint he had met. He was without the bigotry and ambition of Savonarola. On Michael Angelo, who lived for his art, the prior's comment was that no man could have created such a work without purity of heart.

Michael Angelo's companions and apprentices were found commissions and prospered. Whereas Leonardo himself died a virtual exile. No public effort was made to preserve and publish Leonardo's voluminous notes. He was widely regarded as a heretic, his work neglected or plundered.

It would be amazing if Merezhkovsky's avowed 'romance' of Leonardo were an accurate indication of his personal life. To his credit, he creates a credible human being out of an incredible prodigy. It is hard to over-state Leonardo's profusion of talents. This review doesnt attempt to give an impression of their variety. But Merezhkovsky's super-man is rendered weak and vulnerable by the very isolating effect of his genius from the rest of mankind.

The 'renaissance man', that later ages have so much admired in Leonardo, simply took on so much that he brought relatively little to completion. Merezhkovsky makes this gap between ability and fulfilment, the cause of Leonardo's self-reproach. Here is 'the romantic agony' on a heroic scale. The author, who is a poet, depicts Leonardo like a force of nature unbent by Italy's mountain storms and somewhat as futile in human affairs.
Merezhkovsky's romance teems with exotic manifestations not only from Leonardo's mind.

Irving Stone: The agony and the ecstasy.

Michael Angelo's Moses

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Michael Angelo was the great rival of Leonardo as the supreme artist of his age. Merezhovsky makes him a railing grotesque against his idol. Irving Stone rehabilitates him, if Stone's Michael Angelo also must be a figment of Stone's imagination.

In general, characterisation is Merezhovsky's strength, as in the anguished Leonardo or decadent Borgia pope. Shakespear, like Merezhkovsky, would have melodramatised the evil glamor of the pope's son, Cesar Borgia. The most feared man in Italy, he makes little impression on Stone, for whom, one suspects, he would hold little fascination. Cesar's general 'works manager' Leonardo may have seemed 'a servicable villain' to Florentines. For drawing Borgia an exquisite map of Florence, Merezhkovsky is reduced to passing-off his hero as politically artless.
Michael White says Florence has never taken Leonardo to their hearts, as it has Michael Angelo. There is not even a plaque where he served his apprenticeship with Verrocchio.

Irving Stone's Michael Angelo is but a reasonable, if forthright man, happening to have exceptional insights and abilities. Stone does not invest his main character with personality, such as Merezhovsky gives. But first rate are his many probings of the thoughts and techniques of the artist. We are shown the influence of many other artists going thru the mind of Michael Angelo.
This is a novel for any one interested in the arts.

Stone doesnt have Merezhovsky's scenic poetry. The descriptive advantage isnt all on the Russian's side. The American's description, of a capsized Empire in Rome, conjures some colossal ocean liner of stone that has been already a thousand years in the wrecking.

Irving Stone's passages of romantic love are blessedly rare. Any unfair critic could easily discredit him by quoting them. The reader would be inclined to believe that any one who wrote such gush was not worth trying.

Big mistake! Because, the bathos of the scarce love scene is an unimportant aside. A writer, who can make one read rapidly some eight hundred pages of close print, and still want to know more about the man he presents, deserves respect as a practitioner of his craft. Here, surely, is one of the best researched and assimilated biographical novels. In fact, Stone edited Michael Angelo's letters, as an autobiography. He had them translated into English.

Altogether, the bibliography covers six years of research. He visited the scenes of his novel. He took expert counsel, not least as to sculpting, which he was shown how to do. And the novel is an eminently approachable political and social history.

A comment by a biographer of Jame A Michener perhaps applies here. He said that probably no other American author could have afforded the cost of the research that went into the writing of Centennial, Michener's fictionalised story of the wild west.

Centennial makes historical sense of the cowboys in movie classics like Shane and The Sheepman, or a tv series like Rawhide. The agony and the ecstasy shows the wonder of how all those breath-taking works of art got done at all, in the warring states of Renaissance Italy. ( This reviewer hasnt seen the movie version. )

When he showed promise as a sculptor, the young Michael Angelo was taken into the palace of Lorenzo de Medici. Like another Pericles, Il Magnifico wanted to make Florence a second Athens, in the re-birth of classical culture. He gathers scholars of astonishing accomplishments. Brave, courteous, a lover of learning and an antiquarian, he conducted his international business in an open house and mixed freely with the citizens.
Lorenzo was a leader that the people of any time and place would be glad to have, but too seldom get. ( Stone has the under-rated ability to make sympathetic and inspiring characters out of the good people he portrays. )

As a whole, the Medici family left a contradictory influence, sometimes fighting Florence as a republic. It must be said that its looting mob ill repaid Lorenzo's legacy. Lorenzo had ensured a son was made into a cardinal. As he had hoped, he eventually became pope. In Florence and Rome, where most of his work remains, Michael Angelo was associated with the Medici for good or ill, partly depending on them, but also frustrated by the intrigues and caprices of these and other patrons: the agony and the ecstasy.

