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10/22/2017 7:07 am  #1

Leonardo da Vinci:

Review: Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson

This writer goes beyond the label ‘genius’ to uncover Leonardo da Vinci the man — quirky, obsessive and playful, says Gerard DeGroot

Sometime in 1508 Leonardo da Vinci visited the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. He met a patient who claimed to be more than 100 years old. After they chatted for a while, the man died — quietly. Leonardo then dissected him — lovingly.

Leonardo diligently disassembled the centenarian, meticulously recording his discoveries. He explored muscles, tendons, bones, blood vessels, nerves and how they all connected. He searched for the precise place in the brain where feelings originated and investigated how spiritual emotions are given physical manifestation — a grimace or frown, a look of wonder or joy. What muscles, he wondered, control the lips and how do they co-operate to communicate feeling? Out of these investigations came Mona Lisa’s smile.

Walter Isaacson is a renaissance man. Formerly the head of CNN and editor of Time, he’s now chief executive of the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan body that gathers great thinkers to address the world’s complex problems. Rather like Leonardo, he’s driven by a joyful desire to discover. That joy bubbles forth in this magnificent book. In Isaacson, Leonardo gets the biographer he deserves — an author capable of comprehending his often frenetic, frequently weird quest to understand.

This is not just a joyful book; it’s also a joy to behold. There are nearly 150 illustrations in appropriately vibrant colour. These are inserted where they belong, adjacent to the relevant discussion, instead of being crammed into a plate section in the middle of the book. This makes it easier to appreciate the author’s superb analysis.

Leonardo (1452-1519) was, according to the art historian Kenneth Clark, “the most relentlessly curious man in history”. Isaacson brings him to life by poring through the extraordinary notebooks he kept — the “greatest record of curiosity ever created”. From edge to edge, his pages are filled with drawings, doodles and reflections. Being left-handed, he wrote backwards, from right to left, thus producing a mirror image of ordinary writing.

Interspersed with finely detailed drawings of the human body, lengthy descriptions of natural processes and fantastic renderings of flying machines are bizarre aides-memoire: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.” “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” Random observations — some profound, others perplexing — sprout from the pages. “When a man sits down, the distance from his seat to the top part of his head will be half of his height plus the thickness and length of his testicles.” (Leonardo was homosexual; he had a long-running relationship with Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who was nicknamed Salai – the “little scamp”. When they met, Salai was 10 and Leonardo was 38.)

The notebooks stretch to some 7,200 pages. That’s just one quarter of what Leonardo actually produced. Given the man’s genius, it’s tragic that so little survives. But, as Isaacson points out, that’s a higher percentage than the portion of digital documents from the 1990s he was able to retrieve when researching his biography of Steve Jobs. At the end of this book the author provides some lessons from Leonardo. The penultimate poignantly states: “Take notes, on paper.” We live in an age of disposable creativity.

While Leonardo diligently recorded his investigations, he didn’t publish them. He ignored a sacred rule of science, namely the need to share one’s findings. “He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history.” As a result, many of his discoveries had to be rediscovered centuries later. His formula for a metal alloy that reduces friction was three centuries ahead of its time. It took until the 1960s for doctors to discover that Leonardo was right about the workings of the aortic valve. However, his famous drawings of flying machines were probably intended as theatrical props, not designs for practical inventions.

In 1482, at the age of 30, Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan. Before embarking, he invented an odometer so that he could measure the precise distance between the two cities. Shortly after he arrived, he sent a job application to Ludovico Sforza, the city potentate. In what ranks as one of the most inflated CVs of all time, he claimed to be a fortress designer, a hydraulic engineer, a bridge builder and a tunnel architect. He offered designs for cannons, catapults, armoured chariots and warships.

This was mostly fantastic bluster; his experience was in truth limited to some fanciful drawings. He was nevertheless hired, largely on the force of his exuberant personality. Throughout his life patrons believed in Leonardo nearly to the extent that he believed in himself.

At the end of that letter Leonardo added, almost as an afterthought, that he was also a painter. The man who would eventually produce history’s two most famous paintings — The Last Supper and Mona Lisa — never really saw himself as just a painter. In fact, he often tired of the craft. “He cannot bear the sight of a paintbrush,” an observer once remarked. His occasional aversion to painting perhaps explains why no more than 15 works are attributable to him. Some are unfinished — either because he grew bored or because he found himself unable to render visually the perfection he saw in his mind.

Painting was a method of communicating the fruits of his curiosity. The Mona Lisa reveals his discoveries about the musculature of the mouth. The Last Supper demonstrates his fascination for geometric perspective. The background of his Virgin of the Rocks displays his understanding of sedimentary rock. St Jerome in the Wilderness, painted in 1480, exhibits a knowledge of musculature that Leonardo did not actually acquire until 1510, as a result of those dissections. This once baffled art historians, but infrared analysis now suggests that the painting was “corrected” in 1510 to reflect his discoveries about how neck muscles work.

Leonardo was an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician, an architect, an entertainer and, yes, a painter. He was tormented by life’s finite nature — there wasn’t enough time for everything he wanted to do. Were he alive today, he would probably be prescribed Ritalin for attention deficit disorder.

Clark once speculated on what he might have produced had he stuck to painting. His fickle obsessions, he felt, “left posterity the poorer”. Isaacson disagrees. Leonardo’s greatness, he argues, lies in his ability to transcend disciplines and make connections between them. “And what about all the scholars and critics over the years who despaired that Leonardo squandered too much time immersed in studying optics and anatomy and the patterns of the cosmos? The Mona Lisa answers them with a smile.”

Art historians have a knack for taking the joy out of art. They often write for one another, rendering the beautiful incomprehensible. Isaacson is not an art historian; he’s simply a lover of Leonardo able to convey in simple, exuberant language the man’s immense genius. But that word “genius” troubles him. He uses it often, but always reluctantly. Genius, he fears, suggests something superhuman and therefore inaccessible. “Leonardo was not only a genius but also very human — quirky and obsessive and playful.” Isaacson deserves immense praise for producing a very human portrait of a genius.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 599pp, £30

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

10/22/2017 7:44 am  #2

Re: Leonardo da Vinci:

It is amazing the talent and minds of some of the great people of history and their unending search for knowledge. 

"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

10/22/2017 1:05 pm  #3

Re: Leonardo da Vinci:

I ordered the book today, and will report after I've read it.

The word is that it is beautifully illustrated.
So, some advice:
Do NOT buy the ebook. Get the hardcover.

Last edited by Goose (10/22/2017 4:04 pm)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

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