Mike Lankford imagines his way into the day-to-day life of one of the world’s most beloved artists in “Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.” Lankford, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is committed to introducing us to da Vinci the man rather than da Vinci the legend.
To accomplish this, Lankford examines the artist’s life chronologically, looking for and interpreting the key events in his personal life and in the society in which he lived that might have shaped his art and other work. Lankford’s da Vinci is certainly brilliant and eccentric, but he didn’t create magnificent art in a vacuum.
Da Vinci had commissions — some of which he completed, but many of which he didn’t. He was supported by a variety of brutal men — and offered them a range of military innovations, some of which might have worked but many of which were far more impractical than their designer might have admitted.
He had challenges in his personal life — including his illegitimate birth and disinheritance by his father. His was a genius under pressure, and that genius was far from apparent to everyone.
Lankford, of course, is working from the same set of facts as many other biographers of da Vinci, and those details are scarce, at best. But he’s committed to an understanding of those facts grounded in probable causality rather than the trappings of hagiography.
Lankford is surprisingly present in the text as a first person narrator, which is jarring at first but which allows him to be upfront about the suppositions underlying his interpretations and ideas. Eventually, he becomes a trusted guide helping us assemble a portrait of da Vinci — an unfinished portrait to be sure, but one perhaps truer to the man himself than most other efforts at capturing his essence.