Leonardo da Vinci -- bearded sage of the Renaissance, anatomist, engineer, inventor, and creator of two of the most famous paintings in history (
Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) -- was first and foremost a mensch. He was, according to an acquaintance, handsome and kind, a gay vegetarian, "friendly, precise, and generous, with a radiant, graceful expression." By temperament he was the opposite of his surly contemporary Michelangelo, whom he found difficult to like. As Leonardo strolled through the markets of fifteenth-century Milan and Florence, he bought caged birds just to set them free. Although an air of mystery surrounds Leonardo -- the backward mirror handwriting, the conspiracy theories -- he himself is no mystery to us. Search for his name in a card catalog and you will find every type of monograph, from scientific analyses of the canvases to studies of his place in Western art. There are also many, many biographies, ranging from the intensely scholarly to those aimed at everyday readers. Yet Walter Isaacson, the celebrated biographer of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, has shown with a slight shift in emphasis and sheer writerly talent that another life is indeed welcome. To Isaacson, Leonardo was less a painter or a Renaissance man than an avatar of creativity itself. Isaacson's engaging, sumptuously illustrated Leonardo da Vinci is an outstanding popular biography that presents a Leonardo for the era of the TED talk and the innovation guru. Where others have focused on the paintings, Isaacson returns again and again to the notebooks. Leonardo always kept a small journal tied to his belt and used it for jotting ideas, to-do-lists, sketches, and reminders to himself. There are some 7,200 existing pages, bound into codices and revealing the preoccupations of a digressive and curious mind. "Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle." "Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled." "Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders." "Observe the goose's foot." "Describe the tongue of the woodpecker." This last injunction seems to have charmed Isaacson, who presents it as a paradigm of Leonardo's relentless curiosity. He was, writes Isaacson, "among the handful of people in history who tried to know all there was to know about everything that could be known." The notebooks contain extraordinary sketches. There were bridge designs, anatomical drawings, studies of water, blueprints for the layout of cities, portraits, caricatures, and detailed plans for flying machines and countless other contraptions. Some of these became inventions or proto-inventions, like an odometer and a lyre. Others are simply lovely as artistic conceptions. One critic called Leonardo's famous sketch of a fetus in utero as "for me the most beautiful work of art in the world." Betraying a point of view that may have to do with his writing about Steve Jobs and other titans of the digital age, Isaacson notes that Leonardo devised "new methods for the visual display of information." For instance, he pioneered the "exploded" diagram, which shows in three dimensions the separate and interlocking parts of a contraption or physiological structure, like the spinal column. Leonardo made these sketches in order to understand how the world worked. Isaacson writes that he "used drawing as a tool for thinking." With his focus on the notebooks, Isaacson bucks a sometime trend in Leonardo studies. The eminent art historian Kenneth Clark wrote in 1974, "The greater part of Leonardo's notebooks are remarkably uninteresting in themselves," especially when he was merely diagramming "some elementary machinery."_ Isaacson could not disagree more; to him the notebooks are "the greatest record of curiosity ever created." This gets at a persistent criticism of Leonardo as too digressive, too easily distracted: Stop doodling and finish a painting! One of Leonardo's earliest biographers wrote that "he never finished any of the works he began because, so sublime was his idea of art, he saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles." If we are to view Leonardo strictly as a painter, then his tangents and diversions indeed kept him from his work. But if we view him instead as a humanist, as Isaacson does, each woodpecker's tongue only brightens the kaleidoscope. But Isaacson does not neglect Leonardo's paintings. The book is generous in color reproductions of Leonardo's masterworks and provides thoughtful discussions of each. Isaacson ably covers controversies about provenance, the role of Leonardo's collaborators and students, and his pioneering techniques to represent color and light -- especially his use of sfumato, or blurred shadows, rather than hard lines. Isaacson is not a professional art critic, but most readers will not pick up this book seeking Olympian judgments. And sometimes a writer beats an art critic at his own game. Isaacson beautifully describes Leonardo's obsession with the image of a pointing finger, especially in his Saint John the Baptist: "In his last decade, Leonardo is mesmerized by that gesture, the signal of tidings borne by a mysterious guide who has come to show us the way." He might well have been describing his subject. Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.
Reviewer: Michael O'Donnell
The Barnes & Noble Review
Walter Isaacson follows dozens of clues to reanimate Leonardo da Vinci…Without fuss and without Freud…Isaacson uses his subject's contradictions to give him humanity and depth…As Isaacson follows Leonardo from one locale and occupation to another, his energy never fails and his curiosity never dims. Again and again he turns up a surprising and revelatory detail…Isaacson does not offer a seamless story. Nothing is simple in Leonardo studies. Historians of science debate the meaning and importance of his manuscripts, while historians of art and curators wrangle over the authenticity and chronology of his works…[Isaacson] puts on his professor's hat…and lucidly describes the controversies. This brave decision gives his book the character of a mosaic, assembled piece by piece, rather than a smooth frescoand makes it far more instructive than a simple narrative could ever have been.
