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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845951212
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845951214
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 84,843 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"A brilliant snapshot of Renaissance Italy... a triumph" (Sunday Telegraph)

"This is popular history at its narrative best... rich in colour, character and consequence" (The Times)

"This is a portrait of a fascinating trio, and an insight into the apparent paradox of why such turbulent times produced such an outpouring of human sentiment almost unparalleled in the history of the West" (Edward King Sunday Times)

"The story he has to tell is exciting and revealing...and the narrative has a natural arc, beginning in hope and fear and climaxing in deceit and bloodshed" (Guardian)

"Strathern deftly interweaves the narratives of his three main characters and successfully evokes their odyssey... he has a sensitive ear for memorable phrases and a keen eye for striking detail" (Thomas Wright Independent on Sunday)


'Strathern is the ideal guide to this vibrant, intellectually fertile but brutal period in history. The book is a triumph'
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By B. Hamilton on 7 Feb 2010
Format: Paperback
Five stars for a book that lives up to its title. The author clearly foresaw the need to go into some detail about each of the three subjects which is why, as you'll find, some chapters repeat aforementioned details. Strathern more or less pushes the story of each person along one at a time and, of course, refers to the others where necessary. The book is therefore very simple to follow as it covers the full lives of the three men. Furthermore, it doesn't limit itself to any introverted commentary on the three characters alone - lots of `padding' is included to further illustrate 14/1500s Italy: Michaelangelo, Savonarola, the Medici Family and others are touched upon. I felt I was getting a much better personal insight to each of the three - especially da Vinci, whose actual character is often overlooked and writers instead focus on his works. Illustrations pop up now and then, usually from Leonardo's notebooks, and serve the text well. A small section in the middle offers the reader a few portraits of the three men and other significant works on glossy paper. You may also notice that Strathern likes to say `vent his spleen' a lot...
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Mark Meynell TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 13 April 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Leonardo, Machiavelli, Borgia: these 3 men were, each in their own way, extraordinary. Genius is not too strong a word (though some might balk at the idea of Cesare Borgia being included - especially after what we learn in this book of him and his father Pope Alexander VI). What Strathern calls a 'fateful collusion' was a story largely untold (as far as I can tell) before this book - and is therefore a fascinating approach. The period in view lasted only a matter of 4 or 5 years - and its complexities require much explanation and background study - but it works successfully as a piece of gripping history.

This is no straightforward biography of the 3 men - it is a study of a unique cultural moment. And that is its greatest asset, but also its constant challenge. Even though we're dealing with only a few years, it is sometimes hard to keep track of all that was going on (not least because of the sheer complexity of Italian Renaissance politics - many city states, dukedoms, not to mention the intricacies of the inner-workings of the Papacy). Then, despite the book's title, the number of times the 3 men intersected was not actually that great - their meetings (never with all 3 in one room, as far as we know) are largely described from (perfectly reasonable) conjecture - although we have clear records of Machiavelli's encounters with Borgia from his own writing (e.g. regular diplomatic despatches back to Florence, and the impact of Borgia on his ground-breaking The Prince (Penguin Classics)). Yet there is no doubt that all 3 knew each other (probably pretty well) - and so the book does have a sound basis.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By PWagstaff on 4 Aug 2010
Format: Paperback
This author is often accused of being rather starry-eyed with regard to people and events, but I believe that this is simply a misunderstanding of his impetuous need to make the reader empathize with the protagonists as much as he does. During the course of researching this book Strathern has clearly reached a point of great understanding and does a marvellous job of ensuring the reader connects with the characters. If a bit of "starry eyed-ness" is the price to pay for such a captivating read then so be it.

The beauty of this book is the willingness of the author to explore new areas around the immediate subject. Many books of this genre simply present a timeline of events. Others look to provide the reader with a greater picture, such as the study of contexts and motives. But here Strathern takes it one step further. He will explore WITH you not only the tangible truth, whether with regard to event or motive, but will, amongst other things, investigate the psychological state of the protagonist that would have prompted him to make such fateful decisions, or behave in such startling ways. You will find yourself following what can only be described as a barely-coherent tangent of the author who is clearly so engrossed in his subject that he's almost forgotten he's writing at all. However, as is so often the case when being party to such an expression, it's a joy to read. This may imply that the book is a chore. Luckily this is remedied. The nature of the structure of the book, i.e. the following of events from the points of view of three characters, means very often events are depicted on three separate occasions, and usually in three very different ways. This allows you to pick up any information that may have been lost on you when trying to decipher Strathern's tangents.
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5 of 22 people found the following review helpful By John Forrest on 22 Mar 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a well written and interesting account of the interwoven lives of three influential men from a period of Italian history which is so complex that a story of this type helps explain many of the intricate aspects of the time.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 16 reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Extremely interesting 25 Nov 2009
By Joseph Devita - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a history of a moment in the High Renaissance when the lives of DaVinci, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia intersected and as such almost has to be interesting, and it is. These three larger than life historical personages are depicted in fascinating detail, and while the book hones in on a period of just a few months, actually you get the full biographies of each, and the Author does a wonderful job in capturing them in their full humanity, something which is often lost when contemplating their genius and accomplishments.

