Book Review: "Leonardo, the Artist and the Man" by Serge Bramly

Updated on September 4, 2019
AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

What's it About?

Fine art painting, drawing, sculpting, inventing, architecture, engineering, science, mathematics, geology, music, military weaponry, hydraulics, botany, anatomy, map making - the list of Leonardo da Vinci's skills reflects the man's broad range of interests.

Born on 15th April, 1452 at Vinci in Florence, Italy, Leonardo was the illegitimate eldest child of notary Piero da Vinci and Caterina, who was classed as a peasant. The child lived mostly with his mother and grandparents, while his father went on to marry four times more.

Leonardo's illegitimacy barred his entry into the guild of magistrates and notaries. For the same reason, he could not attend university or train for any "noble" career. However, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, painter by appointment to the powerful Medici dynasty, and so he began his training as an artist.

Leonardo did not keep a journal. Instead, he wrote a few words scattered throughout his large number of sketchbooks. Often cryptic and wide open to subjective interpretation, these are the main clues to his life choices, interests and activities beyond the surviving works themselves.

This biography aims to assemble the few verifiable facts about Leonardo da Vinci's life and works. It looks at his surviving works, including his partially-finished projects and those which never made it beyond the planning stage. The text turns to the huge quantity of notebooks and sketchbooks which are crammed with Leonardo's drawings, ideas, plans and fragmented quotes in order to generate a reliable account of his life.

There are six colour plates, plus numerous monotone plates.

Bramly aims to dispel many of the myths which have grown up around Leonardo. Instead, the author prefers to discover the intelligent, imaginative and cultured man beyond the mere legend, and looks at documented evidence and historical context on which to build his solid portrayal of Leonardo's life.

About the Author

Writer of factual and fictional books, a screenwriter and photographer, Serge Bramly was born in Tunisia in 1949. Having moved to France at the age of ten with his family, he studied modern languages at Nanterre then became a teacher of French in Brazil and Pakistan.

For his first novel, The First Principle - The Second Principle, Bramly won the Interallié Prize 2008. His 1982 novel, The Dance of the Wolf, won the Bookseller Prize in 1983. His 1986 non-fiction book, Leonardo da Vinci, won the Vasari Prize.

He has written about musician Man Ray, philosopher Rudolf Steiner, photographer Walter Carone, and collaborated on a book with his wife, photographer Bettina Rheims.

Bramly has written several film scripts, including Sade and La Lumière du Lac.

What's to Like?

There is much to enjoy in this well-researched account of one of art history's most romanticised characters. Bramly offers a detailed study of Leonardo da Vinci's formative years and early training under Verrocchio's roof, then explores his developing career and subsequent diverse areas of interest.

The author does not shy away from Leonardo's failings, both as an artist and as a man. Was he a jack-of-all-trades who could have achieved so much more if only he had focused his attentions on just one or two areas? Leonardo himself seemed to think so in later life.

Leonardo's career was littered with incomplete projects. Why was it that he left so much work unfinished? Was this due to a lack of self-discipline, distraction by his students who were allegedly chosen for their good looks rather than for their artistic abilities, or did Leonardo's ambitions outstrip his practical skills?

I was surprised to learn that Leonardo da Vinci left behind only 13 paintings created entirely by his own hand, with another 7 completed in collaboration with other artists. Contrary to popular assumption he was not keen on painting, much preferring to invent mechanics and attempt to improve upon existing inventions.

He was fascinated by flight and may have built several prototype flying machines. While in Cesare Borgia's employ, he invented new weaponry for the Borgia army.

I appreciated the author's determined attempts to set aside myths and fantasy, and instead search out documented evidence of Leonard's various commissions, trials and travels.

Life in a Bottega

I found Bramly's description of how a typical artist's studio, or bottega, worked in that time period, which is entirely different from how studios operate today. Then it was typically a ground-floor residence which opened onto the street, with finished items on display and the artists working in full view of the passing public.

The artists would accept all kinds of work, even seemingly humble commissions, so long as money changed hands. These were entirely commercial enterprises, with a totally practical approach to art. The master artist, his family and his apprentices lived and dined together above the bottega. Many master artists exchanged students or permitted them to benefit from each other's tutelage.

An interesting book, not in the least bit dry or heavy-going for all its considerable size, Leonardo: The Artist and the Man offers a good introduction to the life of one of this world's greatest creative minds.

A Short Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

What's Not to Like?

Unfortunately, many of the monochrome reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci's works are mediocre in quality. They are very dark and details are difficult to make out, and often also rather small. Perhaps the original works have deteriorated badly and this accounts for the quality of printing here? This is a pity, but this is why a rating of only four stars has been awarded to this book.

I feel the author's easy dismissal of Sigmud Freud's attempted analysis Leonardo da Vinci's psychology was too quick. After all, the renowned Austrian psychologist had only the same surviving data to base his theories upon as did the biographer. Both conclusions are inevitably subjective.

Hidden Symbolism of da Vinci's "The Last Supper" Fresco

Share Your View!

Have you read "Leonardo, The Artist and the Man" by Serge Bramly?

See results


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)