Through his extensive research and analysis of Leonardo’s notebooks, accounts by contemporaries, the artist’s extant work, and scores of scholarly sources, Bramly reconstructs the life of the artist. The exact events of that life and the source of Leonardo’s genius have been the subject of much speculation, with the circumstances of his childhood remaining particularly elusive because of the paucity of primary source materials. Bramly attempts to fill the gaps by analyzing Leonardo’s disillusioned adult observations on birth and maternal care. He also places great emphasis on Leonardo’s illegitimacy and early separation from his mother, blaming them for much of the artist’s psychological complexity. Bramly’s analysis reveals a man racked with inner conflicts, at once confident and insecure, serious and whimsical. Bramly offers evidence of Leonardo’s sexual ambiguity but concludes from his research that the artist may have led a largely asexual life, despite almost certain homosexual tendencies. He also attempts to explain why so many of the artist’s projects were left uncompleted, concluding that it was conception, rather than execution, that challenged and intrigued Leonardo.
This is a well-written and exhaustively researched biography of one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures of the Renaissance. Bramly has situated Leonardo’s life within the framework of fifteenth century Italy, offering the reader many contextual historical details. The volume’s academic apparatus includes a chronology, extensive endnotes, numerous illustrations, listings of Leonardo’s paintings and writings, the names and dates of contemporary artists, a bibliography, and an index. The only flaw is Bramly’s tendency to overanalyze his sometimes very slim resources, resulting in interpretations and extrapolations that have but a tenuous connection to available facts.