A (Very Belated) Review of Christopher Grey’s Leonardo’s Shadow

h1 September 27th, 2007 by jules

Leonardo’s Shadow:
Or, My Astonishing Life as
Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant

by Christopher Grey
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
September 2006
(review copies)

For the most part, we tend to cover only new titles here at 7-Imp (which mostly bums me out, but hey, we gotta have a focus; it’s hard enough to keep up), but I’m a bit slow in getting to one, published at the end of last year, that I want to make sure we tell you about, despite the fact that I’m, uh, approximately one year behind on the review. To boot, you can consider it an attempt on my part to try to compensate for the fact that we probably don’t cover enough historical fiction here at 7-Imp.

Here’s a book summary, taken straight from Grey’s site, so as not to goof and reveal too many plot spoilers:

“Milan, 1497. The height of the Renaissance. And for young Giacomo, servant to the famous Leonardo da Vinci, it’s the most difficult time of all. His master has been working on the Last Supper, his greatest painting ever, for the past two years. But has he finished it? He’s barely started! And the all-powerful Duke of Milan is after the artist to have it done by the time of the Pope’s visit next Easter. If Leonardo won’t hurry up, however, there’s a rumor that a young genius — Michelangelo — may be invited to finish it instead. Which means that Leonardo won’t be paid, and his debts are now so large that Milan’s shopkeepers are planning drastic measures against him.

It’s all down to Giacomo, and whether he can come up with a brilliant solution. But will his Master go for it? After all, Leonardo still doesn’t seem to trust him. He refuses to teach Giacomo how to paint, and he does not offer to help him find his true parents, or to explain the significance of the medallion, ring, and cross that he was carrying when Leonardo saved his life. But with the secret arrival of a powerful stranger, Giacomo is about to discover much more than the answers he has been looking for. And he will also receive an invitation to help arrange a meeting that could change his life — and the future course of history.”

And, to be clear — as Giacomo tells us in one of the early chapters — this is his story
. . . “even if I owe it all to my master, without whom there would be nothing to tell, because there would be nothing of me, I suppose, except the dust on your shoes.”

This one’s a rousing historical fiction title (the 2007 International Reading Association Award in the Young Adult category with its own web site, MySpace presence, and book trailer) about the art and politics and life of Milan in 1497, as told — as you read above — by the servant of Leonardo da Vinci. And it’s well-crafted, suffused with humor and suspense and with a “basic time line and characters of the story fit{ting} with what we know of da Vinci’s life” (School Library Journal). To be sure, a book set during the height of the Renaissance would be rich matter for the big themes of love and life and art, no?

Grey does a fine job of building tension throughout the novel (Giacomo believes Leonardo may actually be his father), expertly pacing the adventures and mysteries in the narrative as well. Grey starts us off hard and heavy with the mystery in the book’s opening, as Giacomo immediately recounts his loss of memory and waking up with The Master at his side:

“Sometimes, late at night, I would wake and see a tall man standing near the fire; at other times he would be stooping over me. The Master. Once, he touched my hair. My strength slowly returned to me, but nothing more of my memory. Who was I? Why had I been running from the rabble? Too many questions, my head could not hold them all.”

Giacomo’s voice is a believable one, at turns drawing much-needed sympathy from readers, for Leonardo is hard on our devoted protagonist, often baffling his servant: “{Leonardo} is like a man who prefers to stand in the rain on his own rather than ask for shelter from another” and “{h}e has this habit of drifting away like an unmoored boat the very moment he should be anchored firmly before the coming storm,” he tells the reader. Giacomo also knows how to live it up (KLIATT wrote, “Male readers will be drawn into the adventures of the young servant; there is plenty of drinking and carousing and gang-type fighting”), and Grey even has him occasionally speak directly to the reader, grounding this historical tale in a real sense of immediacy (“It’s not that I’m scared, not at all. Just shaking a bit. You would be, too,” he tells the reader in the third chapter on “{t}he most important night of my life,” as he prepares on the last night of the wine harvest for the traditional fight between servants and apprentices — complete with some good ‘ol fashioned 15th century taunting: “Toadbacks! Ratmanglers! . . . Dogfoot maggots! Lilly prick wormstrokers!”).

History and art lovers will likely be drawn to this one, especially as Giacomo progresses with his drawings, gradually maturing as an artist, throughout the novel (“Drawing teaches you to look. It teaches you how to map the shape of an old man’s head and a young woman’s shoulders, of elm trees and elder flowers, of a baby’s chubby arms and laughing smile. It teaches proportion, so that a man’s body will correspond in all its parts, as God intended when he made us”). And art-lovers have Leonardo’s commentary, too — his teachings to Giacomo, when he isn’t ignoring the boy — in which to relish: “Prince or pauper, priest or prostitute . . . time erases all signs of our former standing on Earth. What survives, father? Tell me that!” Leonardo is asking the friar at one point, as Giacomo listens. “Art, father, art! Art is all we have to remind us that man has achieved something in this world, apart from his own ruin.” Later, when Giacomo finally witnesses the Last Supper, he thinks, “{t}he artist is the link between man and God, sent to this Earth to show us the infinite possibilities of life.” (Grey explains in an Author’s Note at the close of the book that his main source for the story was a copy of Leonardo’s Notebooks).

It’s a compelling, rewarding, well-researched novel. If you weren’t as slow in getting to it as we were here at 7-Imp, good for you. If it’s a title you’ve yet to read, we heartily recommend it (I’m flying solo on this review, but Eisha gives it a thumbs-up as well).

2 comments to “A (Very Belated) Review of Christopher Grey’s Leonardo’s Shadow

  1. The only problem with this whole thing is that I’m now singing “Giacomo, Giacomo: King of Jesters, and Jester to the King” from The Court Jester.

  2. This is a truly brilliant book, I’m doing a report on it as well. Excellent review, well done!

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