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!