Review: Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A biography of da Vinci, from his illegitimate birth, his life long quest for patrons, his insatiable curiosity, his various artworks, and the notebooks, in which are revealed so much of the genius of da Vinci.

This is a magnificent biography in every way. Isaacson delves deeply into the life, the notebooks, the travels, and the works of art of da Vinci and renders an account of the peculiar, dazzling, and flawed genius of Leonardo. This is a book you need to read in print. It is a heavy book because it is printed on high quality paper with ample, full-color Figures rendering the notebooks and artworks of Leonardo. A full-color timeline at the front of the book highlights the works of Leonardo, and the key events of and during his life.

A theme that runs through this book is the insatiable and child-like curiosity of Leonardo, who wonders why the sky is blue (and arrived at a basically accurate explanation of this phenomenon) and wanted to describe the tongue of the woodpecker. He was fascinated with optics, from how the eye works to how light was refracted, and why distant objects appear different in color and distinctness from those closer up. He was an innovator in applying these insights in his use of perspective of his paintings. He did pioneering studies of human anatomy that, if published, would have advanced the understanding of anatomy a hundred years earlier. His fascination with hydraulics resulted in an accurate explanation of the closure of the heart’s aortic valve. His notebooks contain speculations questioning a geocentric universe in advance of Copernicus.

Leonardo was an observer. He not only was curious about everything, but he closely studied the objects of his interest, whether it was the play of light on his subjects, the proportions of the human body, consummately illustrated in his Vitruvian Man, the movements of the wings of a dragonfly, the contractions of the leg muscles of a horse, or the way water flowed in a river. Isaacson notes: “Here’s a test. All of us have looked at birds in flight, but have you ever stopped to look closely enough to see whether a bird moves its wing upward at the same speed as it flaps it down? Leonardo did….”

Leonardo had the ability to draw upon everything he knew with anything he did. This was one of the things that made him such a fascinating subject for Isaacson, who writes, “I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology-is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” His study of light and optics shows up in his use of sfumato in painting, where objects are not defined by hard lines, but gradual shadings of tones into one another. He sees analogs between root and branch systems in plants and the human circulatory system. His anatomical studies culminate in the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa and his anatomical drawings are themselves works of art.

Isaacson also traces the peculiar genius of Leonardo, who conceives of giant cross bows, flying machines, and engineering projects, all of which are never executed. He was a path-breaking scientist who never published the results of his studies. Thankfully, even after 500 years, we still have 7200 pages of his notebooks. A number of his paintings were never “finished” and even Mona Lisa was still in his studio when he died. He abandoned commissions that he never finished. He experimented with techniques of mural painting that were spectacular failures and have challenged preservation efforts ever since.

Isaacson candidly discusses Leonardo’s personal life without becoming lurid. He covers his illegitimacy, his ambivalent relationship with his father, and his homosexuality, including his relationship with his apprentice, Salai. He traces his lifelong quest for patrons, courting the various powerful families of Florence and Milan, and ending with King Francis I of France, who, legend has it, cradled the head of Leonardo in his death throes (a legend that has been questioned).

The author concludes with lessons from Leonardo’s life, some that run through this review. Even if you don’t buy this book, I would encourage you to peruse these. The front cover jacket copy refers to Leonardo as “history’s most creative genius.” Isaacson’s biography makes that case, and does so with exquisite writing, typography and graphic design. This one’s a keeper!

Review: Called to Create

Called to create

Called to CreateJordan Raynor. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A view of creative, entrepreneurial work as a good calling from God, and the challenges and opportunities of pursuing entrepreneurial work for the glory of God.

We celebrate them when they are successful–the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, and Oprah Winfrey’s of the world. They are risk-taking entrepreneurs whose creativity brings new products to the market, or whose artistic work is of a character of excellence and success that it gains wide notice. The author of this work extends the idea of entrepreneur “to anyone who takes a risk to create something new for the good of others.”  These include tech entrepreneurs, but also small business owners, artists and writers, nonprofit founders, chefs, and many others. The author, himself an entrepreneur, explores whether the pursuit of such work is honoring to God, or somehow “second class” to more “noble” forms of Christian service. Clearly, he believes the former to be true.

The book addresses four “C’s” of Christian entrepreneurship: Calling, Creating, Challenges, and Charge. He integrates biblical principles with the stories of forty men and women entrepreneurs in a variety of fields from J.R.R. Tolkien to the founders of TOMS shoes and In-and Out Burgers. What I appreciated was the combination of rich theological insight (rather than cliche’) and substantive examples.

In the section on “Calling” he begins with God as the first entrepreneur as maker of all things and the source of all creativity. I appreciate that he considers the incarnate Lord as a carpenter who for twenty years revealed God’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit. From this he outlines a theology of work as intrinsically good, and finally discusses how we discern calling as we understand what we are passionate, gifted for, and have the greatest opportunity to love others by doing.

“Creating” begins by looking at why we create–is it to make a name for ourselves as did the tower builders of Babel, or like Bach soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone). Then there is the question of what we create, and here the two factors are products that show something of what God is like and products that love others. It could be children’s stories like those written by Lewis, or the beer brewed by the Guinness family, less alcoholic than gin, and safe to drink. Finally, the question is how we create, and the key here is excellence in product and putting people before profit, which the author found exemplified in his study and interviews with Chick-fil-A personnel.

“Challenges” begins with the relentless pressure entrepreneurs face to hustle and the issues of trust and rest, including sabbath, that are essential for staying focused on their callings. A reality of entrepreneurship is failure, yet often it is hushed up rather than transparently acknowledged and learned from, where it becomes a source of hope and boldness. Finally, he addresses the continual need for mental renewal that he believes comes through communing with God, partners, and others (for example, the Inklings).

The last part was perhaps the most unexpected for me. “Charge” begins with the call of entrepreneurs to make disciples through first loving people and then teaching the word. Perhaps the most moving story was that of Alex Clark, a Chick-fil-A manager who hires Jenny, before discovering she is a felon on probation, but sticks with her and develops her professionally to the point where she manages a store, but also comes to faith, and embraces a calling to do what Alex did with others. He talks about the use of profits– given away, reinvested to grow the business, and invested to help others called to create. He concludes with a chapter that focuses around a shared speaking engagement between Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) and N. T. Wright that explores the idea of the new heaven and earth, and thinking about our work passing into the eternity of the New Creation.

In my work, I’ve had the chance to interact with entrepreneurs in business, in the world of ideas, and in the arts. Often, I’ve discovered that they have felt that the church looks a bit askance at them, or only views them for what they give to the church in time or money. This book is an encouragement to these people that their work matters to God and the pleasure they take in entrepreneurship may just be the favor of God upon their lives. This is also a book pastors desperately need to read, as it may stretch their imagination about the ways God might call the people who sit under their teaching Sunday by Sunday. Do we see Peter and Andrew simply as the first disciples, or as hard-working self-employed entrepreneurs? Is Lydia just Paul’s host, or an enterprising businesswoman in purple goods? Do we affirm just the hours people put into the ostensible ministries of the church, or recognize the ways they reflect and bring honor to their Creator in their work every day?

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.