The New York Times Book Review - Anthony Grafton
Isaacson is at his finest when he analyzes what made Leonardo human…What endures after reading
Leonardo da Vinci is just how indifferent to glory the man was. He lived in a world of his private obsessions. He often despaired over his failure to get anything done. ("Tell me if ever I did a thing," he wrote in his notebooks.) What a gift that he did; what a gift that we know him at all.
The New York Times - Jennifer Senior
Praising the subject of this illuminating biography as “history’s most creative genius,” Isaacson (The Innovators) uses observations and insights in the 7,200 extant pages of notes Leonardo da Vinci left behind as interpretive touchstones for assessing the artist’s life and work. The key to da Vinci’s genius as an innovator, as Isaacson presents it, was his “ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities, and technology” coupled with “an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy.” Proceeding chronologically through the artist’s life—from his apprenticeship at age 14 in Florence under Andrea del Verrochio to his later years in the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan and his death in France in 1519—Isaacson shows how da Vinci’s inquisitiveness set him apart from his contemporaries but frequently distracted him from completing commissions or projects. The author portrays da Vinci’s minor works and major works such as Vitruvian Man and The Last Supper as steps toward his execution of Mona Lisa, “a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion” that represents “the culmination of a life spent perfecting an ability to stand at the intersection of art and nature.” Isaacson’s scholarship is impressive—he cites not only primary sources but secondary materials by art critics, essayists, and da Vinci’s other biographers. This is a monumental tribute to a titanic figure. Color illus. (Oct.)
"As always, [Isaacson] writes with a strongly synthesizing intelligence across a tremendous range; the result is a valuable introduction to a complex subject. . . . Beneath its diligent research, the book is a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it. . . . Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life."
— The New Yorker “To read this magnificent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is to take a tour through the life and works of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time and in the company of the most engaging, informed, and insightful guide imaginable. Walter Isaacson is at once a true scholar and a spellbinding writer. And what a wealth of lessons there are to be learned in these pages." —David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Wright Brothers and 1776 “Isaacson’s essential subject is the singular life of brilliance. . . . Isaacson deftly reveals an intimate Leonardo . . . a masterpiece of concision.” — San Francisco Chronicle “I’ve read a lot about Leonardo over the years, but I had never found one book that satisfactorily covered all the different facets of his life and work. Walter—a talented journalist and author I’ve gotten to know over the years—did a great job pulling it all together. . . . More than any other Leonardo book I’ve read, this one helps you see him as a complete human being and understand just how special he was.” — Bill Gates “A captivating narrative about art and science, curiosity and discipline.” —Adam Grant, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of Originals “He comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson’s ambitious new biography . . . a vigorous, insightful portrait of the world’s most famous portraitist...Isaacson’s purpose is a thorough synthesis, which he achieves with flair.” — The Washington Post “Walter Isaacson is a renaissance man. . . . Rather like Leonardo, he’s driven by a joyful desire to discover. That joy bubbles forth in this magnificent book. In Isaacson, Leonardo gets the biographer he deserves—an author capable of comprehending his often frenetic, frequently weird quest to understand. This is not just a joyful book; it’s also a joy to behold. . . . Isaacson deserves immense praise for producing a very human portrait of a genius.” —The Times of London “The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable....Isaacson is at his finest when he analyzes what made Leonardo human.” —The New York Times “Monumental . . . Leonardo led an astonishingly interesting eventful life. And Isaacson brilliantly captures its essence.” — The Toronto Star "Majestic . . . Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. . . . Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review "Illuminating . . . This is a monumental tribute to a titanic figure." — Publishers Weekly, starred review “Isaacson uses his subject’s contradictions to give him humanity and depth.” —Anthony Grafton, The New York Times “Encompassing in its coverage, robust in its artistic explanations, yet written in a smart, conversational tone, this is both a solid introduction to the man and a sweeping saga of his genius.” — Booklist, starred review “A fresh and enthusiastic reading of the extraordinary da Vinci notebooks, written in a way that makes them both accessible and contemporary. Absorbing, enlightening and always engaging.” — Miranda Seymour, author of Mary Shelley “Isaacson's biography is linear enough to follow easily, yet it returns, as did the artist, time and again, to the highly concrete, enticingly yet rigorously investigable mysteries of the human and natural world. Model . . . . This beautiful book, on coated stock, showing text and illustrations to the best advantage, is a pleasure to hold.” —Bay Area Reporter “Isaacson, to his credit, helps us see Leonardo’s artistic vision with fresh eyes. . . . He writes simply and clearly, and even though his principal character hails from antiquity, the narrative hums like a headline from the morning paper, alert to topical parallels between then and now . . . we finish the book with a renewed conviction that the world’s most famous Renaissance man was, in essence, inimitable.” —Christian Science Monitor “A full and engrossing profile of the artist . . . The author moves fluidly between the scientific inquiries of Leonardo’s notebooks and the artistic achievements in his sketchbooks, and carries the same themes, such as the artist’s boundless curiosity and inquiry, through them in a way that does not seem too facile or overapplied.” —East