When I was in 8th grade, I wrote a school report on Leonardo Da Vinci. I still remember writing it, because while the assignment was to write about an artist, I was quickly sucked into the complete range of his accomplishments: artist, inventor, writer, and even musician. Few people in history were more boundlessly creative than Da Vinci, and his shadow continues to loom large. Witness the entire tables of Da Vinci material at bookstores, decoding his artwork, explaining his inventions, and even recommending his diet!
I learned early how hard it is to get a handle on Leonardo Da Vinci. Christopher Grey finds a nice entrypoint into Da Vinci’s life by writing from the point of view of his servant, Gian Giacomo in Leonardo’s Shadow (View the trailer). Giacomo is based on a real person, a lifelong servant and pupil of Leonardo’s. He may know Leonardo, but we learn quickly that Giacomo is just like the rest of us, mystified by the workings of his mind, both intimidated by him and frustrated by him, but endlessly amazed and appreciative of his work. He’s also fiercely loyal, taking up fights to defend Leonardo’s honor, and understandably proud merely to be associated with him.
Leonardo, as man and master, is far from perfect. He is careless with money, contemptuous of the many merchants and artisans to whom he owns money, reckless with local authorities, and verbally abusive to Giacomo himself. His arrogance about his work is understandable, but leads to disregard for the livelihoods of others, who really tend to treat him far better than he really deserves, as well as a seeming disregard for Giacomo’s safety.
Grey intertwines numerous storylines around these two characters, some involving Giacomo’s search for his true family and desire to learn a trade, others involving Leonardo’s seem indifference to completing The Last Supper, his resentment of the Duke of Milan (who has sent off Leonardo’s close friend Cecilia in exchange for a new mistress), and even an approaching army and the Duke’s hopes that a secret invention of Leonardo’s will save the day. This entanglement of stories makes a story about painting a picture (which could be boring, no matter how great the painter!) into an action-packed adventure with more twists and turns than you’d think possible. However, in the end, the painting itself takes its proper place at the center of the story, not just as the emotional touchstone, but as the surprising solution to other problems — even Giacomo’s search for himself.
Christopher Grey is the second author to generously take up my offer of a five question blog interview.
1. Gian Giacomo, the inspiration for your hero, is a real person, and continued to live with Leonardo for another 25 years. He even painted his own portrait of the Mona Lisa! So… sequel? Or will your next book go to another time and place?
I will definitely return to Giacomo, just as soon as I have finished the book I am working on now—another Renaissance tale, but featuring a very different type of hero. A gravedigger. But Giacomo is always there, busying himself in the back of my head, telling me to hurry up and get back to him. I’m going as fast as I can, Giacomo!
2. I like the scene where Giacomo learns how to make paint — I always like to read about the guys behind the scenes in any enterprise, who do the grunt work. Nobody represents this better than the man who made paints for Leonardo Da Vinci! What inspired you to do this? Did your research go as far as trying to make paints yourself?
I am delighted you enjoyed reading about the technical details; I certainly enjoyed learning about them (it was all new to me, although I used to paint at school). Like you, I am fascinated by technical expertise—especially because I am so unpractical myself—and I wanted to include some real craftsmanship in the book. I didn’t try to grind any colors myself—I knew I’d make a terrible mess in my tiny kitchen.
3. As I read Leonardo’s Shadow I wondered a lot about who and what was based on real history. How far did you go in basing your story on real people and events? For example, which of the merchants are real persons? Was there any interesting historical footnotes that you wished you could have worked in but couldn’t?
The story includes a mixture of real and imaginary persons. I wanted to write the book using history as the foundation, but allowing myself the freedom to build on it as imaginatively as I wanted. Using history and fantasy mashed up together allowed me to do that (I hope). The basic timeline is true to history, but within that I have invented just about everything except the painting of the Last Supper and the threat of the French. All the details and plot developments in the book were suggested to me as I learned more about Leonardo from his Notebooks. None of the merchants was a real person, as far as I know. There was a ton of stuff I wish I could have written about—I filled eleven notebooks with ideas culled from my research. I especially wish I could have written more about the gigantic horse that Leonardo was trying to sculpt—it would have been the largest horse sculpture in existence. My editor told me to leave it out.
4. Maybe people ask you this all the time, since you’re obviously interested in Leonardo da Vinci and this book has made books about him pretty hot: The Da Vinci Code — did you read it? What did you think of it? (FTR, I thought it was pretty bad, though I guess if it interests people in history it can’t be all bad.)
The Da Vinci Code came out when I was about halfway through writing Leonardo’s Shadow. I tried to read it. I couldn’t. Make of that what you will!
What’s the pet situation at the Chris Grey home? Dogs? Cats? Badgers?
5. No pets at the moment. My mother’s beloved French Bulldog, Gussie, died recently, and we are still in mourning. She was the most wonderful friend, and we all miss her terribly.