REVIEWED: Leonardo Da Vinci


Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Biography, October 2017).

One of the  most accomplished and successful of biographers, Walter Issacson shows a particular interest in the lives of world-changing innovators. His mammoth account of the life, works and times of the man who produced art the likes of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, not to mention his scientific inquiries and experiments that prefigured some of the most important advances in multiple areas of knowledge (often by several centuries) only adds to the author’s growing reputation. Likewise, his insights on Da Vinci the man and what he can teach us about creativity are highly valuable.

The book is also richly illustrated with images of Leonardo’s paintings, many sketches from his surviving notebooks, as well as works by others relevant to his story. A full color timeline in the front of the book provides added perspective as to the world events that occurred in his lifetime (1452-1519) along with his personal activities.

The book’s text opens with an introduction dealing with how he left his native Republic at age 30 and sought out the patronage of the de facto ruler of nearby Milan in a self-promoting letter outlining his many talents (some of which were still completely unproven). This provides telling insights into the man’s self-confidence, his wide range of creative interests and his considerable ambitions.

33 full chapters follow, the massive and fascinating account beginning with Leonardo’s birth in the small town of Vinci. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy rotary and as Isaacson notes, the use of hereditary surnames was just beginning to take hold in that time in Italy. Sometimes he styled himself in a manner that referred to his well-known father, other times (like his father) he used Da Vinci (meaning ‘from Vinci’) and others often referred to him as ‘Leonardo, the Florentine’ (Vinci being part of the Republic of Florence).

Throughout the book, Isaacson does a masterful job of putting Leonardo’s experiences and circumstances in context with his place and times, including the ever-changing  politics and social norms.

Seeing his first-born’s wide-ranging imagination, his father early realized he’d never be happy as a notary (and his out-of-wedlock birth would’ve presented another stumbling block, due to Guild rules). So young Leonardo was apprenticed to a noted artist and moved to the City of Florence itself, where his rise to fame began.

From there, the chapters tend to be organized as much by the important themes of Leonardo’s interests and lifelong obsessions or particularly important works of art, while keeping to a rough chronology of events (including his various patrons and residences). Leonardo the great artist whose works (including many that he never finished) revolutionized painting was also a pioneering and tireless researcher into human anatomy. He was obsessed with how fluids and gases behaved. The man was also a much-admired and beloved friend of countless famous people. He had bold ideas (mostly left unfulfilled) in the area of civil engineering. A contentedly gay man in a time when that was illegal, he invented of all manner of pioneering devices and technologies. Leonardo also who made discovery after discovery in a whole range of sciences (yet frustratingly never published the results of his studies). A gentle vegetarian, the man was appalled by the violence of war yet seemed drawn to tyrants and military strongmen, for whom he designed exotic new weapons of war. And as an artist, he drove a succession of powerful patrons half-mad with his painstaking perfectionism and his tendency to lose interest in one project and jump into other concerns without warning.

Isaacson details all this and more.

A truly fascinating man in a fascinating and turbulent time, Leonardo was full of talent and contradictions. He was the visually gifted and precise observer whose array of close friends included the ever-scheming Machiavelli, the explorer and map-maker Amerigo Vespucci (yes, the guy America is named after) and the admiring French King Francis I.

And of course, he was the arch-rival of the era’s other unquestioned artistic genius, Michelangelo.

Such a marvelous, sprawling life would require a highly skilled author to do it justice–and Walter Isaacson has done just that in this splendid book.





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