Monday, May 12, 2014

leonardo, yeah, that one

Leonardo and the Last Supper is my third or fourth Ross King book, I'm not really sure. One of them: Brunelleschi's Dome, you'll see down along the right hand column under 'great.' Leonardo won't be on the 'great' list. was that too abrupt?

Its been a while since I've read one of Ross King's books, pretty much everything I read now ends up on this blog and there aren't any of his books listed on 'the books' tab, so its a few years anyway. I also read one about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was also very good. This latest installment wasn't up to those standards however, and I'm not sure why, but I have some guesses. In order for my guesses to be proven out, I'd have to go back and do a little comparative analysis, but that's not going to happen; this isn't science I'm doing over here.

Here's my guesses for what I think is missing from this book, when compared to the other two I mentioned. First, historical data. King seemed to be short on it, as is everyone else, and he did an admirable job in putting together this story from what seems like not very much. He had to rely quite a bit on other biographers, and then suggested that maybe those other biographers were wrong, or at least weren't above conjecture. Second, there isn't much to the story; da Vinci took a number of years to paint the Last Supper, but that seems to be because he was always busy doing something else. There isn't a whole lot of information about how the panting/mural was done, who worked on it, or what happened day-to-day. For that matter, there isn't much information available about what da Vinci was doing during this time either. So that brings me to my third point, the book is more filler than substance. Because so little is know about what the master was actually doing and how he did it, this book is more about what was going on in Italy at the time, centering mainly on his sponsor in Milano, Ludovico Maria Sforza, or as he was known, Ludovico il Moro (Ludwig the Moor.)

The Sforza story is a very interesting story, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Leonardo's name in the title was more about selling books than a true reflection of what this story is about. "Il Moro and Leonardo's Last Supper" might have been a better title given what I read. I'm not saying you shouldn't read this book, especially if you are a fan of Leonardo da Vinci, just don't expect that King uncovered some amazing treasure trove of lost information about him.

Last complaint: there are a handful of color plates in the center of the book, but no image of da Vinci's Last Supper. No where in the book, in fact, is there an image of the entire work.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

song of the vikings

I'm guessing that Nancy Marie Brown, author of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths is an academic. I may be saying that because its mentioned somewhere in the front matter, or because the book is so well researched, including pages of end notes. But part of the reason I'm saying that is because this book reads like it was written by an academic. That's not a bad thing, and I certainly wouldn't expect a book like this to be written like a racy, historical fiction, it was just a little methodical, and occasionally repetitive. For example, I'm not surprised that I guy living 600 years ago died at the end of this book, and I didn't mind that it was foreshadowed in the text, but it may have been mentioned 2 or 3 times. I get it

Brown explains how she came to the story of Snorri through her love of Tolkien; the same connection is why I picked this book up after hearing about it on the radio. After reading Beowulf a little while ago, it became pretty clear that not only did Tolkien enjoy reading, studying and translating these old works, he borrowed from them too in his efforts to weave together a mythology for Britain. It was when I read Tolkien's translation of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún though, that I really understood his connection with Snorri Sturluson's work, and so when I heard about this book by Brown, I figured I had to give it a read.

This is Brown's biography of Snorri, and of Iceland. Its clear from the beginning that Brown is in love with Iceland, and that theme of exploring Iceland through Snorri, and Snorri through his life in Iceland is what carries the book. Snorri Sturluson may have singlehandedly saved the oral tradition of Norse myth for future generations, by writing down, and sometimes embellishing stories that had been told for hundreds of year, and maybe longer. He also inspired others in his own generation and in the generations that followed to continue the tradition.

This book was a lot of fun, and interesting to the Tolkien fan, but there weren't too many surprising moments, and only a few solid Tolkien tie-ins. What this isn't, is a translation of the Prose Edda, but what it is, is a great companion to go along with that, and a ringing tribute to the man that gave northern Europeans a mythology to rival the Romans and the Greeks.