For an Italian, and especially a Milanese like I am, Leonardo da Vinci is kind of the ultimate cultural symbol. It’s true that he was born in Florence and spent part of his life there, but he also lived for multiple years at different points of his life in my hometown of Milan. While in Milan, under the protection either of the Sforza family or the conquering French, Leonardo had a significant impact on the city, from it’s canals to its artistic heritage.
Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs has been gathering dust on my shelf for a while now (I’ll get to it eventually), but when I learned he had published a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I immediately felt drawn to reading it. The biography was wonderful (full review below) and it was such a great coincidence that I finished it just ahead of my yearly summer trip to Milan. You pretty much can’t round a corner in Milan without happening upon a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit or one of his works. I’m sharing some images from the Leonardo3 exhibit I attended a few days ago that featured spell-binding re-imaginings of some of the designs Leonardo left us for machines he envisioned.
Images For The Leonardo3 Exhibit In Milan
Walter Isaacson dedicates a solid portion of his biography of Leonardo to detailing some of the more fantastical and ground-breaking machines the Italian thinker sketched out in his many famous notebooks. Most of these machines were never actually built or at least have not survived as more than drawings, but the Leonardo3 exhibit attempts to bring them to life as they may have looked like had they been constructed by Leonardo during his life.
From man-propelled flying machines (that would have definitely left their occupants stranded on the ground), to wheels meant to crack the mystery of perpetual motion (but that failed to do so), to beautiful mechanical lions actually used in a pageant or parade, Leonardo’s inventions span so many different aspects of life that just walking among them, you are immediately convinced of his genius.
Regardless of whether he was successful in solving all of the myriad of problems he tackled (in many cases he wasn’t), Leonardo demonstrates that he was so far ahead of other minds around him. Isaacson delineates multiple instance in Leonardo’s life where his discoveries in physics, mechanics, anatomy or art went unmatched for 200 or even 400 years, buried in notebooks that were never officially published during his lifetime and only rediscovered much later. I may be starting to agree after all with my mother’s opinion that Leonardo was an alien, because his leaps of logic and the depth of his curiosity seem so profoundly unique in human experience.
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Publication Date: October 17th 2017
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Length In Hardcover: 600 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.18
The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography.
Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.
Comprehensive overview. As any good Milanese, I had a decent sense of Leonardo’s life and the breadth of his genius. Still, there was so much for me to learn about Leonardo from Isaacson’s extremely thorough biography. He definitely hit the highlights, but also focused on the intricacies of Leonardo’s existence, from mundane issues like his lodgings, his clothing and his finances, to the extraordinary mind revealed by his notebooks and paintings. I was fascinated, in particular, to learn more about Leonardo’s upbringing as an illegitimate son and how it affected him, as well as about his association with his long-time lover Salai.
The art. One aspect of Leonardo’s life that I realized I only had superficial knowledge about was his art. I obviously knew of the most important works he painted in his life, but there was so much more to discover about his process. He really focused a lot of his scientific inquiry in anatomy, biology and physics towards making his paintings as realistic and authentic as possible. His dissection studies into the muscles of the face were part of what gave the Mona Lisa her famous enigmatic smile. In addition, I discovered that much of what can be viewed today of one of Leonardo’s frescoes, The Last Supper, is based on an extensive restoration done in 1999. Apparently Leonardo’s desire to experiment with paint composition means that little of his original painting survives.
So much more. With Leonardo, painting was really the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Isaacson explains that towards the end of his life, Leonardo had really developed a dislike for painting and was primarily engrossed in scientific and mechanical studies. To learn of the myriad of topics that Leonardo’s curiosity spanned really made me feel that he was a little superhuman. A known procrastinator when it came to painting, Leonardo showed an obsessive dedication to other subjects, including his study of the human anatomy through dozens of actual dissections of human bodies, his quest for a machine that could reproduce perpetual motion, and his desire to understand the intricacies of fluid mechanics. It’s pretty humbling to witness his dedication and genius through the pages of his notebooks and to realize that many of his ideas were centuries ahead of their time.
A little dry and repetitive. There is so much to learn about Leonardo from a factual perspective – so much that one can dissect from the mountain of notes and notebook pages he left behind. In his biography of Leonardo, Isaacson shows an admirable restraint towards making too many inferences about his subject’s personal thoughts and feelings. Still, as a reader, I would have preferred to feel the warmth of Leonardo’s personality in Isaacson’s pages. There are glimpses of his humor and his essence, but they peak through in spite of Isaacson’s efforts rather than because of them. The book could have also benefited from a more linear rather than topic-based structure, which I think would have also corrected some of the repetitiveness found in its pages.
Masterful and comprehensive biography of a truly unparalleled genius in human history that delves past the known Leonardo, to give a full picture of a man much ahead of his time.
Walter Isaacson is a Professor of History at Tulane and an advisory partner at Perella Weinberg, a financial services firm based in New York City. He is the past CEO of the Aspen Institute, where he is now a Distinguished Fellow, and has been the chairman of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine.
Isaacson’s most recent biography, Leonardo da Vinci (2017), offers new discoveries about Leonardo’s life and work, weaving a narrative that connects his art to his science. He is also the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014), Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).
Have you read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for historical mystery Call Of The Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks, true crime title A False Report by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, contemporary fiction novel The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang and historical fiction title The Immortalists By Chloe Benjamin.
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