Sometimes a novel grabs your attention and draws you in, even before you grasp the trajectory of the story – it’s in the telling and Malvaldi is a wonderful storyteller. The Measure of a Man beguiles and charms, it’s a roguishly witty reimagining of a pivotal period in Renaissance history. A chronicle of the life of Leonardo da Vinci during his time in the service of Ludovico, the Lord of Milan.

The setting is the city state, warts and all, shit in the street, gold brocade gowns inside the castle. This is a time of turbulent political change and challenges to the ‘natural’ religious order and yet this also an age of art and literature, of scientific discovery and of cultural growth. Giant strides in philosophical learning such as never seen before and Leonardo at the heart of it. This is a novel of contrasts.

Malvaldi has an easy style and the novel wears it’s keen intelligence very lightly. Readers are drawn into the complex diplomatic machinations of the age and the lives of the great and the powerful. Malvaldi injects contemporary terminology, and even the occasional modern analogy, to colour his novel. It’s a way of playing with the theme of what it is to be human on any age. It’s a matter of contrasts, Leonardo measured against the people around him but also against a modern context and Ludovico comes under the same scrutiny. Far from intruding on the story, Malvaldi’s wry sense of humour and keen eye are a delight to read.

I don’t want to see my heroes as saints, I need to understand their achievements in human terms, I want them to have feet of clay, I want them to be complex and flawed. That is what Malvaldi gives us with this portrait of Leonardo. The Renaissance world may seem very different but life is still about love, loss, ambition, morality, need. Leonardo is nothing special and yet he is an extraordinary thinker.

So The Measure of a Man is a novel about Leonardo da Vinci during his time in Milan: painter, anatomist, engineer, scientist, inventor. Malvaldi manages to convey the ambition, intelligence and foresight of the man but also the earthy, compromised, subservience, and ordinariness of the man. Da Vinci was a genius, but still a man (OK ahead of his times), sometimes he failed. At the centre of the novel is his relationship with Ludovico Sforza, il Moro, Duke of Bari and Lord of Milan. A key element of that master/servant relationship is building a monument to Lorenzo the Magnificent, a giant horse to adorn to square outside the palace, seven metres tall, the largest bronze casting ever attempted – a colossus. Leonardo applies his genius but this is a project that is never realised and progress is a moot point between the two men.

Prologue: A man makes his way through the dank, dark streets of the sprawling, messy city, this is a city that needs to be redesigned he thinks, he has been lost here before. He remembers Vitruvius’s book on the Roman insulae, translated by Francesco di Giorgio, it cost him ‘an arm and a leg’. But enough, there are things to do, he must get on.

Beginning: Ludovico has reduced his council from forty-two, unmanageable, factional, to six members, a trusted cabal. Tuesdays and Fridays are petition days, anyone can request an audience with the Lord of Milan. That is, provided they pay their not inconsiderable taxes, or have a dispensation to avoid them, but otherwise the mediation of Ludovico is open to all citizens. His Excellency, the General of the Franciscan Order, Francesco Sansone da Brescia seeks a commoner’s audience to discuss again the case of Friar Guiliano da Muggia. Fr. Guiliano has been preaching against the rules of the order and worse attacking the holy scriptures. Sansone is daring Ludovico to silence the man but Ludovico points out that the Fr. Guiliano was tried and found innocent not eighteen months before (this trial, of course, was rigged, as suited Ludovico). Guiliano has attacked the Roman Curia as corrupt, worldly, decadent and repulsive, even calling for the independence of the Lombard Church from Rome. Rome is wary of allowing too much independence of thinking, Savonarola has stirred up enough trouble in Florence already. Milan is rapidly becoming the wealthiest state in Italy; banking, trade, science, mathematics, physicians, and art. Sansone and Ludovico banter politely until Ludovico rises and walks towards the General:

“… the Lord of Milan was one meter ninety, which, when added to his icy glare and long, severe, black brocade garment, meant that whenever Ludovico il Moro stood up, he was truly scary.”

Taking Sansone’s arm in a few brief words Ludovico explains that he will not be a puppet to Rome. Battle lines begin to be drawn.

Leonardo is always wary of the Lord of Milan:

“You never quite knew the reason Ludovico summoned you. It could be enthusiasm,…, or it could be the exact opposite.”

Ludovico is happy because the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian has agreed to marry Bianca Maria at Christmas, sealing an alliance between the Empire and the House of Sforza. However, Ludovico is sarcastic and the wrong reaction could be dangerous and he soon changes tack. He makes a point to Leonardo that the castle courtyard is unembellished, empty, clear, spacious. Leonardo was employed for his skill at engineering, bombards, defences and also his art but he promised a monument to Lorenzo the Magnificent ten years ago, officially sanctioned six years ago and yet… Fortunately Leonardo has a ready answer, a clay model, full size, seven meters high, will be available in ten days.

In France, His Most Christian Majesty Charles VIII is considering war, an invasion of Naples, a campaign that won’t stop there. The king sends his spies to Milan, to keep an eye on Ludovico but also Leonardo.

In the Piazzale delle Armi courtyard servant Remigio Trevanoiti stumbles across the body of a man. There are no visible signs of how the man died, he appeared at court only yesterday. What if this is plague? Ludovico must have an answer. Leonardo’s nocturnal experiments in anatomy are known, though not condoned, that could spell trouble for him, however, Ludovico has need of his talents. Leonardo soon establishes that the man was a victim of ‘human wickedness’ – he was murdered.

This is a world of political and religious intrigue and manoeuvring; empire building, spying, on the cusp of scientific age and mired in superstition with war coming. The Measure of a Man is a credible portrait of Leonardo and his times, admittedly with some licence taken. We will never know if Leonardo might have solved the technical problems with the bronze, the war put paid to that, the bronze was needed for cannons more than monuments.

This novel of ideas is a lot of fun. It’s passionate about history and art, very readable and insightful. As always, I enjoyed my time with Malvaldi.

Beautifully translated from the Italian, La Misura dell’uomo, by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor, capturing the complexity and nuance of the original. Malvaldi is also the author of Three-Card Monte, Game for Five and The Art of Killing Well.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi
Europa 9781787701878 pbk Oct 2019