Leonardo’s Shadow, Or My Astonishing Life As Leonardo Da Vinci’s Servant

Written by Christopher Grey
Review by C.W. Gortner

The ongoing popularity of Leonardo da Vinci in fiction often obscures his preeminent place as the Renaissance’s most gifted and versatile artist. Likewise, the presence of fictional or semi-fictional characters interacting with Leonardo to their own ends usually reduces the artist to a cliché or foil for the plot in question. Fortunately, in Christopher Grey’s young adult novel Leonardo’s Shadow, these obstacles are delightfully overcome.

Though written for the adolescent market, this book has a depth that makes it accessible for older persons interested in Leonardo and 15th century Italy, and is indeed better written than several adult offerings set in the same era. The voice of the novel is Giacomo, a youth without a past rescued by Leonardo and set to work for him as a servant. Giacomo yearns to discover who he truly is, as well as to secretly learn the art of painting (which Leonardo refuses to teach him); but it is his devotion to his master, as well as his wry insight into Leonardo’s idiosyncratic temperament and procrastination while working on the The Last Supper, which give the novel its heart.

Giacomo’s sardonic observations of daily life in Milan and the artist’s struggles with penury, his capricious patron Il Moro, and all the clamoring merchants eager to exchange credit for immortality are woven with refreshing wit into a tale that deepens in scope when Giacomo finds himself thrust into a plot to save Leonardo from his own debts. A host of well-drawn characters that include a menacing alchemist, a sage housekeeper, and a lovely discarded ducal mistress, as well as the always imposing but astonishingly human presence of Leonardo himself, only serve to exalt the exuberant soul and courage of a boy who matures into far more than his master’s titular shadow. Ages 12 and up.