Of the Medici, Michael Angelo had most affection for Lorenzo and those of his relatives most like him. His sympathies were with the aspirations for a republic in Florence, shared by many of its brightest spirits, and often treacherously suppressed.
At one point, he found himself translated from sculptor to architect to military engineer in defense of the city state. In the desperate and doomed struggle, one incident sounds like an anecdote from Baron von Münchhausen. Rebuilding the key fort after a bombardment, Michael Angelo hung baffles of wool down the newly cemented walls, so that the cannon balls bounced harmlessly off.

Stone's own country, the United States is also a classically inspired republic. He values the wisdom of tact and peaceful diplomacy, in Gonfaloniere Soderini. The same man cannot be recognised, in Merezhovsky's slighting remarks on the mediocrity of popular rule.

As to their leading characters, Merezhkovsky and Stone both bring a refreshing determination to dignify, rather than deride, the human condition, as exemplified in two of the highest mountains in the renaissance range. In this respect, they are true to the renaissance ideal.

Irving Stone: Lust for life. ( Literary biography of Vincent Van Gogh )

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This novel's title sounds rather ordinary, at least by present standards. It has just occured to me what it implies. Van Gogh's painting was a passion to put life on canvas. As a young man, I was once surprised when a Van Gogh scene came to life, in a tree-surrounded field of high grasses under the turbulence that warns of storms.

His self-portraits dont make any concessions to one's sympathy. In one, the face radiates streaks of multi-colored fire as if from the fierce Arles sun. The style is an impressionism writ too large to be any longer mistaken for reality, as an immediate impression of how things really look.

Van Goph has become identified with the artistic temperament taken to extremes. Irving Stone's story made him human. The Michael Angelo novel prepared me for Stone's ability to make characters sympathetic. But I wasnt prepared for the trials that made Van Gogh's life tragic.

He was unlucky in love. These relationships sounded as if told to the author by someone who had been in the painter's confidence. Stone's main literary source was the many letters to his brother Theo. Most of his material came from following Van Goph's trail thru Europe. Some forty years after his death was within living memory of the man. He says Paul Gachet ( apparently the son of the portrayed Doctor Gachet ) 'remains Vincent's staunchest friend in Europe.'

No doubt Stone's research notes are valuable archive material for art historians.

Vincent Van Gogh's was a life of false starts before he found his calling. Like the last movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's choral symphony, the opening fumbles over its theme, discarding, in turn, the themes of the previous movements, as young people sometimes find that the usual occupation of their family or district is not for them.

Van Gogh's painting did at last break out into a triumphant fanfare of chromatic form. It is commonly said that he only sold one painting. In fact, that and a favorable art review portend that he was beginning to be appreciated before his short life ended.

( There was no need for Stone to invent the scene of 'Maya', a sort of Venus who makes a visit to the artist with a fantasy of all the worldy success he never enjoyed. Just for a moment, it intrudes the sentiments of a formula romance into a popular classic. )

The novel touches on the big questions of life, in a simple and unpretentious way. He has written about the American socialist, Eugene Debs. He explains carefully the economics of poverty for the Belgian miners of the Borinage. There is no suggestion that it is the fault of 'wicked capitalists'. Rather, the miners' fate seems so inexorable, that it is enough to turn away Vincent from his evangelist work. He brought himself to the brink of death, trying to help the mining families, but came to feel that his comforting words of God's mercy were a childish evasion.

Later, in Provence, he wonders whether this world isnt just the work of an artist on a bad day.

"When I was young, Monsieur," he said, "I used to think a lot about God. But He seems to have grown thinner with the years. He is still in that cornfield you painted, and in the sunset by Montmajour, but when I think about men...and the world they have made..."

I know, Roulin, but I feel more and more that we should not judge God by this world. It's just a study that didn't come off. What can you do in a study that has gone wrong, if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better."...

"Then you think there are other worlds besides this, Monsieur?"

I don't know, Roulin. I gave up thinking about that sort of thing when I became interested in my work. But this life seems so incomplete, doesn't it? Sometimes I think that just as trains and carriages are means of locomotion to get us from one place to another on this earth, so typhoid and consumption are means of locomotion to get us from one world to another."

"Ah, you think of things, you artists."

"Roulin, will you do me a favour? Let me paint your portrait. The people of Arles won't pose for me."

Stone's finished portrait of Van Gogh's short life, gives the feeling of a satisfying completeness. You realise that, when Van Gogh meets all the Impressionist painters in Paris. They are like so many blank canvases for other literary biographers. Stone can no more than sketch them in conversations with Vincent.

Stone doesnt stint on the hard work that goes into the making of an artist. How does the young aspirant know whether he should persevere?
Vincent's ability seemed doubtful, except to a discerning few. His stubborness did not know how to take 'no' for an answer, as a suitor and misled him. He seemed to have no natural facility for his self-imposed task. Stubborn practise of his art eventually proved itself an authentic commitment. He wanted to justify his painting financially but ultimately he cared more for his art for its own sake.

Stone's simple, surprisingly effective descriptions of the paintings, naming their garish colors, are enough to remind of their vividness. When Van Gogh reached the height of his powers, he worked suicidally hard and burned himself out. Illness and poverty did the rest.

This great novel redeems the image of Van Gogh as a crazy artist and makes him stubbornly human, even in fear of madness.

Richard Lung.

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