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AJM book talk: Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci”

AJM talks about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Items for the Post’s annual gift guide, in Washington, DC. Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Earlier this year, I read Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci,” which is a biography of — you guessed it — Leonardo da Vinci. It was a really fascinating read for me, and thus, since this is my blog and I can post more or less what I want, I am going to share some thoughts about it with you folks.

Isaacson is a long-time journalist who is the former editor of Time Magazine, former president and CEO of CNN, and former president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He’s also written a number of books, including biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, which I have read previously. When his biography of Leonardo came out, I grabbed it, but then didn’t get around to reading it for several years, because, you know, stuff.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of those characters from history who has become iconic. He’s a name that almost everyone knows — he’s the guy who painted the Mona Lisa, and painted The Last Supper, and invented helicopters and drew that naked dude in a circle. Dan Brown borrowed some of the mythology and legend and conspiracies surrounding Leonardo and turned it into a best selling series of books. He’s viewed as the prototypical polymath, the literal Renaissance Man.

I knew about Leonardo generally, the way you pick up things from the overall zeitgeist ether, but very little about his life, which is part of why I was prompted to check this book out. And Isaacson’s book doesn’t disappoint in that regard — despite the difficulties involved in writing about someone who died over a half millenium ago, Isaacson fleshes out Leonardo the person, his upbringing, his day to day life, while being clear about where there are conflicting accounts, where reports are second- or third- or nth-hand, and what source some piece of information is coming from. In doing so, Isaacson generally indicates his view on the reliability of a given portion of the narrative, while also providing enough background on the sourcing to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions, as well.

Leonardo the human, rather than the Avatar of Science, comes across vividly. The correspondence and contemporary reports paint a picture of an artistic genius, one whose perfectionist tendencies and distracted work style often vexed his patrons and, in some cases, resulted in Leonardo never actually delivering commissioned works, instead working on them, wanting to continue to improve them, not feeling that they were finished, up to his death. One also follows Leonardo on his perpetual quest for patronage, the need for an artist of the time to be provided space, material, and funds necessary for them to set up shop, retain assistants, and make the magic happen.

One of the striking things here is the window into how Leonardo’s mind worked — the genius that seemed to so often not be able to finish works because his research and preparation for the project resulted in him being sidetracked, as he would become more interested in a topic he was examining in connection with that work than in the original project itself, and would find himself diving into that new issue to the point of ignoring or abandoning the underlying project that had him looking at that topic in the first place. One finds oneself frustrated at all the ideas that Leonardo seized, examined, but ultimately left unfinished, wondering what he could have accomplished with more follow-through and a willingness to stay on task. The flip side of that, though, is that Leonardo’s genius didn’t work that way — if it did, he wouldn’t have been the brilliant artist who saw and seized on things others didn’t.

The print version of the book is almost 700 pages, though as one would expect, given the subject, much of that is illustrations, and Isaacson spends a good deal of time examining excerpts from Leonardo’s surviving notebooks — the priceless manuscripts and codices that are in museums and collections today. Leonardo was an inveterate notetaker who wrote and drew constantly throughout his life, and who filled each page of his notebook with often unrelated sketches, notes and observations. Thousands of pages from his personal notebooks have been lost to history, but those that survive provide remarkable insight. Isaacson emphasizes Leonardo’s incredible attention to detail and his ability to glean insight from meticulously close and detailed observation of nature, much of which is documented in his notes.

As someone who is not particularly familiar with art or art history, one of the things that was most fascinating was reading about the scrupulous attention to detail in Leonardo’s work, the painstaking preparations he made to, for example, ensure that the foliage in the background of a painting was the species of flora that would be present in that location at that season. Leonardo is known for his study of anatomy and his anatomical drawings. Isaacson looks at the extent to which those studies, the dissecting of bodies and examination of muscles and tissues, was to better understand how the human body moved and worked, so as to more accurately depict living creatures in his paintings.

Leonardo’s major works get close study in this book, and Isaacson does a tremendous job in showing how Leonardo’s art was informed by his scientific studies. He also delves into Leonardo’s specific techniques, his distinctive cross-hatching, and the groundbreaking use he made of light and shadow in his paintings. I found the explanations of the works and the creation process, the specifics that made his work so groundbreaking, to be the most engrossing part of the book.

“Leonardo da Vinci” is a lengthy read, but I found it engaging and well worth the time. If you’re interesting in art, science or genius, you might want to check it out.

Finally, here’s Scottish comedienne Eleanor Morton’s video, “Leonard da Vinci reads his hate mail”: