What: Mike Lankford discusses “Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci”

When: 4-5 p.m. May 4

Where: Central Oregon Community College — Barber Library, 2600 NW College Way, Bend

Cost: Free

Contact: 541-383-7560

The name Leonardo da Vinci evokes an image of a cultured Renaissance genius who dominated art scenes in Florence, Milan, Venice and Rome from a young age and socialized with the upper echelons of Italian and French nobility.

Not so, says Bend author Mike Lankford in his latest book, “Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci,” an unconventional biography of the legendary artist, scientist and inventor, which Lankford will discuss May 4 at Central Oregon Community College in Bend.

Lankford was awed by da Vinci’s obvious genius after reading and re-reading numerous biographies and other treatises about the man and his work, along with many of da Vinci’s own writings. However, the author came to realize that an industry of interpretation, which grew up around da Vinci in the centuries since his 1519 death at age 67, had mythologized him as an almost superhuman being.

“Until he was 50, Leonardo was basically a little-known ducal artist and architect who created ephemera primarily for the entertainment of his patrons,” said Lankford. “The real Leonardo is 10 times more fascinating than the superman, because the superman has been robbed of effort.”

The author finds da Vinci’s actual life — of struggle, discovery and learning in a violent, confusing world where most people died young under the authoritarian thumb of capricious rulers — far more admirable than the myth of an invincible and omnipotent talent.

“The reality is that he was living on a razor-thin edge of survival, dependent on the patronage of a select few nobles,” Lankford said. “If he’d stumbled and broken his left arm, he might have starved to death.”

“Becoming Leonardo” is a chronological and often humorous narrative that gives readers an almost visceral sense of what it was like to live in Italy and France in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

From the swarms of flies in summer and the stench of raw sewage and rotting carcases (both human and animal) that da Vinci would have experienced daily, to routes he would have taken around the cities and sights he would have seen, Lankford immerses readers in the lifestyle, customs and events that helped shape da Vinci’s viewpoints and interests.

One of Lankford’s most surprising realizations was that despite da Vinci’s ferocious intellect, he functioned essentially as an illiterate in society. At that time, books were still quite rare and expensive, and most were written in Latin or Greek. Since da Vinci received little formal education, he was largely cut off from these sources of knowledge, because he could only speak and read the Tuscan dialect of his childhood.

Despite being the finest draftsman of his time, if da Vinci wished to send a letter to a patron such as Cesare Borgia or colleague like Niccolò Machiavelli, he had to pay a scribe to write it for him because his self-taught handwriting ran backwards and was virtually illegible.

Da Vinci was illegitimate, and Lankford suggests he may have also been biracial. The author believes it is likely da Vinci’s mother was a slave from Turkey, rather than an Italian peasant as commonly believed. If so, that cultural and racial synthesis would also have filtered into da Vinci’s science and art, along with the stigma of his illegitimacy and the fraught and distant relationship he had with his father, Piero da Vinci.

Lankford’s take on da Vinci, is that of a wildly creative and expressive person who was forced by his circumstances to channel his energy into just a few outlets, since he could only express himself by drawing and speaking. Those same social and financial circumstances saw him later in his life creating war machines that likely aided in gory massacres for a series of murderous despots.

Contrary to many depictions of the artist as someone who sought fame, Lankford notes that da Vinci actually spent a great deal of time alone working on his projects and interests with no intention of sharing them publicly.

“That is the great irony of Leonardo,” Lankford said. “He was the original outsider, but he’s been written about by other insiders who created a false narrative. What Leonardo saw when he looked in the mirror isn’t what others saw.”

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