If there is a problem with this book, it is the degree to which the author has to stretch to makes his point about the effect the three had on each other. Borgia seems to have benefited from DaVinci's military engineering genius in outfitting his forces for his attempt to basically unify Italy, a goal he shared with his father the Pope, and which eventually failed and resulted in Borgia's exile to Spain.

Machiavelli's political philosophy was definitely influenced by Borgia, and his instructions regarding the pursuit and maintenance of power has been a factor in Western culture for the last 500 years. However, while Borgia was definitely the epitome of the amoral leader described in "The Prince", Italy at that time was rife with others who practiced the same self serving politics, and even the Author has to point out that Machiavelli's later book , 'The Discourses" presents a much different picture of a liberal republic as the model for governance.

However, the greatest leap of faith is made regarding the effect Borgia had on DaVinci. Here the author postulates that after being exposed to the inhumanities inflicted by Borgia during his conquests in the Italian Romagna, DaVinci was so traumatized that he had difficulty finishing any projects from that point on, and that even publishing his notebooks was impossible because he feared that his discoveries might be put to inhumane uses. Hence the implication is that the tremendous advances that DaVinci had made in some scientific and technical areas, some of which were not discovered again for hundreds of years, were basically lost to us because of Cesare Borgia's cruelty and treacherous conduct!

Given that DaVinci all his life had a problem completing anything, which was probably a result both of his need for perfection and constantly wandering curiosity, it is really too much to ascribe this behavior in the last decade of his life to his four months travelling with Borgia.

And while Borgia may indeed have exposed him to some loathsome behavior, as this book details, these kinds of actions were rampant in Italy at the time, practiced by everyone from the Pope to the local magistrate. Perhaps a lifetime of seeing this finally began to effect DaVinci in his later years, something which often happens, and which we have taken to calling "maturity".

However, aside from this criticism, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either this historical time, or with those outbreaks of exceptional ability, talent and accomplishments which periodically arise and change the world, during which giants, even if they have feet of clay, walk the Earth.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Three Personalities And The World They Helped Create 21 Dec 2009
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a well done triple biography of three men: Cesare Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci, and Niccolo Machiavelli. It is also an excellent history of Renaissance Italy, a region torn by war and bursting with creative spirit at the same time.

Northern Italy during the early 1500s was a region divided between small kingdoms and city states, with avaricious rulers and despots all greedy for more land and power. None had more ambition than the most inappropriate of Holy Fathers, Pope Alexander VI, a cynical and sensuous man who cared little for the Church and everything for earthly power. The Pope's illegitimate children Cesare, Lucrezia, and Alexander Borgia (among others) were willing tools for his efforts. Cesare Borgia in particular was greedy for power. A cold, brilliantly ambitious man, Cesare was almost psychopathic in his willingness to double deal and backstab everyone who stood in his way. Cesare came into contact with Leonardo da Vinci, whose brilliant designs for fortifications and weapons were obviously useful to him, and Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat who dealt with Cesare and witnessed some of his greatest triumphs and degradations. Leonardo, the most humane of the three, was sickened by Cesare's excesses, while Machiavelli, though similarly appalled, came to respect and admire Cesare's utter ruthlessness and determination.

Paul Strathern has done a masterful job of describing the lives of these three giants. At times the book seems repetitive, but that is necessary and indeed valuable because it shows how very differently the three viewed the same events. While there is abundant evidence, both direct and circumstantial, that the three men knew and worked with each other, Strathern sometimes seems to reach too far into his imagination in speculating on when they might have met and what they might have said to each other. But these are minor flaws indeed compared to the richness of this well told narrative, which humanizes all three of his subjects. By the end I was even moved to feel some sympathy for Cesare when he came to a violent and undoubtedly well deserved end, and I certainly felt compassion for Leonardo and Machiavelli, who spent their final years regretting unifinished work and missed opportunities, though both were by then held in high honor and esteem.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
a reasonable popular history with an overly thin thesis 5 Oct 2009
By Margaret Johnston - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In different ways, Cesare Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci, and Niccolo Machiavelli are all men who shaped what we know as the Italian Renaissance. Here, Strathern discusses their achievements and examines the ways in which these intersected. The ties between Machiavelli and Borgia are well-documented (after all, the ideal ruler of Machiavelli's most famous work is modelled after Borgia), as are those between Borgia and Leonardo, who worked at Florence's request as Borgia's military engineer for a time.

