INVENTING LEONARDO by A. Richard Turner (Knopf: $27.50; 270 pp.) "Divinely inspired." "A sick soul." "Subdued and graceful." "Hostile superiority." Thus history's ongoing critique of the Mona Lisa, whose smile, nearly 500 years later, remains unfathomable. Unfathomable too is her creator. Although some 7,000 sheets of his notes and drawings survive (along with only a dozen of his paintings), virtually nothing is known of Leonardo's personal life. As the master himself was frustrated by "the layers and systems" of human anatomy, so Leonardo the man remains elusive, but not for lack of effort, or invention.
In this scholarly, rewarding work, Richard Turner, professor of fine arts at NYU, synthesizes the passionate but divergent interpretations of Leonardo, each era building on--or refuting--its predecessor. Did Leonardo die in the arms of the king of France? Non . Did he invent a surpassingly smelly gas to empty a room full of bores? Nah. Did he hire musicians and jesters to maintain Mona's smile as she modeled? Possibly. Was Leonardo fascinated by the grotesque? Yes, but he also wrote, "There is no figure of a woman so ugly as to not find a lover." Essentially, Turner reminds, Leonardo was more "technologist and engineer" than artist, designing with gusto a variety of war machines--Gatling guns, people-scythes, man-powered tanks--for the likes of Sforza, Machiavelli, even the bloody-minded Cesare Borgia. Why? We'll never really know. "Paint from the bones outward," Leonardo advised, and so we must. The bones are all that's left.