"He was history's most creative genius. What secrets can he teach us? The [bestselling biographer] brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography. Drawing 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. His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from standing at the intersection of the humanities and technology. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history's most memorable smile on the Mona Lisa. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper. Isaacson also describes how Leonardo's lifelong enthusiasm for staging theatrical productions informed his paintings and inventions. His ability to combine art and science, made iconic by his drawing of what may be himself inside a circle and a square, remains the enduring recipe for innovation. His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it; to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different."--Jacket.
This biography of Leonardo Da Vinci was enlightening to me, because while I was certainly familiar with much of his life and work, there were certainly aspects of which I was completely in the dark. In addition, this was much more than a biography. The author, Walter Isaacson, has written biographies of Albert Einstein, Steven Jobs and Benjamin Franklin (do I detect a trend?). In this book, not only does he cover all of the basics of any biography, he applies in-depth critique of much of Da Vinci's work.
Like the previous subjects of Isaacson’s work, Da Vinci was an unquestioned genius, one of the greatest of any era. The depth and breadth of his interests and achievements remain unprecedented in human history. One thing I learned from this biography was the fact that a majority of Da Vinci’s work was never finished. Many of his musings and projects were purely fantastic and speculative, though ground breaking at the time. His studies of lighting, perspective, anatomy, hydraulics and optics were sometimes centuries ahead of their time and played a large role in the success of his art work.
I would be remiss if I failed to comment on the quality of the book itself. It includes numerous, high quality illustrations of Da Vinci’s most famous works of art, as well as dozens of pages from his incredibly detailed and diverse notebooks. The paper quality is extra glossy and very thick, resulting in a 600 page book that feels like it weighs ten pounds. I’m not sure how this translates to Kindle, but at under $20, this is a library quality tome that will display well in printed form, and speak well of its owner.
Beautiful printing job. Really nice paper, enough so that I couldn't bring myself to mark errors or make marginal comments. Coated stock favors fine color reproductions of works. I liked the detailed descriptive explanations of the paintings and drawings and the emphasis on placing them within their physical, historical, and biographical contexts. I also learned some things that I have since applied in the art classes I take, such as the reason for the use of sfumato techniques (blurring the edges of things), and in looking at the work of other artists, such as their treatment of perspective and their rendering of movement.
A few quotes I liked:
Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won't be. (page 4)
The glory of being an artist, [Leonardo] realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain. (page 47)
Any person who puts 'Describe the tongue of the woodpecker' on his to-do list is overendowed with the combination of curiosity and acuity. (page 178)
This is the heart of Leonardo's philosophy: the replication and relationships of the patterns of nature, from the cosmic to the human. (page 487)
On the other hand, in addition to numerous dubious word choices (fulsome, bevy, enormity), we have egregious sentences like this one, which mixes no fewer than six metaphors:
Leonardo's willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections. (page 363)
We also have, in the course of more than 600 pages, some pertinent things that are overexplained and some that are never explained at all. For instance, I had to go elsewhere and dig around on the internet to find out what he meant by "nutcracker man," a term he used over and over but never defined.
Random curious fact: The Mona Lisa's eyebrows may have been lost. They were described in detail by a contemporary. The painting was done in many layers, and they may have been taken off during a cleaning, an explanation that makes more sense than that Leonardo left them off or that the sitter didn't have any.
I liked Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs a lot, and I grant that this one tackles a much more difficult and complex subject. Although it gets bonus points for ambition, I still have to take off for ways in which it falls short of the mark. As is so often true for me, I wonder why the obviously high budget didn't spare more for editorial support.
Not that he wasn’t deserving; he was. He more than many others. Here are a few things I learned and loved about Leonardo -
> He was gay and almost out...as out as you could be at this time
> He eschewed religion, but paid it lip service as the times and patrons dictated
> He had a fine sense of frivolity and whimsy
> He invented musical instruments, but didn’t play them
> He didn’t complete a lot of paintings and left very few completed ones behind considering how revered he is as a painter
> He is the first person to have understood and explained that arteriosclerosis is a function of time
> He discovered that the blood itself makes heart valves work
> He was often distracted and did not complete a lot of his work, or else bring it to its most logical conclusion
> He hardly published anything
> Some paintings are lost as are some notebooks, but surprisingly a lot survived
Early on we understand that while Leonardo was a book buyer and had an extensive library, he wasn’t formally educated and considered it a benefit. He was of the opinion that rote learning stifled true discovery and thinking. He preferred to experiment and not just take someone else’s conclusions as the truth. Admirable and the genesis of the modern scientific method. It is too bad that he didn’t publish his findings as they could have been beneficial decades and even centuries before someone else found the same thing and it became commonly accepted or the de facto best practice.
