Book review: 'The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior' by Paul Strathern

By Steven Levingston
Sunday, January 31, 2010


The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped

By Paul Strathern

Bantam. 456 pp. $30

Five hundred years after his death, Cesare Borgia still ranks as one of history's most reprehensible figures: ruthless, power-hungry and peacock-vain. But his reputation as a brute obscures the full human dimensions of this duke who sought to reunite Italy and place himself at the head of a new Roman Empire. As Paul Strathern explains in his masterful narrative history, "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior," Borgia was also brilliant, handsome, charismatic and well-versed in the classics, "a superb exemplar of the Renaissance man."

Borgia is joined in these pages by two other exemplars of the age: Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Strathern has produced a compact triple biography that focuses on the intersection of these three extraordinary men in late 1502. The trio spent only a few months in close proximity, but the impact on their own lives and on the Renaissance was far-reaching.

Strathern, a novelist and author of other popular histories, does for Machiavelli and da Vinci what he does for Borgia: creates a flesh-and-blood portrait for each that defies historical stereotype. Using his novelist's eye and a historian's sweep, Strathern conveys the emotional subtleties that animated their lives. It's no small feat that he makes you care deeply for these complex figures who lived half a millennium ago.

Machiavelli, a savvy diplomat, served as an envoy of his native Florence while Borgia was bullying his way through the Romagna region of Italy. Watching the duke grab land through bluffs, intimidation, lightning action and slaughter, Machiavelli was filled with a mixture of loathing and admiration. He also gained an understanding of the nature of power, which helped him develop a new political theory based not, as was the custom, on the precepts of ancient philosophers but instead on the truth of the world around him.

In the winter of 1502, when Machiavelli was in Cesena, capital of Borgia's dukedom, Borgia discovered a conspiracy and swiftly expressed his displeasure. The body of the ringleader, one of the duke's oldest and trusted friends, turned up in the town's main square, decapitated and with the head stuck on a lance. The killing helped sharpen Machiavelli's thoughts. "He was beginning to see Borgia's amoral and pragmatic methods as the paradigm of how to achieve and hold on to power," Strathern writes. Borgia was on his way to becoming Machiavelli's model for "The Prince," a work that, as Strathern puts it, "shocked the world, revolutionized political thinking, and would ultimately transform humanity's view of itself."

Da Vinci was in Cesena at the time of the decapitation, too. He had already painted "The Last Supper," but it was his thinking on science and technology, particularly as it applied to war, that landed him in Borgia's service as his chief military engineer. Da Vinci contributed his considerable gifts to strengthening the duke's fortresses (curved walls reduced the impact of cannonballs), drawing maps (with the use of his invention, the hodometer, to measure precise distances) and building ad hoc bridges for the duke's army to cross rivers.

Ultimately, however, da Vinci became disgusted by Borgia. By the time he escaped the duke's employ, da Vinci had undergone "a profound psychological change . . . as a result of his terrifying experiences." He still worked on his own projects -- paintings, designs for buildings, canal improvements -- but could finish little. He considered publishing his understanding of science and technology but was unable to see the effort through. After his exposure to Borgia, Strathern writes, da Vinci realized that development of his military engineering skills -- once a source of pride and ambition -- was a "grotesque error." While he continued to fill his notebooks with diagrams, drawings and speculations, da Vinci also wrote, "I will not publish, nor divulge such things because of the evil nature of men." In the end, he left a meager legacy: There are no sculptures, no complete buildings, from his architectural drawings and only a handful of paintings, some unfinished. "The list of Leonardo's surviving works is nothing less than tragic," Strathern writes.

Yet da Vinci did stick with one endeavor. Borgia may have soured him on war and the creation of military machines, but the duke influenced his masterpiece: the Mona Lisa. The misty landscape rising in the background of that painting is the upper Arno Valley -- an area the artist traversed while on his missions for the barbaric warrior.

Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of Book World.

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