Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior by Paul Strathern

In the autumn of 1502 three giants of the Renaissance period - Cesare Borgia, Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli - set out on one of the most treacherous military campaigns of the period. Cesare Borgia was a ferocious military leader whose name was synonymous with brutality and whose reputation was marred with the suspicion of incest. Niccolo Machiavelli was a witty and subversive intellectual, more suited to the silken diplomacy of royal courts than the sodden encampments of a military campaign. And Leonardo Da Vinci was a visionary master and the most talented military engineer in Italy. What lead him to work for the monstrous Borgia? And what attracted him to the cunning Machiavelli?

I’d been seeing this book everywhere in the months up until Christmas and thought how interesting it sounded; just think a book dedicated to three Renaissance men all about how their lives intertwined. Alas, I did not buy it for myself. Imagine my surprise when on Christmas morning I opened up a gift only to this peeking out of the paper at me!

This idea for this book really is wonderful, and I can imagine it having been very difficult to pull off. The book pulls together the lives of three men during Renaissance Italy and how their lives intertwined, how they met and how they worked together. And Paul Strathern does an absolutely astounding job with it. Not only that but his three subjects are quite possibly the three most interesting men of the period: Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia. All three of these men had a huge impact on Italy as they knew it; Da Vinci was one of the world’s greatest artists and scientists; a man who thought of windmill’s and tanks long before they were “invented”, Machiavelli was the creator of “realpolitik” and author of the controversial ‘The Prince’; a work that was banned and had poor Machiavelli labelled as an agent of Satan, and Cesare Borgia – a man known for his murderous ways, said to be involved with his own sister and a man who became the greatest military general that Italy had ever seen.

The first and main thing I want to say about this book is that Strathern’s writing style is just flawless. It is so easy to read, and as I was reading I could imagine what he was describing (and these days with books it’s very rare that happens to me) – I could imagine Leonardo working on his paintings and coming up with military weapons for Cesare, I could imagine Machiavelli sitting there writing his dispatches back to Florence, and I could imagine Cesare as he lead his armies into the Romagna to overtake them. The entire book was so well written and I enjoyed it from the very first word and despite the cliché, I just couldn’t put it down. I have read a few reviews of this saying that the way it is structured makes it very difficult to follow, and that the switches between characters means that it’s almost impossible to read without getting confused. I did not find this at all, in fact thought that Strathern pulled everything together excellently, staying in chronological order and tying the relationship between these three Renaissance men together with an expert eye for detail. It was really very interesting to read how these men eventually came together, how Leonardo and Machiavelli ended up working for Borgia and how Borgia himself developed such a respect for these men that he may have even considered them as friends.

I have to say as well, that I learnt a lot whilst reading this book that I didn’t know before. I did not know that Leonardo Da Vinci came up with things long before their time, like windmills, or diving suits or even the world’s first flying machine. According to Strathern the likelihood that this was tested is very slim, yet Leonardo made mention of his plans in his notebooks. With Machiavelli I knew that he was the author of “The Prince”, a book that I still have yet to read, and that he had an immense amount of respect for Cesare Borgia and I knew he spent time with Borgia, I did not know quite how hard up he was whilst he was staying with Cesare. According to Strathern Machiavelli kept having to write to the Signoria to beg for money, and begging to be recalled home. It seems he was also a bit of a joker with his friends, and one letter that Strathern quoted made me laugh out loud – although I must say it is rather cruel – when he spoke about how he went to buy a shirt, and the woman took him into a darkened room to try out the goods. There he made love to a woman he could not see in the dark, and when he turned the lights on he found her so ugly that he threw up all over her! And of course anything about Cesare I will eat up, whether they are facts I know of or not. With Cesare, whilst I knew he managed to escape from prison at the Medina Del Campo and fought with his father in law (which consequentially lead to his death), I did not know that before he was moved there he tried to escape from his previous prison, but injured himself trying to escape!

In all honesty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is full to bursting with facts about three very interesting individuals of the Renaissance and it is all written in such a way that there were times I could have sworn I was stood in the same room as Leonardo as he painted his famous Mona Lisa. I found the exact same thing when I read Strathern’s book “The Medici” which, like this one, is just a brilliant and informative read. If you even have an inkling of an interest in any of these three men then I recommend picking up this book as you will be astounded by what you read, and more so you will begin to understand how these three Renaissance giants lives’ all intertwined, how they met, how they worked together and ultimately came to respect each other as friends. Yet I really don’t want to spoil the book for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I could type for pages and pages on the relationship between these men based just on what Strathern has written, but I won’t. I’ll let you discover it all for yourselves…

4 comments:

  1. Wow! Three Renaissance power houses all in the same book. Stathern is a brave soul to tackle that, isn't he? What a marvelous Christmas present.

    I am drawn to your repeated comment that the book was written so well that you felt you were in the same room with the subjects. Sounds great!

    Thanks for the review!

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  2. Thanks Sophia. It really is a wonderful book, and I honestly think its one of the best I have ever read. I totally recommend it!!

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  3. Barbara Gaskell Denvil (author of SATIN CINNABAR)13 January 2012 14:31

    You've convinced me - 3 of my favourite historical characters, so now it's on my wish-list at Amazon.

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  4. YAY Barbara! Honestly it is a wonderful book, you won't regret reading it :D :D I need to more reading on Machiavelli, he seems really interesting and I still have a copy of The Prince on my shelf ready to be read at some stage in the next few months!

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