Leonardo's Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci's Servant
A fascinating historical novel
By Christopher Grey
(Reviewed by Carla Hedstrom)
[amazon cover 141690543X]
This fascinating historical novel was one of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults for 2008, but don’t let that label fool you—it’s also an enjoyable book for adults.
The narrator is 15-year-old Giacomo, an orphan who was rescued by da Vinci when the boy was a small child. Giacomo wants two things very much: to know who his parents were and to have da Vinci teach him to paint. Neither thing seems likely for Giacomo because he is caught up in da Vinci’s financial problems. The Duke of Milan has promised da Vinci a huge sum of money for painting a picture of the Last Supper on the wall of the church where the Duke’s wife is buried. The problem? The Duke has given da Vinci no money. Without the money, da Vinci won’t paint—it’s a conundrum, one that Giacomo helps solve.
Throughout the novel, the author weaves in historical information about life in 15th-century Milan, its politics, and how people lived. He also uses information that da Vinci left in his notes to tell the story of da Vinci’s flying machine and why there is no record of him ever trying to see if it would fly.
Giacomo’s story is fictional, of course, except that da Vinci refers to Giacomo in his notes—Grey has used that as a jumping-off point for this coming-of-age story. Giacomo, a clever young man, finds ways to improve his life, all the while taking care of da Vinci despite the painter’s prickly manner and apparent unconcern for the well-being of his home and servants.
I was quite taken with this novel and the story of the painting of a masterpiece—and the explanation of why the painting has not survived the centuries in its original condition. Young people or adults who like art or history will enjoy this novel.
Published January 5, 2009
Silver Planet Book Review Columnist