The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci

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9780553378573: The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci
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Set against a backdrop of Italy and Persia in the 1400s, a story of a lost year in the life of Leonardo da Vinci considers what might have happened had the art master built and flown one of his flying machine models. Reprint.

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Review:

A fascinating fictionalized account of several years in the life of Leonardo da Vinci.... The reader experiences Leonardo's excitement with the creative process and his obsession with designing a flying machine. -- Library Journal

Dann exploits historical gaps to create an absorbing fantasy.... Dann's 'secret history' of da Vinci hooked me in the first few pages.... I was held in thrall by Dann's words, and by his storytelling. His da Vinci is thoughtful and passionate, a man of action as well as ideas, a flawed hero starring in an epic historical fantasy. At once an adventure story and a reflection on the power of ideas, the novel never fails to entertain. Visit Dann's Memory Cathedral--it's a journey worth taking. -- Over Views

Dann flawlessly re-creates the ambience of Florence during the Renaissance, not only capturing the genius of Leonardo, but also painting convincing portraits of Sandro Botticelli, Niccolo Machiavelli, and other luminaries of the day. When the plot takes a turn into the speculative as Leonardo journeys beyond Florence and see his inventions built and employed as terrible weapons, Dann never missteps or ruptures the delicate bubble of suspended disbelief.

The Memory Cathedral is a grand accomplishment, a novel rich in ideas and characterization. -- San Francisco Chronicle

Dann handles (the) juggling of fact, fiction, and fudging with a masterful hand, and it is quite possible da Vinci himself would have been well satisfied with his exoneration in this Secret History. -- Locus

Dann offers a brilliantly textured portrait of Renaissance Florence, revealing the time in all its contradictory glory. Very early we're treated to scenes of the sudden violence and brutality that went hand-in- hand with the era's better-known intellectual refinement, horrified to see a young man (derisively called "ebreo," or Jew) savagely lynched for sacrilege in the piazza outside the city's famous cathedral. Dann likewise reveals the poverty and filth in which most Florentines lived, and the destructive factionalism that has always characterized that city's politics; and he gives us some wonderful glimpses of the magic and mysticism that was as much the rule of the day as Leonardo's more scientific view.

For all of The Memory Cathedral's early strengths, the book truly comes into its own only with Leonardo's trip to the East. We can sense the freedom that Dann enjoys here, unconstrained by the facts--the sheer excitement of speculation. For an sf reader, this is the heart of the book: the marvel of seeing da Vinci's inventions at work, the thrill of glimpsing a history that never was, or that might have been. Dann portrays the alien world of the Caliph's court with as much assurance as he did the more familiar environs of Florence, and we're as disturbed as Leonardo by the ever-present air of casual menace in this place where a man might have another killed on a whim.... We see our own times reflected in Leonardo's world; it's impossible to miss the parallel between Leonardo's war machines and those which shocked and transformed our own world in the First World War. His reaction echoes Europe's during that conflict, after which war could never be viewed so gloriously again.

Without the element of speculation, without Leonardo's journeys in the East and the realization of his inventions, The Memory Cathedral would have made a fine historical novel; with them, it becomes something much different, and much more satisfying and meaningful. The book's final third is where Dann really shines, and it takes on that numinous sense of reality that only an imagined world can. -- The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Dann's theme of human intelligence apprehending the universe is beautifully embodied in the character of Leonardo, and his ability to produce almost hallucinatory images is on display in his detailed depictions of Renaissance Florence and an exotic Middle East. The Memory Cathedral, along with much of this writer's most recent work, provides ample evidence that Jack Dann is reaching his full maturity as a writer while, happily, still retaining the vigorous inspiration of his youth. -- Pamela Sargent

I was swept away....

We will never come any closer to knowing what Leonardo was really like than we will in the pages of this book. It shimmers, it glows, it throbs with vitality while unfolding a tale as subtle as the mind of its protagonist. Everything is here: passion and politics and suspense, philosophy and tragedy and astonishing beauty. I shall read The Memory Cathedral again--and again. It is a book to cherish, a validation of the novelist's art and fully worthy of its extraordinary subject. I can only say Bravo! -- Morgan Llwelyn

Impeccably researched, The Memory Cathedral is a fine historical work about Leonardo da Vinci, as well as a science fiction story of epic proportions, mainly by virtue of its beautifully realized alternate universe.... Dann's prose is often striking in its color and period detail.... I recommend The Memory Cathedral to any serious reader of speculative or historical fiction. -- The Washington Post

Jack Dann is not wildly prolific but he has written some extraordinary SF. In The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci, he turns the creative imagination that invented alien future cultures to the recreation of an alien culture of the past: the world, and especially the city of Florence, of that 15th century genius. Having discovered a two year period in da Vinci's life for which no documentation exists, Dann has chosen to create a new Leonardo myth, one based on research and something very like the kind of extrapolation associated with science fiction.

In The Memory Cathedral, Leonardo is heterosexual, ruined in love and life by accusations of sodomy (these accusations did in fact nearly ruin his life in 'reality'), and forced to leave his beloved Florence for the Middle East. While there, he ends up serving Ka'it Bay, the Caliph of Egypt and Syria, for whom he actually builds the machines of war, including gliders, that can be found throughout his notebooks.

The Memory Cathedral is an enthralling work, not least because of its major formal trope, that of the memory cathedral itself. This is a visualized mnemonic, a huge imagined space in which to store all memories, and through which one might walk to relive them. Indeed, Dann marvelously shifts from time to time, moment to moment, by constructing his novel around Leonardo's own movements through his memory cathedral, often in an attempt to evade the horrors of what he is experiencing at a particular time.

The great accomplishment of The Memory Cathedral is its ability to catch the reader up not just in the drama of the lives of Leonardo and his friends and enemies but in the grandiose and terrible world in which they lived. Florence exists in all its glory and degradation. I have seldom read a book in which the sense of smell plays such a powerful role. Dann renders the contradictory odors of streets, cathedrals, homes, with hallucinatory richness. Putrefaction and perfume commingle; rotting meat and delicate bodily parts exist side by side in some young gentleman's quarters when a party is in progress; even in a church, the eastern odors of incense mingle with the stench of new-spilled blood. But smell is not the only sense brought to heightened life in these pages: there are a continuing cacophony of sounds, an explosion of brilliant colours, all transformed by Leonardo's own sensitive and alert sensorium, in which sex and death forever conjoin.

There are also all the wonderful characters: the other artists, the brilliant and powerful Lorenzo de Medici, not to mention the Caliph and his retinue in Cairo and on the desert. They all, not least the women Leonardo loved, have important roles to play. But at the core of this moving and troubling study of genius are Leonardo's inventions. A fascinating Afterword informs us that in his drawings the most terrible weapons appear in a kind of Platonic purity; what the novel does is put that apolitical scientific 'innocence' to the test by letting Leonardo see his weapons work. In the carnage of warfare between the Caliph's troops and those of the Turkish Bey, Leonardo loses whatever innocence he had, and it is the story of how that happens that provides this novel with its tragic moral vision. The Memory Cathedral is a wonderful if dark fantasia on history as we think we know it, a brilliant vision of another time and place, deeply human for all its strange differences from our own. -- Douglas Barbour, Edmonton Journal

Reading The Memory Cathedral, a richly textured novel about Leonardo da Vinci, is like stepping into a time machine and experiencing all the beauty and horror, intellectual excitement and romantic wonder of the Renaissance.... There are passages of great beauty and fascination.... Altogether, The Memory Cathedral is a fine example of literary art, and a clear climax to the career of a master craftsman of language. -- Telluride Times-Journal

From The New Yorker:

I can't believe it! A fantasy with wit. An historical novel with ideas. A story with style. A canvas both broad and colouful. And, over all, an author who takes the reader by the arm and leads him into worlds we are all likely to dream of from now on.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780553096378: The Memory Cathedral

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ISBN 10:  0553096370 ISBN 13:  9780553096378
Publisher: Spectra, 1995
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9780732259518: The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo DA Vinci

Harper..., 1997
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9780732257194: The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo DA Vinci

Harper..., 1997
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