Hampton Star “A 21st century page-turner." —USA Today “Exuberant . . . a richly illustrated ride through the artist’s life . . . a fascinating, bonbon-size tribute to the man who thought to ask.” — Newsday “Beautifully produced and illustrated, the biography is an ideal match of author and subject. . . . Fascinated by Leonardo’s genius, Isaacson lucidly and lovingly captures his stunning powers of observation that spanned so many disciplines. . . . Isaacson’s monumental and magnificent biography does succeed in helping us understand what made da Vinci’s paintings so memorable, and in making Leonardo much more accessible, as a genius, a man of and outside of his times, and as a 'quirky, obsessive, playful, and easily distracted' human being.” — Tulsa World “In some ways this is Walter Isaacson's most ambitious book. He uses the life he recounts in a wonderful way to speculate on the source of geniuses...always you are informed, entertained, stimulated, satisfied. This has to be the most beautifully illustrated and printed book I've seen in recent years.” —Fareed Zakaria GPS “[A] splendid work that provides an illuminating guide to the output of one of the last millennium’s greatest minds.” — Guardian US "Leonardo da Vinci's prowess as a polymath — driven by insatiable curiosity about everything from the human womb to deadly weaponry — still stuns. In this copiously illustrated biography, we feel its force all over again. Walter Isaacson wonderfully conveys how Leonardo's genius unified science and art." —NATURE "Dazzling" —HARVARD GAZETTE "Luminous . . . Leonardo Da Vinci is an elegantly illustrated book that broadens Isaacson’s viewfinder on the psychology of major lives – Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs are the subjects of his previous biographies, best-sellers all." —THE DAILY BEAST
Encompassing in its coverage, robust in its artistic explanations, yet written in a smart, conversational tone, this is both a solid introduction to the man and a sweeping saga of his genius.
To read this magnificent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is to take a tour through the life and works of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time and in the company of the most engaging, informed, and insightful guide imaginable. Walter Isaacson is at once a true scholar and a spellbinding writer. And what a wealth of lessons are to be learned in these pages—about the essential role of curiosity and the ability to observe closely, as just two examples. Bravo Walter Isaacson once again.
Acclaimed biographer Isaacson (Steve Jobs; The Innovators) delves into the 15th and 16th centuries to examine the insatiable energy of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Primarily relying on da Vinci's notebooks (more than 7,200 pages) for his research, as they help to understand da Vinci as a person, the author argues early and often that his subject was not the most brilliant man who ever lived, simply the most curious one. For example, in his journals, da Vinci reminds himself to "describe the tongue of the woodpecker." The illegitimate son of a wealthy notary in Vinci, a town outside Florence, Italy, da Vinci had a fascination with science and art from a young age. This melding of subjects was a main component of Renaissance life. This book examines da Vinci's birth, young adulthood, sexuality, works (e.g., The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa), and contemporaries such as Michelangelo and Cesare Borgia (on whom Machiavelli's The Prince was based). Lastly, Isaacson explores the polymath's enduring impact. The time line, illustrations, notes, and index help to make this work a great reference tool. VERDICT Fans of Isaacson's previous epic works, the Renaissance, and da Vinci will find this a must-read biography.—Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI
Alfred Molina’s narration is easy to follow as the author, drawing heavily on Leonardo da Vinci’s journals, describes the painter’s work as art built on a scaffold of science. He dissects several of da Vinci’s paintings and drawings to show how the artist’s insatiable curiosity manifested itself in his art and engineering. The author’s sometimes detailed passages seem natural, and Molina’s cultured accent adds to the listening pleasure without seeming like an affectation. His fluency with Italian names helps keep the reading flowing. The PDF is a visual treat and is referenced throughout the work, so listeners will want to refer to it regularly to get the full benefit of the author’s analysis. Nonetheless, the reading stands on its own. R.C.G. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2017, Portland, Maine
A majestic biography of "history's most creative genius."With many exceptional popular history books under his belt, Isaacson (History/Tulane Univ.; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, 2014, etc.) is close to assuming the mantle currently held by David McCullough. Here, Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. The author believes the term "genius" is too easily bandied about, but Leonardo (1452-1519), from the tiny village of Vinci, near Florence, was "one of the few people in history who indisputably deserved—or, to be more precise, earned—that appellation." He was self-taught and "willed his way to his genius." With joyous zest, Isaacson crafts a marvelously told story "of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical." Like a child in a candy store, Isaacson often stops to exclaim; he shares his enthusiasm, and it's contagious. For the author, the starting point are da Vinci's notebooks, all 7,200 pages, the "greatest record of curiosity ever created." Da Vinci's groundbreaking, detailed drawings charted the inner worlds of the skull, heart, muscles, brain, birds' wings, and a working odometer, along with doodles and numerous to-do lists. In his iconic Vitruvian Man, completed when he was 38 and struggling to learn Latin, "Leonardo peers at himself with furrowed brow and tries to grasp the secrets of his own nature." Isaacson is equally insightful with the paintings, of which there are few. The Last Supper is a "mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy." Regarding the uncompleted Mona Lisa, he writes "never in a painting have motion and emotion, the paired touchstones of Leonardo's art, been so intertwined." As Isaacson wisely puts it, we can all learn from Leonardo. Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.