Where Strathern stretches too much, I think, is in the ties between Machiavelli and Leonardo. Clearly they had some level of interaction and were linked in several different Florentine projects; Leonardo's biographer Charles Nicholl thinks it likely that they had a "cordial relationship". Strathern simply takes this too far, in my estimation, making all sorts of unsupported speculations about how Leonardo could have taken care of Machiavelli during an illness at Imola, or how Leonardo might have visited "his old friend Machiavelli" on his way to France to the court of Francis I.

In the end, Strathern produces a reasonably interesting work of popular history, which I might recommend to someone who didn't know much about the period. From a historical viewpoint, though, he simply stretches his thesis too far, on too little documentary evidence, to be completely convincing.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Warfare, Terror, Murder and da Vinci: Paul Strathern's "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior" 3 Mar 2010
By Gregg Chadwick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Leonardo da Vinci is an artist whose name is instantly recognizable but whose artwork can seem so familiar to 21st century eyes that the actual paintings feel lost behind a veil of cultural expectations. Paul Strathern's new book, "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped", allows us to see Leonardo as a living man and artist shaped by his time, friendships and experiences.

Strathern's book opens with an epigraph spoken by Orson Welles' character, Harry Lime, in "The Third Man". From the vantage point of a ferris wheel high above Vienna, Orson Welles surveys the battered post-war city beneath him and says:

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace--and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

A Brief Convergence

Paul Strathern who has a background in philosophy, and writes often on the subject, approaches the brief convergence of Leonardo, Borgia and Machiavelli as a sort of biographical/philosophical thought experiment. Like a good professor, Strathern asks questions:

"What was it precisely that made Leonardo agree to work for Borgia?"
What were Leonardo's "real intentions"?
How did Leonardo "become involved with Machiavelli?"

Paul Strathern defines his terms with background and analysis of the three major characters. Like Orson Welles, Paul Strathern uses a keen eye and a sense of humor to survey the events surrounding Machiavelli's Florentine diplomatic mission in 1502 which put Leonardo in the service of Cesare Borgia. Strathern vividly describes Renaissance Italy in the 1500's, which was not a unified country under the banner of Italy but instead a collection of constantly battling city states and principalities dominated by Milan, Venice, Naples, Florence and the pope in Rome. The book's narrative introduces us to da Vinci, Machiavelli and Borgia and then weaves, in a Rashomon view, their lives and the events surrounding them from three different vantage points. Strathern helps us see the vibrance and struggle of Renaissance Italy from the viewpoints of the artist, the philosopher, and the warrior.

A Visual Realm of Ideas

In a way that I find new to biographies of Leonardo, Paul Strathern concerns himself not only with the events in da Vinci's life, but especially in how Leonardo learned to think, ponder and dream. Leonardo da Vinci was born as the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci. Because of the circumstances around his birth, Leonardo was not allowed to receive a classical education and so did not learn Latin as a youth. How did the young da Vinci grow into such a deep thinker?

Strathern clearly shows that Leonardo's artistic and scientific investigations were prompted by his own curiosity and massive intelligence. Without having learned Latin, Leonardo was able to read the classics in translation. Through his study of the Roman author Lucretius, whose epic poem "De Rerum Natura" (On the Nature of Things) sought to explain the world in scientific terms, Leonardo learned that accurate understanding derives from investigation and experience.

"Reflect that the most wicked act of all is to take the life of a man. For if his external form appears to be a marvelously subtle construction, realize that this is nothing compared with the soul which dwells within this structure."
- Leonardo da Vinci, from his notebooks

Leonardo cherished life so much that he became a vegetarian but at the same time he devised weapons and instruments of war. This conflict runs throughout Leonardo's adult life and Paul Strathern addresses this paradox throughout his book:
Leonardo "served with no apparent show of unwillingness (even in the privacy of his notebooks), as military engineer to the ruthless murderer Cesare Borgia, a monster whose name would enter history as a byword for infamy."

Perhaps an answer can be found in the zeitgeist of the era. As Strathern explains, the Renaissance prompted a more rational humanist outlook in the worlds of art and literature, but medieval fears and prejuidices remained strong. In troubled times, a collective mania could take hold. A similar, collective mania, took hold in the United States after the terrible events of September 11, 2001. This collective mania was hidden in the richly nuanced shadows in Leonardo's paintings. Caught in the sfumato in "The Adoration of the Magi", now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, warriors on horseback battle. Lost to time, but remembered in Peter Paul Rubens' restoration and reworking of an Italian 16th-century drawing, horses lock forelegs and armored soldiers scream as they battle for the standard in Leonardo's "Battle of Anghiari."


