Grey, Christopher. Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant. Atheneum, 2008. ISBN 978-1416905448 400 pp. $13.99
Inspired by Leonardo’s Notebooks, author Grey creates a portrait of the famous painter and inventor, imaginatively seen through the eyes of his faithful young servant Giacomo. Much of the plot concerns the completion of the painting of the Last Supper. The artist, two years past deadline, cannot pay his ever more impatient creditors, and shrouds himself and his motivations in mystery, while glib Giacomo is left to make excuses to merchants, to aristocrats, and to the clergy. Meanwhile, Giacomo is struggling to find answers to his own questions, too: why won’t da Vinci teach him how to paint? What is the real reason for the delay of the Last Supper? And, most importantly, what is Giacomo’s true parentage?
Giacomo’s voice is the major strength of this first novel. He recounts his adventures in 15th century Milan in a conversational way that makes the city come alive with sights, smells, and sounds. Historical details like what clothing people wore are woven into to a trip to the tailor shop. Giacomo’s wide-eyed observation and participation on everything from the annual street fight between servants and apprentices to how paint is made draw the reader in.
Grey cleverly brings in details of da Vinci’s real life, naming the servant Caterina after his mother, making his medusa-esque portrait a commissioned work that outrages the duke’s mistress, and alluding to the legend that the same model was used for Jesus and Judas.
The book is aesthetically pleasing too. Sketches of da Vinci’s decorate the verso of the title page, the cover has the look of an aged painting and the rough cut edges give an antique feel that fits the setting. Slip off the dustcover to reveal a print of the Last Supper to refer to as the denoument blossoms.
Even years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003), interest in the topic remains high; references to the infidelities within the Italian court and da Vinci’s questioned sexuality may be too earthy for younger readers in spite of the accessibility of the story and engaging narrative.
An author’s note lists several text and web resources, and an excellent short film to promote the book is hosted at http://www.youtube.com/user/LeonardosShadow.