Earlier this year, I read Walter Isaacson’s âLeonardo da Vinciâ, which is a biography of – you guessed it – Leonardo da Vinci. It was a really fascinating read for me, and so, since this is my blog and I can post more or less what I want, I’ll share some thoughts on this with you.
Isaacson is a longtime journalist who is the former editor of Time Magazine, the former CEO of CNN and the former CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has also written a number of books, including biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, which I have read before. When his Leonardo bio came out, I grabbed it, but I didn’t have time to read it for several years, because, you know, stuff.
Leonardo da Vinci is one of those historical figures who have become iconic. It’s a name almost everyone knows – it’s the guy who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and who invented the helicopters and drew this naked guy in a circle. Dan Brown borrowed some of the mythology, legend, and plots surrounding Leonardo and turned it into a bestselling book series. He is considered the prototypical polymath, the literal Renaissance man.
I knew Leonardo in general, the way you understand things of the zeitgeist, but very little about his life, which is part of the reason why I was invited to check out this book. And Isaacson’s book does not disappoint in this regard – despite the difficulties of writing about someone who died over half a millennium ago, Isaacson fleshes Leonardo into the person, his upbringing, his daily life, as well as being clear about where it is. conflicting accounts, where the reports are second or third or nth hand, and from what source a piece of information comes. In doing so, Isaacson usually indicates his take on the reliability of a given part of the narrative, while also providing enough information about the source to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Leonardo the human, rather than the Avatar of Science, emerges clearly. Contemporary correspondence and reports paint a picture of an artistic genius, whose perfectionist tendencies and distracted working style often upset his clients and, in some cases, led Leonardo to never deliver commissioned works, instead. to work them, wanting to keep improving them, not feeling that they were finished, until his death. We also follow Leonardo in his perpetual quest for patronage, the need for an artist of the time to have the space, equipment and funds necessary to settle in, retain assistants and make the magic work.
One of the striking things here is the window into the workings of the mind of Leonardo – the genius who so often seemed unable to complete the work because his research and preparation for the project had turned him away, as he was would be more interested in a topic he was examining in this work than in the original project itself, and would find himself immersed in this new problem to the point of ignoring or abandoning the underlying project that had led to this topic being considered in the first place. You get frustrated with all the ideas Leonardo grabbed, considered, but ultimately left unfinished, wondering what he could have accomplished with more follow-through and a willingness to stay on task. The flip side, however, is that Leonardo’s genius didn’t work that way – if it did, he wouldn’t have been the brilliant artist who saw and grasped things that others did. have not done.
The print version of the book is nearly 700 pages long, although, as you might expect, given the subject matter, much of it is illustrations, and Isaacson spends a lot of time reviewing excerpts from the notebooks. by Leonardo da Vinci – the invaluable manuscripts and codices that are in museums and collections today. Leonardo was an avid note-taker who wrote and drew constantly throughout his life, and who filled every page of his notebook with sketches, notes and often unrelated observations. Thousands of pages from his personal notebooks have been lost in history, but those that have survived offer remarkable insight. Isaacson emphasizes Leonardo’s incredible attention to detail and his ability to glean insight from a meticulously close and detailed observation of nature, much of which is documented in his notes.
As someone who is not particularly familiar with art or art history, one of the most fascinating things has been reading about the scrupulous attention to detail in Leonardo’s work, the careful preparations he made to, for example, ensure that the foliage in the background of a painting was the species of flora that would be present there this season. Leonardo is known for his study of anatomy and his anatomical drawings. Isaacson examines the extent to which these studies, the dissection of bodies and the examination of muscles and tissues, were to better understand how the human body moved and functioned, in order to more accurately represent living creatures in his paintings.
Leonardo’s major works are studied closely in this book, and Isaacson does a tremendous job of showing how Leonardo’s art was influenced by his scientific studies. He also delves into Leonardo’s specific techniques, his distinctive hatching and the revolutionary use he made of light and shadow in his paintings. I found the explanations of the works and the creative process, the specifics that made his work so revolutionary, to be the most captivating part of the book.
“Leonardo da Vinci” is a long read, but I found it engaging and well worth the time. If you are interested in art, science, or engineering, you might want to take a look.
Finally, here is the video of the Scottish actress Eleanor Morton, “Leonard da Vinci reads his hate mail”: