Leonardo da Vinci

by Walter Isaacson

Hardcover, 2017




Simon & Schuster (2017), Edition: 1st Edition, 624 pages


"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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Meredy
Overall impression: It isn't magnificent, but it's solid and admirable enough. Lots of editorial slips. Also a fair amount of repetition. I wonder how much of the author's expertise is borrowed.

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.
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LibraryThing member santhony
I enjoy reading biographies and have discovered that many times, history can best be learned through study of the people who make it. You can study the Renaissance, but reading biographies of the leading figures of the period can many times give one a better understanding of the events and people of the period.

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.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
A very solid, well researched biography of the painter, sculptor, inventor, architect, and all around genius. Isaacson delves into the connections between Leonardo and his family, patrons, lovers, rivals, and subjects. In exploring the paintings, he employs a standard art historian approach, analyzing the works and how they demonstrate DaVinci's artistic development. I gained a better understanding and appreciation for the artist, and my knowledge of politics and society in Renaissance Italy was expanded. I listened to the book on audio, admirably read by the actor Alfred Molina. It came with a downloadable supplement that was helpful--but I'd recommend springing for the print version, if you can afford it.… (more)
LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Wonderful book with a great story to tell! The illustrations were well done and truly worth the high(er)-cost of this book. Leonardo's life story and personal history were captivating, and the author presented just the right amount of detail. The explanations were appropriate for both the art expert as well as the layman. I would highly recommend this book to any art-lover and to any lover of biographies. Isaacson is a master!… (more)
LibraryThing member maneekuhi

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.
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LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
An excellent biography that is somewhat non-traditional and not strictly chronological because out of necessity it focuses more on Leonardo's work than on biographical details. The solid information on his life is limited, but Isaacson makes up for it by wonderfully annotating his paintings and notebooks. Very well illustrated with Leonardo's work. The text ties into the illustrations beautifully. Four stars instead of five because the text is a little repetitious at times.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
I really enjoyed this book. Da Vinci was ahead of his time. he was passionate about learning and understanding the world. when his journals were studied it was found that his insights about nature were found to correct years later. his failing was that had no desire to put his thoughts into print.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
People throw around the word genius a lot these days and you can become pretty jaded about it. That’s why reading about someone as staggeringly brilliant as Leonardo can be a bit exhausting. Not only is it the sheer number of things he pioneered or perfected, but the detail Isaacson goes into. That is the main reason it took me most of a year to finish this book. Another is that it is a bit repetitive in the sense that his paintings, studies, notebooks and life circumstances didn’t differ that much and all received the same breathless awe.

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.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Isaacson put Da Vinci into sharp focus for me, not simply relaying the details of his life but describing the interrelationships among Da Vinci's art, engineering and scientific endeavors. In that context, Da Vinci's achievements seem even more spectacular but did not need Isaacson's occasional direct interjection of his favorite opinions into the text. Of the three biographies of Isaacson's I have read this one surpassed his Franklin book but not his Steve Jobs book.… (more)
LibraryThing member deldevries
Excellent book that is enhanced with great writing. I particularly enjoyed the interaction of Da Vinci in history. Interacting with the father of double entry accounting, Pacioli, artists such as Michelangelo, traders and noblemen and rulers. Art, engineering, science, and religion. Walter Isaacson never believed that history should be dull and dusty. This book brings the era to life in full color.… (more)
LibraryThing member waldhaus1
An exploration of creativity, curiosity, and cooperation in the life of a unique contributor to our modern grasp of the world. From time to time the writer repeats himself, for instance when discussing authentication of Leonardo's works. A well told tale. Reasoning by analogy.
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.
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LibraryThing member Whiskey3pa
The physical product, hardbound, is a 5 star item. The writing is a 3 star, so it averaged to 4 stars. The collection of illustrations is tremendous, really fantastic, not so much the text. It is adequate writing but not rivetting. I felt the same about his Franklin book, so apparently the author and I are not a great fit.
LibraryThing member dasam
A biography written through the lens of Leonardo’s journals, this work by Isaacson is a comprehensive journey through the comprehensive but incomprehensible mind of a genius. Organizing by topic as much as chronology, Isaacson helps us see how Leonardo sought to understand all things and reveal the intersections and connections within.… (more)
LibraryThing member kayanelson
This book was excellent. I read it slowly so that I could savor every word. The book was very readable and Leonardo was an extremely interesting person. It must have been hard to be him. In today's world he probably would be under review for OCD or another type of mental illness. I learned so much and now I do want to step back and look at the world in a different way, stop and smell the roses!… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man, although not the first. Enamored with all things artistic, scientific, mathematical, and biological, he spent his life painting, engineering, and recording in his journals studies from the world around him. Only late in his life did he even leave Italy. His lifestyle was one that could be dangerous outside of enlightened communities, but such was his creative genius that he was a coveted associate of brutal warlords such as the Sforza's (Milan), the di Medici's (Florence) and the Borgia's (Valencia, Rome).

