He was history’s most creative genius. What secrets can he teach us?
The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography.
Based 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.
He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.
His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. 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.
Leonardo’s delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. 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.
Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Facebook: Walter Isaacson, Twitter: @WalterIsaacson
Date of Birth:May 20, 1952
Place of Birth:New Orleans, LA
Education:Harvard, B.A. in History and Literature, 1974; Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.
His family roots can be traced to the early 1300s, when his great-great-great-grandfather, Michele, practiced as a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, about seventeen miles west of Florence.I With the rise of Italy’s mercantile economy, notaries played an important role drawing up commercial contracts, land sales, wills, and other legal documents in Latin, often garnishing them with historical references and literary flourishes.
Because Michele was a notary, he was entitled to the honorific “Ser” and thus became known as Ser Michele da Vinci. His son and grandson were even more successful notaries, the latter becoming a chancellor of Florence. The next in line, Antonio, was an anomaly. He used the honorific Ser and married the daughter of a notary, but he seems to have lacked the da Vinci ambition. He mostly spent his life living off the proceeds from family lands, tilled by sharecroppers, that produced a modest amount of wine, olive oil, and wheat.
Antonio’s son Piero made up for the lassitude by ambitiously pursuing success in Pistoia and Pisa, and then by about 1451, when he was twenty-five, establishing himself in Florence. A contract he notarized that year gave his work address as “at the Palazzo del Podestà,” the magistrates’ building (now the Bargello Museum) facing the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government. He became a notary for many of the city’s monasteries and religious orders, the town’s Jewish community, and on at least one occasion the Medici family.1
On one of his visits back to Vinci, Piero had a relationship with an unmarried local peasant girl, and in the spring of 1452 they had a son. Exercising his little-used notarial handwriting, the boy’s grandfather Antonio recorded the birth on the bottom of the last page of a notebook that had belonged to his own grandfather. “1452: There was born to me a grandson, the son of Ser Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, at the third hour of the night [about 10 p.m.]. He bears the name Leonardo.”2
Leonardo’s mother was not considered worth mentioning in Antonio’s birth notation nor in any other birth or baptism record. From a tax document five years later, we learn only her first name, Caterina. Her identity was long a mystery to modern scholars. She was thought to be in her mid-twenties, and some researchers speculated that she was an Arab slave, or perhaps a Chinese slave.3
In fact, she was an orphaned and impoverished sixteen-year-old from the Vinci area named Caterina Lippi. Proving that there are still things to be rediscovered about Leonardo, the art historian Martin Kemp of Oxford and the archival researcher Giuseppe Pallanti of Florence produced evidence in 2017 documenting her background.4 Born in 1436 to a poor farmer, Caterina was orphaned when she was fourteen. She and her infant brother moved in with their grandmother, who died a year later, in 1451. Left to fend for herself and her brother, Caterina had a relationship in July of that year with Piero da Vinci, then twenty-four, who was prominent and prosperous.
There was little likelihood they would marry. Although described by one earlier biographer as “of good blood,”5 Caterina was of a different social class, and Piero was probably already betrothed to his future wife, an appropriate match: a sixteen-year-old named Albiera who was the daughter of a prominent Florentine shoemaker. He and Albiera were wed within eight months of Leonardo’s birth. The marriage, socially and professionally advantageous to both sides, had likely been arranged, and the dowry contracted, before Leonardo was born.
Keeping things tidy and convenient, shortly after Leonardo was born Piero helped to set up a marriage for Caterina to a local farmer and kiln worker who had ties to the da Vinci family. Named Antonio di Piero del Vacca, he was called Accattabriga, which means “Troublemaker,” though fortunately he does not seem to have been one.
Leonardo’s paternal grandparents and his father had a family house with a small garden right next to the walls of the castle in the heart of the village of Vinci. That is where Leonardo may have been born, though there are reasons to think not. It might not have been convenient or appropriate to have a pregnant and then breast-feeding peasant woman living in the crowded da Vinci family home, especially as Ser Piero was negotiating a dowry from the prominent family whose daughter he was planning to marry.
