Review of “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

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Leonardo da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson
600 pages
Simon & Schuster
Published: October 2017

“Leonardo da Vinci” is Walter Isaacson’s best-selling 2017 biography of the 15th century’s preeminent polymath and quintessential “Renaissance Man.” Isaacson is an author, journalist and professor at Tulane University who has also written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger.

Leonardo may be best known for painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper but his interests were wide-ranging: from anatomy and architecture to fluid mechanics, geometry and music. In addition to his paintings, more than 7,000 pages of his notebooks survive – filled with a remarkable assortment of drawings, sketches, notes, doodles and calculations. These provide the prospective biographer (or enthusiastic scholar) with with enough food for thought to last a lifetime.

Isaacson does a commendable job assembling as complete a narrative of Leonardo’s life as may be possible given that five centuries have passed since his death. But while he has made great use of the footprints his subject left behind, much about Leonardo’s inner-self and relationships remain opaque and mysterious. Fortunately, what Isaacson is able to convey of Leonardo’s personality is enthralling; the genius is both undeniably intriguing and refreshingly fallible.

The distillation of Isaacson’s thesis: that Leonardo was a genius with a unique talent for synthesizing science and art…and yet was indelibly prone to procrastination, perfectionism and distraction. Indeed, Leonardo’s unquenchable curiosity, keen eye for observation, remarkable talent for documenting and his cross-disciplinary competencies make him utterly fascinating.

What Isaacson gets right in this biography is impressive.  His narrative is consistently articulate and accessible and the reader often feels as though he or she is inside the author’s head (if not always his subject‘s). And the book’s “Introduction,” which provides a rationale for tackling this particular individual, is nothing if not enthralling. Anyone uninterested in learning more about Leonardo da Vinci after reading the first nine pages of this biography might be incapable of being impressed…or entranced.

While many biographies rigorously cover a subject’s life chronologically, Isaacson’s book proceeds more-or-less topically. After introducing Leonardo’s early life and apprenticeship the chapters tend to cover a particular work or series of works – but in a generally chronological order. And throughout these subject-oriented chapters the reader is provided liberal doses of insightful context and fascinating forensic analyses regarding each of Leonardo’s major works.

Isaacson’s observations regarding the evolution of Leonardo’s painting style and technique is also surprisingly interesting as is the focus on how Leonardo’s scientific interests and studies – of wave motion and human anatomy, for instance – influenced his artistic renderings. And one of this book’s bonus features: its high-quality glossy pages which enhance the nearly 150 paintings, drawing and sketches which have been reproduced for the reader…my apologies to anyone favoring an audio format!

But fans of traditional biographies who are not enamored with Renaissance Italy or art history will find a bones of contention. Leonardo’s character and personal relationships remain relatively elusive due to his reluctance to record his personal thoughts. Also, the book focuses more on painting and other artistic techniques than some will fully appreciate. Finally, the book ends with a chapter providing the author’s view of lessons we should take from Leonardo’s life. These aphorisms (such as “Retain a childlike sense of wonder” and “Let your reach exceed your grasp“) will seem out of place to many readers…and corny to a few.

Overall, though, Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci” is a wonderfully vibrant book (both physically and in its literary style) which does a remarkable job exploring the life of one of the world’s great creative geniuses. Readers who delight in traditional biographies might focus on what’s missing: more insight into Leonardo’s personal life, his most important relationships and his foibles. But for most, this book provides an excellent review of a remarkable – and remarkably fascinating – life.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars