Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code did not single-handedly ignite a resurgence of interest in Leonardo Da Vinci, but it certainly fanned the flames of one already in progress. The evidence is everywhere. Leonardo's own fascinating and well-written notebooks are available in various editions. There have been numerous documentaries and books about him in recent years, including Sherwin Nuland's excellent entry in the Penguin Lives series. The Da Vinci Code has done history fans a favor by encouraging publishers to provide more nonfiction about this fascinating and mysterious figure.
Now comes Leonardo by Martin Kemp, an art history professor at Oxford and the esteemed author of The Oxford History of Western Art. He understands Leonardo, his works, his context and his influence. Kemp's book is relatively short and quite reader-friendly. It includes a helpful chronology and an annotated gallery of Leonardo's paintings, which comprise perhaps a third of the book's 60 handsome illustrations. Kemp doesn't waste time pasting together yet another biography. Instead, he has written a scholarly but passionate essay. He wants to try to understand Leonardo's mind, the way his imagination united art and science and brought them to bear upon each other. Kemp has an excellent chapter called "Looking" that examines Leonardo's scientific notions about the eye and vision alongside his conception of the artistic imagination. Other chapters explore his related ideas about the body and machinery and his use of the ancient parallel between the human body and the body of the earth. A final chapter surveys Leonardo's posthumous fame, from the 16th-century biography by Vasari to, inevitably, The Da Vinci Code. Michael Sims ranges from Leonardo to Louis Armstrong in his most recent book, Adam's Navel, now in paperback from Penguin.