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Leonardo's Judas by Leo Perutz

Leonardo's Judas (1957)

by Leo Perutz

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I was not enchanted or enthralled with this book. The basic story line follows Joachim Behaim, a German merchant, who travels to Milan to conduct business and collect a debt from a notorious money-lender, Bocetta. While there he becomes enamoured of a fetching young woman named Niccola -- until he is torn by the revelation that she is Bocetta's daughter. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci continues to stare at his unfinished mural of The Last Supper while he is searching the streets and taverns for a model for Judas Iscariot, the disciple who loved and betrayed Jesus. Finally, I found Perutz's characters to be under-developed, and his allegory unconvincing. ( )
1 vote janeajones | Apr 13, 2013 |
An historical novel that is pitched perfectly. Leonardo Da Vinci is at the court of Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza in Milan in early spring 1498. He has been summoned to explain why he has not finished his painting of The Last Supper at the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo patiently explains that he is looking for the perfect Judas. He claims never to have the painting far from his thoughts as he continues his search high and low for the man who whose features he can copy that will embody how he sees Judas at the last supper. Perutz has set the scene for a renaissance story of the man who will qualify for immortality as Judas in Leonardo's famous fresco. Leonardo Da Vinci fades from the scene as a tale unfolds that has all the feel of something written by Boccaccio.

From the very start of the novel at the court of Duke Sforza's court Perutz summons up an authentic picture of Renaissance life, Joachim Behrain a German merchant is visiting Milan to collect a debt, he sees a woman on the street and falls in love with her and although she drops her handkerchief for him she disappears. His search for the woman leads him to the The Lamb a hostelry that is patronised by artists and craftsmen scraping a living on the fringes of Milan Society. The characters are superbly drawn and take the reader effortlessly into the world of these working men; their fears, their humour, their crafts and their problems and just like Behrain I felt like a visitor to this slice of renaissance life. At the Lamb Behrain meets the mysterious Mancino a roustabout who has lost his memory after a blow to the head and who makes his living partly by composing verse:

I know the priest by his apparel
I know the master by the man
The wine by glancing at the barrel
The vanity of life's brief span.
I know praise and I know blame,
Stabs in the back, the lightning blow;
I know honour, vice and shame;
Only myself I do not know.

The identity of Mancino is revealed by Perutz in a postscript to the story and is just one of the lovely surprises that he conjured from this beautifully worked tale. Leonardo Da Vinci's presence is felt throughout the book and he reappears towards the climax of the novel when he finds his Judas.

Leo Perutz was a mathematician and a scholar and Leonardo's Judas was his last novel written in 1957 and published after his death. He was born in Prague and the novel was written in German and has been translated by Eric Mosbacher and it reads superbly well. I loved this little book which I read easily in a day, absolutely taken in by its charm. It appealed to me particularly because of my recent reading of the history of the period, but I think it would appeal to all lovers of historical fiction. A four star read ( )
7 vote baswood | Mar 25, 2013 |
Leonardo’s Judas is more straightforward than some of Pertuz’s other works though, like those books, it is also an ironic historical novel with some interesting twists. The ending was less ambiguous – the characters get what they deserve – and the explanation for the identity of one of the mysterious side characters is more concrete than some that were suggested in Perutz’s other books. Though I preferred the more overt weirdness and ambiguity in his others, this was still a thoroughly absorbing read.

The book opens in the court of the aging duke of Milan, with various courtiers speculating on Leonardo da Vinci’s delay in painting his Last Supper. Leonardo is missing a model for his Judas and this leads to a discussion of Judas’ motives. A German horse dealer, Joachim Behaim, is in Milan for business. Behaim plans to leave after finishing up but stays to find a girl that he briefly encountered in the marketplace and can’t get out of his mind. While attempting to discover her identity through the drunken poet, Mancino, who seemed to know her, Behaim finds another reason to stay in Milan. He tries to collect an old debt but is warned that no one ever gets their money from Bernardo Boccetta. Behaim’s two pursuits occasionally lead him to interact with Leonardo’s friends.

The book is short and a quick read. Perutz’s sprinkling of historical detail, humor and philosophical debates throughout the main plot is enjoyable. This one wears its exploration of fate and identity lightly. The opening chapter does, though, set out an idea that is fulfilled by the end of the book – something found in the other Perutzs that I read. Mancino’s identity is unknown by all the characters and the author has an answer though I would not have guessed if it hadn’t been explicitly stated. Behaim occasionally imputes his actions to his guardian angel but it can’t be anything other than his own personality. Of course, it is certain that Leonardo will find his model but getting there is the interesting part. ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | Sep 7, 2012 |
Molto bello ( )
  zinf | Jun 9, 2008 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leo Perutzprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mosbacher, EricTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This is Perutz's last book. After his death at Ischl on 25 August 1957 I was asked to look through the completed manuscript and prepare it for the press. I undertook the task the more gladly and the more respectfully as I always regarded Perutz as my especially admired teacher.
Alexander Lernet-Holenia
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On a blustery day in March 1498, when showers of rain on the Lombard plain were interrupted every now and again by belated snow flurries, the prior of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie went to the castle in Milan to wait upon Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza, commonly known as Il Moro, the Moor, to seek his support in a matter that had been troubling him for some considerable time.
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Milan, 1498. The Duke, Ludovico il Moro, is pressing Leonardo da Vinci to complete his fresco The Last Supper for the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie, on which the artist has been working on and off for three years. The delay is due to Leonardo's being unable to find a suitable model for Judas, the Apostle who betrayed Christ: he has searched in vain for a sitter whose face will convey the full horror of Judas' sin. (.... edited content ...) What was it that drove Judas to sacrifice his Lord's love, Leonardo needs to know. At last he meets, and sketches, the man who has the answer.
Leonardo's Judas was Leo Perutz's last novel, completed days before he died. It may be read as a vivid evocation of da Vinci and the world of Renaissance artists and artisans; or it may be read as a thought-provoking parable - and a beautifully told story. (Harvill blurb)
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