Fiction Collective Two is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.

Leonardo's Horse

Leonardo's Horse

Leonardo's Horse
by Ralph M. Berry

1997. 317 pp.
ISBN 978-1-57366-031-0
Price: $13.95


On May 2, 1519 at the Clos Luc in Amboise, Leonardo is dying. He no longer cares about art or science. He wants only to answer a simple question about his life: why did he abandon his colossal equestrian statue in Milan? Meanwhile, R-, a 20th century historian writing a novel about Leonardo, meditates upon the same question in the midst of an apocalyptic traffic jam, as military helicopters fill the air with tear gas, AIDS demonstrators run amok, and a hospital evacuates its patients onto a nearby sidewalk. Berry's stupendous novel is a fitting response to the close of a century obsessed with the "end of history." This book is a big masterpiece of a kind rarely dared in the contemporary novel.

"Readers who deify Leonardo da Vinci, view the Renaissance as a time of unparalleled enlightenment, or believe that those tumultuous times offer no glimpses into our own will be challenged by this novel, which is as complex as its protagonist. Leonardo, as viewed by historian-turned-novelist R___, is history's garage, his work a collection of fascinating but uncompletable projects. Berry presents Leonardo's story from his deathbed and R___'s from his position stranded on the freeway inside his 1955 Buick while authorities attack AIDS protestors with chemical weapons. Just as Leonardo had finagled various rival aristocrats to bankroll his projects, R___ and his monkey-wrencher "not wife" have created a fraudulent second life on paper to survive in a world seemingly bent on social and environmental destruction. This may sound overly abstruse, but earthiness, vivid characterizations, and dark, ironic humor (like the "Windfall Taxes Chainsaw Massacre") make this a delightful experience for sophisticated readers. Highly recommended for medium to large public and academic libraries.?Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc." —Library Journal

"As in his fine collection of stories, 'Plane Geometry,' Berry shows that cold science can be fueled by heated passion, convincingly belying Leonardo's own oft-quoted statement that 'intellectual passion drives out sensuality.' . . . Unlike its bronze counterpart, 'Leonardo's Horse' accomplishes the magic of motion while simply sitting still."—New York Times Book Review

"Berry's prose is as active as Leonardo's imagination, piling clause upon clause and multiplying details as he tracks Leonardo's memories . . . . I can't begin to explain how Berry manages to pull this off, but it's an indication of the lengths to which he is willing to go to reclaim Leonardo from television commercials, advertising agencies, and overly reverential art monographs . . . . Berry's ambitious goal is 'plotting a failure, the despair of art, civilization at cross-purposes,’ by which he means the last decade of the 15th century as well as the last decade of the 20th century, and in doing so he makes Leonardo's story our own." —Washington Post Book World

"A genuinely aesthetic blockbuster.... Unlike the more prominent meganovelists and more like the leaner, more imaginatively honed writers of innovative fiction (from Brautigan and Barthelme to Federman, Reed, and Katz), Berry makes his fiction live as a self-apparent creation whose very liveliness carries its author's persuasiveness. There's no sense of being flattened with an encyclopedia here, or of being browbeaten by some egghead from Mensa. Instead, Leonardo's Horse flows with the motion da Vinci himself is able to capture only at the end. Berry's novel has it from the beginning...." —Jerome Klinkowitz, The American Book Review

"So yes, we have here esoteric metafiction whose aim isn't necessarily to entertain (and the book has its own debate concerning its intentions vis-a-vis the reader), but that blisters your thoughts anyway. A novel about the nature of genius and beauty and posterity and the insatiable search for perfection will do that to you." —Rain Taxi


