Saturday, December 9, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson - Book Review




Walter Isaacson’s huge biography Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, 2017, 624 pages, $35.00/16.99/14.88) big, thick, heavy, beautifully illustrated provides a wonderful journey through the life, mind, and works of a genius who lived more than 400 years ago, but whose creativity, versatility, and imagination rebound through the ages to still affect our sensibilities today. Isaacson, whose previous biography of Einstein I also read and reviewed, stands as one of the major public intellectuals in America. Because he, himself, approaches his subjects with such appreciation and wonder, his books serve to open the minds of their readers, making the subjects accessible to ordinary folks.

Was Leonardo truly the greatest genius of all time, or did he happen to come along when all the conditions were right for a single person to capture and embody huge chunks of the world’s knowledge and experience? Science, math, engineering, art, sculpture, and technology were all encompassed in his studies and interests. His observational skills were without peer. He has obsessive about following through on questions that occurred to him, for instance, insisting on a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy to build invisible skeletons under the skins and clothing of his paintings.

Leonardo, born in Vinci, a town near Florence, Italy in 1452, the illegitimate son of notary Piero da Vinci, who was able to help promote his artistic efforts despite never having legitimated his brilliant son Leonardo, was apprenticed to an artist in Florence where he soon distinguished himself as a master of perspective, color, and drafting. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Leonardo moved restlessly from Florence to Milan to Rome, and eventually to France, where he spent his last years attached to King Francis I and died in 1519. Leonardo is renowned for his great paintings The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper as well others. Beyond painting, his achievements and ideas in engineering, technology, anatomy, military science, mathematics and further were recorded in his journals. Many of his discoveries and speculations were lost for hundreds of years, because he neglected to publish his writings and drawings, while abandoning or procrastinating in completing many of his most famous paintings. Despite this, on his death he was recognized throughout Europe as one of history’s greatest geniuses, a reputation which has only become brighter through the ages.

Mona Lisa


If you’re a person who goes to museums or enjoys paintings and painting, you’ll never look at a canvas or drawing with the same perspective (pun intended) after reading Isaacson’s chapter on the “Science of Art,” which explores Leondardo’s deep and inter-related developing ideas spreading far beyond art into the realms of science and math. “Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience and mystery, between objects and their surroundings.” (270) Thus the sciences become metaphysical, moving into the space where observation interacts with belief and knowledge.

Isaacson makes the discovery, search, acquisition, and verification of Leonardo’s work into exciting detective stories, bringing the tales into the present day while remaining thoroughly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Names like Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark vie with Sforza and Ludivico as important in the Leonardo story, giving the whole book a shade of a contemporary thriller without the boiler plate of Dan Brown. A hint of a Mona Lisa smile flits around Isaacson’s mind as he weaves the story of how art, technology, and science first combined in Leonardo’s ceaseless search for more remains alive with the search for the Master. The chapter on La Bella Principessa, a previously unattributed drawing, provides as good detective writing as any novel while its owner covers Europe and the U.S. to confirm the insight which had first prompted him to purchase the piece.

Leonardo's Drawings


Leonardo’s intellectual development from being a believer in experience as the best teacher to combining his own current experience with traditions and knowledge handed down from antiquity in writing, architecture, mathematics, science, optics, engineering, sculpture, and art help him create the qualities that so characterize the Renaissance as re-birth and new birth of how to know. Much of Leonardo’s writing becomes a treatise on ways of knowing. Isaacson delights in exploring Leonardo’s mind through his almost limitless works distributed worldwide to libraries, museums, and private collectors. Leonardo’s experiments with using shadows, colors, shapes as well as his thought experiences recounted with words and illustrations suggest the breadth and intensity of his quest. “Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience and mystery, between objects and their surroundings.” (270) Thus the sciences become metaphysical, moving into the space where observation interacts with belief and knowledge.

Walter Isaacson


Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is also the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. In Leonardo da Vinci, he emerges as a benevolent character himself, taking joy in his own searches as he seeks to fathom the genius of this exceptional character in human history.

Perhaps no artist, no character, in history has left so much data while remaining such an enigma. Yet, as Isaacson brings his narrative to a close, Leonardo becomes increasingly difficult to encompass. His passions, his intelligence, his ceaseless questioning followed by obsessive studies helped lead him to some understanding of the answers he sought leaving those viewing his work with a certain frustration. While giving so much, Leonardo, like his most famous painting, holds himself slightly aloof, leaving uncertainties for us to contemplate for eternity.

Isaacson challenges the reader. In his discussion of Leonardo’s thoughts about how water flows and eddies, he interrupts the discussions to say, “Try noticing all that when you next fill a sink,” (432) stopping the reader to consider staring deeply into the bowl of water after shaving. His own delight at exploring Leonardo’s world, his insatiable curiosity and his ability to illustrate revelations clearly and precisely intrigue and elevate the author’s own thinking. Isaacson’s books on Leonardo, Franklin, Einstein, and Jobs detail the exploration of the world through the eyes of geniuses most of us can’t fathom ourselves, let alone illuminate for the thoughtful reader. I bought my own copy of Leonardo da Vinci and give it my highest recommendation.

Some thoughts on how to read this book: I bought Leonardo di Vinci as a hardback book on the recommendation of a commentator who mentioned the quality of the photographs, which are very good. However, if I were to purchase it again, however, I would buy it as a Kindle book, even though, at present, the Kindle version is more expensive than the hardback. I found it advantageous to access the largest image available on Google Images using my browser to focus in on small details as I read. Many of the details Isaacson writes about emerge on such close attention. It would be better still, to be able to examine the originals in detail. Unfortunately…..