Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Writing: 5 Content: 5

A comprehensive biography of a fascinating man. Isaacson’s clear, lucid, prose manages to portray the man and his near-infinite number of interests without becoming tedious or repetitive. Isaacson draws on a wealth of sources, primary among them the 7,200 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks available for study — sadly estimated to be only one quarter of the original number. The notebooks — works of art themselves — were cut up and auctioned off after Leonardo’s death. As none of the pages were numbered, all original ordering has been lost (as a librarian, this causes me physical pain!). As an aside, the notebooks contained very little that was personal. As Isaacson says, “These are not St. Augustine’s confessions but rather the outward looking enthrallments of a relentlessly curious explorer.” Great line!

Leonardo’s curiosity was obsessive. Most know him for his masterpieces — the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper — but his curiosity really knew no bounds. He studied water endlessly — one notebook listed 730 conclusions about water crammed into 8 pages. When he needed to paint horses for a painting of war, he spent hours dissecting horses to understand how they moved. His dissections were not limited to animals; he also dissected up to 30 human corpses trying to understand how the sensory organs, muscles, and nerves worked together to create motion and to show emotion.

His work previewed great discoveries. He investigated the aerodynamics of flight, the transfer of motion, and the optical processing of the human eye. Often the descriptions were annotated with comments about what a spectacular treatise the work would make — probably true — and yet, Leonardo never got around to publishing! He was notorious for following his passions and not really bothering with the tedium of tying things up in neat packages and disseminating them. Similarly, he was a wonderful painter — people flocked to watch him paint and begged him to do their portraits — but the number of unfinished commissions was far larger than the number he actually completed. In some cases, he carried paintings with him for years, “perfecting” them. As an example, he kept the Mona Lisa with him for 17 years. It only left his possession at his death.

Isaacson makes two claims (clearly stated as his own opinion) with which I strongly disagree. He claims Leonardo was not a genius in the sense of Newton or Einstein, who each had brains that were different from an average person. Instead, Leonardo had intense observational skills and passionate curiosity — attributes any of us could develop. I disagree completely. While both of those attributes were key to Leonardo’s success, he also possessed a wildly active brain that drew analogies between everything and anything at a dizzying pace. That is the very hallmark of intellectual genius. Most of us do not have brains that can make those connections at all; and certainly not that quickly.

Additionally, Isaacson made continual references to Leonardo’s Freudian search for a “paternalistic, supportive, and indulgent” patron as a sop to his abandonment issues from a mostly absent father. That feels like a lot of modern sensibility applied to a very different time and place to me. What Leonardo did was search for a patron he could respect and who would understand, support, and appreciate him. After all, some of his previous patrons (think Cesare Borgia) were beyond dreadful. I was personally very gratified when he finally found that patron in Francis I, King of France, albeit at the very end of his life.

“He relished a world in flux” — my favorite Isaacson summary of Leonardo. He loved motion and was on a constant quest to identify the patterns that united the physical world with the world of man. A great biography – very readable and well organized. Easy to do deep dives into your areas of interest and skim through those that don’t grab you — although those will be fewer than you think.

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