Leonardo da Vinci is dying. From beneath the heaps of sheets, blankets, rugs, comforts, skins, old coats and, to judge from the foul scent, perhaps even the bag used for butcher's offal - these barbarians having no notion of the fit use of anything - from beneath this mass of sundry bedclothes that has made the simple act of breathing a feat, Leonardo has managed to slide his one good hand tangentially to the downward thrust, much the way that in better circumstances two well-shaped gears might transfer work or motion, so that now his fingers dangle from the edge of the bed in the grime stirred up by his servant's - Mathurine's - ox hide sabots each time she shuffles past on her way out the door. It hardly matters that spring has come and with it warmth and an end to the drizzle that all winter long has rattled Leonardo's teeth and bones. Leonardo, nevertheless, finds himself smothered beneath this witless attempt to encase the soul in vital heat and by sheer bulk keep him it on the ground. None of this being, of course, Leonardo's doing. Three damp winters have passed since, already an old man, he crossed the Alps and, stepping for the first time onto French soil, walked apart from the royal escort, removed his velvet slippers and, holding them over the last hectare of Italian dirt his eyes would ever see, slapped the dust from their soles in dismissal of the world he believed in too easily or perhaps never revered enough or at least didn't understand, and so arrived here at last to end his days in this chamber where he realized at once the feeble strand of pale light would never illuminate the darkness into which he'd already begun to leak. The slate roofs, the ragged line of crenelations, the silver film of clouds or, what you really can't see from here, the river that is so idle Leonardo has counted the hairs of his beard in it - all this is darkness, and at each moment it threatens to soak him up like a wine sop and squeeze him out again onto the steaming stones of some Florentine loggia where boys' voices echo through the arches and sweating men in black gowns dispute the spelling of Latin prepositions in the Tuscan heat. It would be wise now, Leonardo thinks, not to know longing, but for no worthwhile reason he finds himself recalling the smell of clammy hands. Surely, if only the light were correctly placed, a man could slap his thigh once and soar from the slopes of Mount Cecero or gaze up at Venezia from the bottom of the sea or square the circle or sniff the vital sprite as it flutters from the ventricle of a pig's heart.

From beside his bed comes a rough sound like sweeping, and Leonardo mistakes it for the slovenly broom of Salai - his nemesis, irredeemable miscreant - on the workshop floor. Spruce chips rattle over the planks. School - children squeal in the piazza. The taste of flesh can be so pungent fools have fattened on it, and Leonardo marvels that the motion of Salai's narrow hips should trace the same careless parabola as the fir trees swaying above the Arno or the eels that glide through provincial streams. Surely the universe is an ingenious invention, and somewhere in its hollow rests a single idea that, if only you knew it, could release you like a flight of pigeons, though Leonardo has forever renounced this light or, at least, learned to live without it. But that was decades ago and in Imola, Fiesole, Pavia, Civitavecchia, Rome and, well, it's not the sound of Salai's broom, as Leonardo squints up through one eye at Mathurine's impossibly rotund face peering down from a platter of turnips and beans. The weasel Salai has hightailed it, God knows where, flown most likely to Milan to squat on a smidgen of ground he thinks will make him the honorable man his wits haven't. So fornicate, fart, and fair riddance! Well, if it's not Salai - this shuffling of Mathurine's feet across the filthy floor - then Leonardo has work to do. With his good left hand he twists his fingers back and upward, using the elaborate pulley mechanism of the wrist and elbow along the shoulder ball - joint which, though imperfect in isolation, can altogether enable mortals to reverse themselves in the forward movement of their deeds, until he finally touches the sheep's tripe inflated and fastened to the underside of the ticking just where he positioned it two days before. With a little squeeze he makes sure the pressure's firm - no air leaks - and then uses his fingers to number the cords. All taut, all ready. Nothing's lacking now but the moment.

Leonardo smiles. Only the dead anatomist, Marcantonio Della Torre, could have appreciated these elaborate preparations. Only someone whose youth had passed through the ordeals of light, the sniffing and poking about in nature's bunghole, stings of the icy real, only an idol - smasher like Marcantonio, and perhaps even he lacked the sprightliness to grasp this last dimostrazione - though Leonardo recalls the heat of the candles, the unbreathable miasma in the Pavian night, and the knife's blue sheen teasing tissue from a cadaver's cheek: So much for beauty, heh? No, the anatomist della Torre probably died too young to grow curious about darkness, to suspect that in the endless night of the dissecting table, confronted with the certainty of sinew and bile, glottis and gum, the hard and the pulpy of creation's engine, that even there it was as much the silence, the black border of approaching day, that held them poised in the stench, not so much amazed as greedy, while layer opened onto layer and took them always deeper into what was probably never there at all. No, della Torre was too much the new man to feel this confusion, and so he's probably scoff at Leonardo's last clutch for the veil. What's the to be said of motion? he'd ask. You can't place it on the table; you can't pare its sections; what are the names of its parts? And afterwards, in the warmth of the Pavian sunlight, sipping goat's milk on the veranda, he'd be too merry, too ready to name what they'd seen, always quick to call Leonardo's silence flagging over. It wasn't wit that killed Marcantonio, but something more like embarrassment or fear: Pity the poor child who offers me her heart, he'd said chuckling. I'll carve her up on the altar.