The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior

by Paul Strathern

Rating: ★★★★

This book is one of those which makes you really start to grasp the lived-in nature of history. Our central and titular characters are household names, but it would take much closer knowledge of the period for you to realise that they once met, working and talking with each other, with each having great impact on their fellows and indeed on their most famous works.

Respectively, these characters are the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, the clearheaded political philosopher Niccol├│ Machiavelli and the terrifyingly amoral yet effective warrior Cesare Borgia. The short version of their interaction is that Machiavelli was often an envoy to Borgia due to his position in the Florentine government, and that one deal struck by him saw Leonardo employed by Borgia to strengthen his recently-acquired fortresses.

To give up a few highlights: It is while working for Borgia that Leonardo found the background for his famous Mona Lisa, it is from Leonardo's empiricism that Machiavelli found support for his pragmatic political outlook, and it is Cesare Borgia who provided the inspiration for Machiavelli's most famous publication: The Prince, a description of how power is attained, lacking any reference to morality.

The balance between the characters in the novel is a little off-kilter. Strathern notes early on that Machiavelli and Borgia are of known character (Machiavelli a surprisingly macho wit, Borgia a sort of dramatic monster) but Leonardo is less so, and it seems that he tries to address this by providing more personal-level speculation for Leonardo than for either of the others. In Borgia's case particularly, so much space is devoted to the (admittedly gripping) political struggles that there is little room to consider the man himself.

That comment aside, Strathern writes in one of the best manners possible for this sort of historical dissertation. He provides a contextual narrative for each character, summing up most of their lives through the course of the book, but keeping them always well-intertwined. While carefully referencing the sources for the verifiable portions of events, he also provides rich suggestive imagery, and indulges in clearly-labelled speculation where it seems most apt. The effect is a highly entrancing book, a factual historical account with all the rich tones of a work of fiction, spanning some of the greatest achievements of three formidable historical figures. A strong recommendation for the historically inclined reader.