So here I am, back in the Renaissance. In March, I reviewed Traci Slatton's Immortal, a look at the Italian Renaissance through the eyes of an young orphan boy who developed a strong relationship with the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.
Guess what Leonardo's Shadow, the debut novel by Christopher Grey, is about? The exact same thing. Fortunately for me, there's more than one way to tell a story, and although the backdrop is the same and so is the age and gender of the protagonist, the personalities and experiences are wildly different.
Immortal's unlucky little protagonist, a child who seemingly does not age, spends twenty years of his life enslaved as a child prostitute in Florence's most sadistic brothel. Giacomo, the plucky little servant of one of history's greatest painters, fares much better, although he complains more than the child prostitute does. This improvement in the quality of life is a very good thing, because unlike Immortal, the intended audience for Leonardo's Shadow are young teens. Although my 14-year-old self probably would have greedily sucked up every last sordid scene in Slatton's excellent novel and sniffed contemptuously at any adult trying to stand between me and a book, as an adult myself it's nothing I would recommend for readers under sixteen. (Although I did buy my nephew a copy of Maus when he was 13. For Christmas. Ho ho ho.)
Based on da Vinci's Notebooks,* Leonardo's Shadow centers on da Vinci's servant Giacomo, who is mentioned sporadically in the Notebook by da Vinci, usually in a tone of exasperation. Grey presents Giacomo as a boy who is constantly striving to be useful and loyal to his Master, but is constantly given nothing but (somewhat) good-natured grief.
Grey introduces us to Giacomo when he is eight and very ill. Pursued by villagers for suspected thievery, he is rescued by da Vinci and brought home with him to be pressed into service. Due to a high fever, Giacomo has no memory of his life prior to living with the artist, and the only possessions he owns are a ring, a medallion, and a necklace with a cross dangling from it, and he doesn't even know where they came from. Seven years later, Giacomo is still with da Vinci, and in between his duties to the Master, he attempts to discover his roots and find his missing parents. Not that he has much time to indulge himself, because da Vinci keeps him on his toes. Commissioned by Milan's Duke Sforza to paint a scene of the last supper at the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, da Vinci stresses everyone out by procrastinating for two years. Giacomo's duties mostly involve begging the local merchants not to cut them off even though da Vinci hasn't paid them in ages, and nagging at the artist to hurry up and paint already. As Giacomo slowly begins to piece together his past, his loyalties to his Master begin to waiver, and he is pulled into a chain of events that lead to revenge, murder plots, and that old Renaissance standby, alchemy.
Since I don't have any teenagers at home, and even if I did, their cooperation would probably be dubious at best, I gathered my more agreeable peanuts around me, ages 5 and 8. When Alex was three, Steve taught him to answer the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "A Renaissance Man." Five years later, Alex still thinks this is a legitimate profession, and that's how he answers the question still. So I figured he'd be interested in a story by the world's most famous Renaissance Man. I read them the first chapter, where we are introduced to Giacomo, on the lam and running for his life.
Ten paces behind, a great crowd was chasing me, waving sticks and fists, cursing and shouting. Some of them were old, but that didn't stop them. There were women, too. All had sour faces.
They thought I was a thief.
If I was caught I would be strung up by the neck from the nearest doorway and left there to swing, for the dogs to bark at.
So I ran and I ran, skipping in between the market stalls, knocking down barrels of salt fish and baskets of red plums, always keeping a tight hold on my ragbag. Each time someone new saw me running, they took up the alarm -
"Somebody take him!"
"The boy must be stopped!"
But I would never let them- even though I felt sick almost to death. I had the fever, I knew that. There was a mist in front of my eyes and I was buring up inside.
But to stop now was to stop forever.
Never! They would never take me while I lived.
The boys definitely enjoyed the first chapter, but I'll probably hold off on reading the part where Giacomo meets da Vinci's father and finds out about his Master's sodomy arrest.
Besides, we're in book six of the Harry Potter series at the moment, and once you get pulled into that tractor beam, there's no escape.
If your young teen is able to escape from Hogwarts, Leonardo's Shadow is a very good choice for what to read next.
When I was in high school, I was assigned to read The Good Earth, Ayn Rand's Anthem, A Separate Peace, and Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities. I enjoyed Anthem (and thought I was so totally cool for knowing that Rush's 2112 album was based on it. Between my teacher and Neal Peart, I was surrounded by Randroids), and A Separate Peace I remember thinking was fair, although I can't tell you anything about it today. The Good Earth and Tale of Two Cities, however, I found excruciatingly boring, in no small part because of the formality of the language and, in the case of Dickens, the raging amounts of unnecessary exposition**.
Why can't American educators throw some exciting new fiction into the mix? Leonardo's Shadow isn't totally accurate, of course, because it can't be. Grey created a breathing, living character from a few flat asides in the notebook where da Vinci complains about the hired help. There's a lot of gaps there. However, it gives a very reasonable look into how life was lived during the Italian Renaissance, every bit as good as Dickens showed us 19th century England, and a progressive high school English teacher might want to think about incorporating the fast-paced Leonardo's Shadow into the curriculum between Lord of the Flies and Huckleberry Finn.
But if not, there's always that summer reading program, where it can be read, then traded in for a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.
*Before you click on that link, be advised that it takes you to a page on the British Library's website where you can look at da Vinci's actual notebook, not a copy. The link is near the bottom of a list of many books you can look at, including the original Alice In Wonderland, handwritten and illustrated for Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll. You can click on the pages and turn them one by one, and before you know it, you've spent two hours there.
**Wouldn't it be nice if classes could read Dickens in the way it was written to be read, one chapter a month? Too much more Dickens than that drowns the 10th grade brain.
by Christopher Grey
March, 2008 by Simon & Schuster
400 pp, Paperback