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Cover by Stephen John Phillips

Chiaroscuro: the Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci


A 264-page trade paperback, DC/Vertigo, 2005 (from a 1995 mini-series).
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Category: biography, historical.

Author(s): David Rawson, Pat McGreal, Chas Truog.
Website: Chas Truog's page.

Da Vinci rejects Salai's advances

Who'd have thought a worldwide hit in literature would enable us to rediscover one of the most intriguing comic books of the 90's? That's what's happened with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, whose success has obviously encouraged the DC imprint Vertigo to reprint Chiaroscuro as a trade paperback, whereas its original publication as a 10-issue mini-series in 1995 had sadly been forgotten by most readers.

Chiaroscuro is the story of the relationship between Da Vinci and Salai, a street urchin adopted by Da Vinci. Both are historical characters, although the information about Salai is very scarce. We have no proof that the two were lovers at any time, but we know they knew each other for decades. Da Vinci has always been rumored to be interested in boys: at age 24, still living in Florence, he was arrested for sodomy following an anonymous denunciation (for more about that and the attitude toward homosexuality in XVth and XVIth-century Florence, I recommend Forbidden Friendships, the excellent book by Michael Rocke). He was released without trial, probably because the case involved men from important families.
Rawson, McGreal and Truog have built a story incorporating all the historical data they could find, but added a lot of conjectures spinning a fascinating web in which many famous people from the time are entangled: Machiavelli, one of the Borgias, Michelangelo... all those and more play a role in the attraction/repulsion game played between Da Vinci and Salai.

The construction of the story must be noted: the writers have obviously taken great pains with the narrative structure, which proceeds by numerous flashbacks, with Da Vinci's dreams interspersed throughout and Salai telling his part of the story to a (at first) mysterious artist for whom he's posing. It's an absorbing way of telling a story, even if the reader will have to concentrate to follow everything.

Chas Truog's art is equally engrossing, with a eye for detail (costumes or architecture have clearly been thoroughly researched) and real-life characters that separates this volume from most American comics of his time - he's also aided by solid inks by Rafael Kayanan. Truog had the initial idea for the story, and his personal commitment to the book shows on every page.

Chiaroscuro is not a light story, nor a very happy one: for all his fame in the following centuries, Da Vinci has known a lot of personal failures during his life, and his relationship with Salai is also a largely failed one. But this book is a wonderful drama where the gay themes and images are never brushed under the carpet, but rather given equal time on the stage with all the other aspects of this complex and moving story.

The historical arrest of Da Vinci
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