Leonardo da Vinci is one of those rare figures to have both transcended history to become a pop-cultural figure, and become so blindingly famous that most of us know almost nothing about him. In other words, we knows who he was, but we rarely pause to contemplate how incredible a person he was. That’s changed a bit since Walter Isaacson released the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, a biography that reminds use that da Vinci was not only a brilliant artist and the original Renaissance Man, but a fascinating personality.
Of course, da Vinci has been portrayed a character in many novels—and not always accurately. It’s easy enough to sketch him out as an eccentric inventor, but it’s something else entirely to craft a character who bears a resemblance to the man as he likely was. These five novels seem to get pretty close, combining lively imagination with historical detail.
Portrait of a Conspiracy, by Donna Russo Morin
Morin’s Renaissance murder mystery sees Lorenzo de Medici, one of the rulers of Florence, stabbed to death in public. Afraid to make a direct accusation against the conspirators behind the murder, a group of women engage Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Feast of Herod, with the faces of the murderers included. Morin demonstrates a firm grasp on da Vinci’s methods and philosophy, portraying him as a handsome but distracted man who had a gentle spirit and a brilliant, almost alien way of looking at the world. The tense mystery she constructs around him is quite good, and while she resists the urge to make Leonardo a detective, it is his incredible skills and knowledge that the whole story pivots on.
Oil and Marble, by Stephanie Storey
Storey is up-front about her approach to her use of real history within her fiction: she seeks emotional truth as opposed to literal truth, and isn’t ashamed of that. This story is set in Florence at a time when Leonardo was 50 years old and suffering through a particularly challenging period in his life, as newly-arrived—and much younger—Michelangelo became his rival. While the story is fiction, Storey’s depiction of a middle-aged Leonardo is plausible, and in line with the surviving accounts of the man left behind by contemporaries.
Leonardo’s Swans, by Karen Essex
What makes Essex’s portrayal of da Vinci interesting is that she views him through the lens of other characters in this complex and subtle fictional biography of the competitive Estes sisters in 15th century Italy. Placed into politically motivated marriages, the sisters see their happiness and fortunes wax and wane, but are ultimately drawn to the brilliant artist and thinker for different reasons: one wants him to pursue the projects that will improve the lives of the people, while the other wishes only to be made immortal as the subject of one of the master’s portraits. In Essex’s skilled hands da Vinci is much more than a figure from history, and seeing him at a remove clarifies the personality hinted at in historical accounts and, ironically, makes for a stronger sense of the person than in some more intimate portrayals.
A Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis
A historical mystery wherein Leonardo da Vinci teams up with Niccolo Machiavelli to solve a series of murders that could have come out of a Dan Brown book might not sound promising in the verisimilitude department—but Ennis is far too skilled and subtle a writer to fall into the trap of sensationalism. This is a dense story, filled with glorious detail and intricate characterization that depicts da Vinci (and, for that matter, Machiavelli) in a realistic and accurate-as-possible ways. The cascade of details also makes Renaissance Italy feel real, granting context to the characters and reinforcing the sense they are real people in an extraordinary situation.
Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance, by Oliver Bowden
Citing a book based on a popular video game series in which well-intentioned assassins battle evil Templars throughout history might seem an odd choice for a list of accurate historical portrayals. And yet the level of detail brought to this franchise is often impressive—and that applies to this tie-in novel’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci, who is a fairly major character in some of the storylines. Notably, this is one of the few places da Vinci’s possible homosexuality isn’t simply glossed over. We’re not saying you should stay up all night playing Assassin’s Creed as prep for your next AP History exam, but it might give you a reasonably accurate sense of what hanging out with Leonardo da Vinci might have been like.