Like a figure from da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari", Cesare Borgia died on a battlefield.

After the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1510, Machiavelli was stripped of his Florentine citizenship, kicked out of his political office, fined 1,000 florins which left him almost penniless, banned from the city of Florence, and cast into an early forced retirement at his tiny family farm seven miles outside the city walls. At 43, Machiavelli had lost his career and his wealth. But he still could write:

"For four hours, I forget all my worries and boredom. I am afraid neither of poverty nor death. I am utterly absorbed in this world of my mind. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he remembers what he has understood, I have noted down what I have learned from these conversations. The result is a short book, called 'The Prince', in which I delve as deeply as I can into the subject of how to rule."

Leonardo da Vinci left a legacy of unpublished volumes, uncast sculptures, unrealized engineering projects, and unfinished paintings. Strathern theorizes that Leonardo's time with Cesare Borgia was brutish and caused Leonardo to doubt that humans were essentially good. Among diagrams and plans for weapons and machines, Leonardo wrote, "I will not publish or divulge such things." Leonardo saw the evil nature in men and did not trust humanity with his genius. A weapon, elegantly realized with a quill pen on a sheet of costly paper, becomes horrible when realized in the physical world and used to tear flesh and bone. Ultimately, Leonardo's discoveries lay hidden for centuries.

Leonardo's inability to finish his projects had aesthetic reasons as well. Since the classical age, unfinished artworks were cherished because they seemed to reveal the living thoughts of the artist. Leonardo da Vinci saw that an initial sketch captured the very instant of inspiration. Inspiration was valued as being more urgent and vital than a finished work of art itself. The initial idea or conception is what truly mattered to da Vinci. Once Leonardo had grasped the artistic idea, a finished work of art already existed in his mind.

Strathern's "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped" lights a darkened era. From the smoky depths of sfumato glazes we peer into da Vinci's world of nuance and suggestion. In Leonardo's artistic legacy and Strathern's satisfying book we are left with existential questions, mere hints about our time on earth and the threads of history and influence that link us to the past.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Tangential Overstretched Connections 3 May 2010
By Jiang Xueqin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In "The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior," Paul Strathern offers a look at fin de seicle 15th century Italian century through three of its most famous denizens: the artist and genius Leonardo da Vinci, the public servant and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, and the warlord and murderer Cesare Borgia. This triumvirate is a nice conceit, but it does not work because so much of the evidence that these three had anything much to do with each other are tangential and overstretched. Leonardo was the lone genius who just happened to be employed as an engineer for Borgia's war machine for a matter of months, and Machiavelli and Leonardo were both acquaintances in Florence. The real focus of this book is on Cesare Borgia who would terrorize Italy at the behest of his father Pope Alexander; Machiavelli, as the Florentine envoy, would watch the machinations of the man who would become the role model for "The Prince."

Pope Alexander's ambition was to use the Vatican to create a unified Italy under hereditary rule, and his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia was this means to an end. Ruthlessly maneuvering against their opponents Pope Alexander and his son were well on their way to their goal when Alexander died and Borgia, having lost his guiding light and political sponsor, collapsed under the weight of Italian and Vatican political intrigue. Having never been either a great warrior or strategist and instead using duplicity and knavery to achieve his ends, Borgia would nevertheless die in battle in his early thirties. While a staunch republican and a civil servant who tried to protect Florence from Borgia's depradations, Machiavelli was nonetheless in awe of the duke, and after having been exiled by the Medicis who returned to power in Florence, the republican Machiavelli, either in a state of frustration or hopelessness or insanity decided to write "The Prince," which Machiavelli dedicated to the Medicis, hoping to return to official favor yet again. After republican rule returned to Florence, Machiavelli thought he would instantly return to his role as secretary to the powerful but "The Prince" had disgusted the republicans,and Machiavelli was left to die on his farm. The irony is that after having dedicated his life to republicanism and indeed having suffered for it Machiavelli would be remembered, because of the popularity of "The Prince," as a ruthless duplicitous strategist of the Borgia mode.

Quite frankly, I thought what was really interesting was how fractured and warring Italy could unleash such men of genius -- a question that Mr. Strathern does not at all discuss. Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael were all contemporaries. So is the city-state a better incubator of originality and creativity than the nation-state? If you consider the example of Athens and Florence and the warring states period in Chinese history then the answer is most definitely yes.
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