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.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Very readable recounting of a the life of a genius.
LibraryThing member readyreader
Long read, but very fascinating along with photos of his art and scientific data. It's not a quick read, but one to be savored and appreciated.
LibraryThing member pierthinker
Isaacson is a consummate biographer of scientific and technical men. This work on Leonardo da Vinci is a brilliant analysis of An exceptional man, someone who can easily be labelled ‘genius’.

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.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
Incredible book.
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....
LibraryThing member cakecop
Extremely well written by Isaacson. This book captures the importance of Leonardo's accomplishments. Most of the chapters filled me with excitement about Leonardo. This book represents the best in non-fiction biography.
LibraryThing member infjsarah
I listened to this on audio which might seem strange for a book where the illustrations matter but it actually works well. I don't know that I would have gotten through the detail when reading it but on audio it didn't matter so much. I did slightly speed up the narration as I found it a bit slow.
Like most people I know a little bit about Leonardo and I have seen some of the notebooks in the British Library but a little was all it was.
I now know a lot more and very interesting it was too. For a man who rarely completed anything he's pretty famous!!! Gives hope to all us procrastinators ;) Recommended read.
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LibraryThing member maryroberta
Okay, given could only rely on notebooks for most part. Not as good as other large scale biographies. Loved how much of a procrastinator LDV was. Remarkable for any time. Nice that was reading during whirlwind weekend in Rome.
LibraryThing member ajlewis2
This was a difficult book for me to get through, because there was so much detail about his art and how he did it and what it meant, etc. Those who want to know about that will find it in this book. There is also great detail about his life and the many other interests he had. That made it worth wading through the technical info about painting. One does get a chance to meet the man in this very comprehensive book.… (more)
LibraryThing member briandarvell
Great book about one of humanity’s all time great individuals. Isaacson does a great job illustrating Leonardo along with the world he lived in. My only desire is if there were even more images of the notebook pages as Isaacson described them.
LibraryThing member breic
I don't think this is a great biography. While Isaacson does a good job at giving both details and a high-level big picture, and at trying to draw lessons from Leonardo da Vinci's life, I don't think that he does a great job in giving us a feeling for Leonardo or his time (perhaps because of a dearth of sources), Isaacson isn't insightful when writing about da Vinci's art, and he has a strange penchant for quoting Steve Jobs.

Despite the flaws, though, I loved the book. Da Vinci was such an amazing person, truly inspirational. I learned so much. I don't know if the facts are on Wikipedia, but Isaacson does a good job tying them together into a strong narrative.

> Yet another prolonged attempt involved dividing a circle into many sectors, which he then subdivided into triangles and semicircles. He arranged these slices into a rectangle and repeated the process with smaller and smaller slices, approaching the limit of infinitely small triangles. His impulses prefigured those that would lead to the development of calculus, but Leonardo did not have the skills that allowed Leibniz and Newton to devise this mathematical study of change two centuries later.
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