An amazing person and an interesting book, but one that tried my patience at times.
1.) It is a great reference book. It is perfect to have around on a coffee table and share the gorgeous photos inside with family, friends, guests. Included are obviously the Mona Lisa and Last Supper, but also Michelangelo's David and Leonardo's many, many drawings and doodles. If you want to have one "show-off" book this is it. It is also a great gift.
2.) It is a great product. This edition is the epitome of a printed book. Pick it up - surprise! For its size, it's incredibly heavy. Why? The publisher wisely chose a particularly heavy paper stock, one that would do justice to the 144 illustrations. The cover, the four-page timeline of Leonardo's life, the cast of characters....all contribute to this first rate book. If you are browsing and come across this book, be sure to read the two paragraph Coda at page 525. It's incredibly fascinating, pay no attention to the subject matter, just read it. I would have used it as intro material.
3.) Though I am a huge Kindle fan and read most of my books on a Kindle I feel the hardbound version of "Leonardo" is the only one to read, mainly because of the color illustrations. And you will probably want to do a lot of flipping around.
Isaacson tells his story well, starting with Leonardo's early life as the bastard son of a well to do Florence notary. Throughout, the author does an excellent job of relating Leonardo's life within the context of life including politics, economics and entertainment of the times. Don't be put off by the length - many of the illustrations are full page and the 525 pages before Notes is actually 300 plus pages of text, very readable. The sheer volume of Leonardo art, studies and projects is staggering as is the frustration with his propensity to abandon so many uncompleted and undocumented. Reading the book I found it incredible that Leonardo discoveries continue even into the 21st century.
I know so little about art! This book made me fully aware of exactly how little.
What I did learn was how incredibly curious Leonardo was. How patient and how persistent. Now, I need to revisit the Mona Lisa....
The books starts stating that the word genius is greatly overused and ends making the point that Leonardo certainly deserves that designation.
Even Leonardo’s procrastination becomes seen as perfection being the enemy of good enough, and Leonardo’s way of letting his ideas percolate.
Da Vinci was a perfectionist and procrastinator. The Mona Lisa was a commission he never actually finished. Other commissions similar were never completed. One masterpiece, The Last Supper, started degrading after just 10 years. Many of his engineering projects were never realized. He was even a consultant on warfare, but his siege ideas were never implemented.
Unfortunately, the library audiobook doesn't include the PDF with all of the images referred to in the book. I might have to buy it because as good as this book was, it's probably 10x better with pictures.
Isaacson takes a chronological approach to Da Vinci’s life which began on April 15, 1452 near Florence until his death in Amboise, France, May 2, 1519.
What I retained from the story of his life were his insatiable curiosity, quest for knowledge, his perfectionism which led to procrastination and his ability to mingle the art of science and the science of art.
He filled notebooks with ideas, engineering experiments, anatomical drawings and shopping lists. His curiosity regarding the natural world, household inventories, the human body and basic engineering showed how his mind searched for answers to questions that amazed him. His obsession with how water flows inspired his engineering and architecture.
Dissecting corpses, drawing musculature, bones, fetuses allowed him to perfectly draw the human body and face.
His curiosity regarding the human blood circulation system and his conclusions regarding the function of the heart was centuries ahead of other scientists.
Da Vinci loved life, lived a very unconventional liberal lifestyle, was generous to his family, was almost always broke, had many friends and patrons and likely frustrated many of these with his inability to stay focused and finish projects.
He spent his final years in Amboise at a home owned by King François I who wanted this renaissance intellectual to be comfortable as the “first painter, engineer and architect to the King”.
Isaacson tells us little about who da Vinci was and focuses much more on what da Vinci did. He has absorbed da Vinci’s extensive writings that survive and has clearly been astonished at the breadth, depth, the sheer wonder of what he found. The range of subjects covered from arts and science, the depth of da Vinci’s studies and the juxtaposition of his notes on the page that reveal he was often thinking deeply about five different completely unrelated things at once and then drawing out that these things are actually related in some deep and previously unseen way.
This work led me to understand the artist and scientist in da Vinci better than any other biography of a similar figure has ever done. I was moved by Isaacson’s last chapter where he attempts to describe what genius is and how da Vinci’s character led him to be such a great man.
This book deserves a five star rating, but loses half a star because of the rather poor quality of the illustrations (of which there are many). Often Isaacson’s detailed descriptions of da Vinci’s paintings and drawings cannot be followed through the illustrations because the definition is too low - we cannot see the detail that both da Vinci and Isaacson want us to see.