The Life of Leonardo da Vinci
By Giorgio Vasari
Translated by Martin Kemp & Lucy Russell
Thames & Hudson, 2019
It never takes much provocation for people to write about Leonardo da Vinci, but the Year of Our Lord 2019 provides such provocation nonetheless: it marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. There will be a few publications to mark the occasion, and one of the most immediately enjoyable (and accessible: $15 US for a sturdy and gorgeously illustrated little hardcover) is this unexpected treat from the folks at Thames & Hudson: a new stand-alone translation of the 40-page biography of Leonardo written the great Florentine artist and architect Giorgio Vasari.
Vasari wrote his masterpiece Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters and Sculptors from Cimabue until our Time in 1550 and then brought out a heavily-revised and amplified edition in 1568. Since the book has been an invaluable quarry for the mining and extraction of interesting or useful bits and pieces, its own intrinsic literary merits have often been overlooked, and nothing displays this fact more readily than the way the whole work is almost always carved into allegedly more reader-friendly chunks. Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Modern Library, and dozens of other reprint lines in the last century have prised out the lives of better-known artists like Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Alberti, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, and of course Leonardo, lumped them together often out of sequence, and presented them free of the distraction of their lesser-known compatriots. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives is almost always treated in the same tomb-robber fashion.
Even so, if this be tomb-robbing, it’s seldom been done more attractively. This Thames & Hudson volume has everything to recommend it: it’s small enough and sturdy enough to fit in a pocket; it’s got a long and invigoratingly thoughtful Introduction by Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, whose 2018 book Living with Leonardo was such a complete joy; it’s illustrated in color with just about every piece of artwork ever even remotely associated with Leonardo, and best of all, Kemp and his co-translator Lucy Russell have done readers a precious service: they’ve blended the 1550 and the 1568 editions, highlighting new material in a russet font that looks like something found in one of Leonardo’s manuscripts. For the first time in English, readers can see at a glance what Vasari saw fit to add to his later account of a man who was already a legend in the author’s own day.
He’s only gone on to become a greater legend as the centuries have rolled by since his death at the age of 75, enumerating his final symptoms on his deathbed to King Francis I in 1519. Those ensuing centuries have seen countless books big and small devoted to Leonardo and his legacy, but all biographies start with the artist’s own notebooks … and with this life by Vasari, in all its gossipy glory. Thames & Hudson are to be commended for presenting it in such a snazzy package.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.