"Becoming Leonardo"

With scholarly flair and the talent of a fine portrait painter, Mike Lankford presents a thought-provoking, unconventional biography of one of the most significant creators in human history.

Lankford’s avant-garde literary approach deconstructs all the myths, assumptions and clichés about Leonardo, assesses them through a new lens and then reconstructs da Vinci based on the best available data. The end result is a well-paced, elegant and enlightening life story of this illustrious artist, mathematician and inventor.

The author embeds da Vinci’s life in the midst of 15th-century Italian society, culture and history and the people who surrounded him. He does this by beginning each chapter with a bullet-pointed chronology listing the actual events that took place during the years discussed in that period. These milestones help the reader remember the wars, plagues, murderous tyrants, the disasters as well as the chief artistic personalities of that era and keep the reader in touch with the conditions under which da Vinci plied his skills.

When we look back in history, Lankford writes, we imagine ourselves in particular historical situations, but “what we fail to appreciate is how genuinely different we’ve become in the last 500 years.” The author proposes that if a person from Leonardo’s time were transported to ours, “what he or she would most likely notice first are all the old people hopping around and being lively. And second, that they all still have their teeth.” In this flippant and entertaining way, Lankford reminds the reader how different our world is from Leonardo’s.

Lankford portrays the very human and private side of the famous Renaissance man and does not gloss over da Vinci’s sometimes darker characteristics, such as his propensity to procrastinate. The artist left many projects unfinished, and stiffed many of those who had commissioned them. The author also explores Leonardo’s homosexuality. He details a sodomy charge and the prison time the artist served and how this isolation increased his passion for freedom.

Lankford depicts da Vinci’s development as a painter and sculptor, but his “exploded view” shows the artist “simply as a man sitting across the table covered in ordinary sunlight, absent the halo. Dirty fingers and all.” This 360-degree view of Leonardo provides the reader with a demythologized portrayal of this genius and a deeper appreciation of him and his work.

“Why are there no more Leonardos?” Lankford asks. “I think the truth is there are potential Leonardos everywhere in the world, but they rarely survive or succeed in our regimented social order, and they don’t do at all well on tests. A kid growing up wild in the country today, 15 years old and unable to properly write or even sign his name (as was true of Leonardo), is what social workers would call “a problem.” Leonardo grew up in a home with a “scumbag” for a father. He was dyslexic, an autodidact, receiving little formal childhood education, but that did not limit his inclination to invent and create.  Lankford expresses concern that in today’s world, people might see da Vinci’s learning issues as reasons to discredit or stand in the way of his genius.

Mike Lankford is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of “Life in Double Time” a memoir about his years as a white drummer in a black Rhythm and Blues band. Melville House is the publisher of this 289-page book which includes 16 pages of glossy colored photographs of da Vinci’s works. The Wall Street Journal chose “Becoming Leonardo” as a Fiction/Non-fiction Book of the Year.