Leonardo da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017
The first thing you notice about Walter Isaacson’s latest book, Leonardo da Vinci, is its weight. This is a hefty tome. It tips the scales at three pounds even (1360g for those of the metric persuasion) which, based on a completely unscientific sampling of my bookshelves, is about twice the weight of the average hardback. Three pounds may not seem like much, but when you’re sitting up in bed – I hope I’m not over-sharing here – holding a book that large gets to be a bit of a strain after a while.
The book is a little longer than average too, about 525 pages. But the main reason for the extra weight is that it’s printed on high quality glossy white stock and lavishly illustrated with over 140 reproductions of Leonardo’s paintings, sketches, drawings, and pages from his notebooks.
In short, it’s a beautifully produced book, as befits its subject.
OK, enough about the book. What about the book?
Walter Isaacson has constructed his biography of Leonardo da Vinci as a chronological tour of Leonardo’s work. Yes, there’s plenty of extremely well-researched family and historical information to round out the story, but essentially we see Leonardo develop and mature as a scientist and as an artist through his major works, culminating in the Mona Lisa.
Isaacson meticulously examines each piece, describing the context of the work, and the novel techniques Leonardo had developed or mastered to produce the work. I found myself examining the reproductions in the book under a photographer’s loupe so I could better see Leonardo’s brush strokes and left-handed cross-hatched shading, and look more closely at the geologically accurate rock formations he painted in the background of many of his portraits.
We get to see not just Leonardo’s famous paintings, but also many of the drawings, sketches and even doodles from his notebooks.
After taking this journey through Leonardo’s life and work, I’m left with a few powerful impressions.
The first is awe. True awe. Leonardo had an utterly insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning. This may have been the result of his lack of formal education – he had to teach himself virtually everything he ever knew. He learned enormous amounts and his curiosity knew no boundaries. Anatomy, astronomy, biology, geology, hydrology, mechanics, optics, and many other fields fell under his purview. Instead of seeing them as distinct fields of study he discerned patterns and connections among them. He not only learned but advanced our knowledge in any area he chose to explore.
In addition, Leonardo’s work spanned the divide between art and science in a way that today seems almost impossible. He really saw no distinction between the two. His artistic capabilities enabled his scientific pursuits; his drawings of machinery and human anatomy are not just accurate, they’re exquisite. And his scientific endeavors certainly helped make him arguably the greatest painter of all time. Leonardo could not have painted the Mona Lisa’s famous enigmatic smile had he not dissected over 30 corpses and understood profoundly how the muscles of the lips and face work together when we smile.
(Here she is, smiling enigmatically at me and some other tourists in the Louvre.)
And finally, Leonardo easily crossed the boundary between reality and imagination. It was this that enabled him for example, to design flying machines and other devices that wouldn’t be built for hundreds of years.
Leonardo was a master of sfumato, the painting technique of using fine subtle shading rather than hard lines to produce transitions between light and dark or between one object and another. It’s as if he saw distinctions between the arts and sciences, between reality and fantasy in the same softly shaded way. Or perhaps those distinctions didn’t exist with quite the same sharpness in Leonardo’s time as they do in ours.
If Leonardo had a failing, it is that he rarely finished anything. He worked on the Mona Lisa for the last 16 years of his life, carrying it with him as he moved from city to city until finally settling in France, occasionally adding a few brushstrokes here or there. He planned to publish books on many subjects, but never carried them out. He was literally centuries ahead of his time in many fields, but because he never published his work, it was left to the scientists of future centuries to rediscover much of what Leonardo already knew. As Isaacson puts it,
“He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.” [p. 518]
Another impression I have from the book is how much documentation exists about Leonardo. Of course there are hundreds of pages of his notebooks still in existence in various libraries and private collections all over the world. But Isaacson was able to draw on a wealth of primary and secondary sources in researching the book. Possibly this is because Leonardo’s father was a notary and record-keeping was part of the family heritage. Beyond that though, there are notes and books and records from and about people who associated with or did business with Leonardo. That such a paper trail still exists five hundred years after his death is amazing.
How much of the enormous amounts of data we keep, or others keep, about us today will survive five centuries after we’re gone?
I also like that Walter Isaacson is very much present in the book. He’s more than just a narrator. He gets involved. He’s not afraid to take a stand on some of the controversies about Leonardo still being debated by scholars today, like whether this or that painting was really done by Leonardo or by one of his students. And he shares with us his own sense of wonder as he delves deeply into Leonardo’s life and works.
For example there’s a chapter on Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s famous drawing of a naked man standing spread-eagle inside a square inside a circle. You know, this one:
Isaacson writes of his experience seeing the original:
“Rarely on display, because prolonged exposure to light would cause it to fade, it is kept in a locked room on the fourth floor of the Gallerie del’Accademia in Venice. When a curator brought it out and placed it before me on a table, I was struck by the indentations made by the stylus of Leonardo’s metalpoint pen and the twelve pricks made by the point of his compass. I had the eerie and intimate sensation of seeing the hand of the master at work more than five centuries earlier. “ [p. 153-5]
I felt a thrill reading that passage!
And the rest of the book too.