Instead, according to legend and the local tourist industry, Leonardo’s birthplace may have been a gray stone tenant cottage next to a farmhouse two miles up the road from Vinci in the adjacent hamlet of Anchiano, which is now the site of a small Leonardo museum. Some of this property had been owned since 1412 by the family of Piero di Malvolto, a close friend of the da Vincis. He was the godfather of Piero da Vinci and, in 1452, would be a godfather of Piero’s newborn son, Leonardo—which would have made sense if Leonardo had been born on his property. The families were very close. Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio had served as a witness to a contract involving some parts of Piero di Malvolto’s property. The notes describing the exchange say that Antonio was at a nearby house playing backgammon when he was asked to come over for that task. Piero da Vinci would buy some of the property in the 1480s.
At the time of Leonardo’s birth, Piero di Malvolto’s seventy-year-old widowed mother lived on the property. So here in the hamlet of Anchiano, an easy two-mile walk from the village of Vinci, living alone in a farmhouse that had a run-down cottage next door, was a widow who was a trusted friend to at least two generations of the da Vinci family. Her dilapidated cottage (for tax purposes the family claimed it as uninhabitable) may have been the ideal place to shelter Caterina while she was pregnant, as per local lore.6
Leonardo was born on a Saturday, and the following day he was baptized by the local priest at the parish church of Vinci. The baptismal font is still there. Despite the circumstances of his birth, it was a large and public event. There were ten godparents giving witness, including Piero di Malvolto, far more than the average at the church, and the guests included prominent local gentry. A week later, Piero da Vinci left Caterina and their infant son behind and returned to Florence, where that Monday he was in his office notarizing papers for clients.7
Leonardo left us no comment on the circumstances of his birth, but there is one tantalizing allusion in his notebooks to the favors that nature bestows upon a love child. “The man who has intercourse aggressively and uneasily will produce children who are irritable and untrustworthy,” he wrote, “but if the intercourse is done with great love and desire on both sides, the child will be of great intellect, witty, lively, and lovable.”8 One assumes, or at least hopes, that he considered himself in the latter category.
He split his childhood between two homes. Caterina and Accattabriga settled on a small farm on the outskirts of Vinci, and they remained friendly with Piero da Vinci. Twenty years later, Accattabriga was working in a kiln that was rented by Piero, and they served as witnesses for each other on a few contracts and deeds over the years. In the years following Leonardo’s birth, Caterina and Accattabriga had four girls and a boy. Piero and Albiera, however, remained childless. In fact, until Leonardo was twenty-four, his father had no other children. (Piero would make up for it during his third and fourth marriages, having at least eleven children.)
With his father living mainly in Florence and his mother nurturing a growing family of her own, Leonardo by age five was primarily living in the da Vinci family home with his leisure-loving grandfather Antonio and his wife. In the 1457 tax census, Antonio listed the dependents residing with him, including his grandson: “Leonardo, son of the said Ser Piero, non legittimo, born of him and of Caterina, who is now the woman of Achattabriga.”
Also living in the household was Piero’s youngest brother, Francesco, who was only fifteen years older than his nephew Leonardo. Francesco inherited a love of country leisure and was described in a tax document by his own father, in a pot-calling-the-kettle way, as “one who hangs around the villa and does nothing.”9 He became Leonardo’s beloved uncle and at times surrogate father. In the first edition of his biography, Vasari makes the telling mistake, later corrected, of identifying Piero as Leonardo’s uncle.
“A GOLDEN AGE FOR BASTARDS”
As Leonardo’s well-attended baptism attests, being born out of wedlock was not a cause for public shame. The nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt went so far as to label Renaissance Italy “a golden age for bastards.”10 Especially among the ruling and aristocratic classes, being illegitimate was no hindrance. Pius II, who was the pope when Leonardo was born, wrote about visiting Ferrara, where his welcoming party included seven princes from the ruling Este family, among them the reigning duke, all born out of wedlock. “It is an extraordinary thing about that family,” Pius wrote, “that no legitimate heir has ever inherited the principate; the sons of their mistresses have been so much more fortunate than those of their wives.”11 (Pius himself fathered at least two illegitimate children.) Pope Alexander VI, also during Leonardo’s lifetime, had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children, one of whom was Cesare Borgia, who became a cardinal, commander of the papal armies, an employer of Leonardo, and the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
For members of the middle classes, however, illegitimacy was not as readily accepted. Protective of their new status, merchants and professionals formed guilds that enforced moral strictures. Although some of the guilds accepted the illegitimate sons of their members, that was not the case with the Arte dei Giuduci e Notai, the venerable (founded in 1197) guild of judges and notaries to which Leonardo’s father belonged. “The notary was a certified witness and scribe,” Thomas Kuehn wrote in Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. “His trustworthiness had to be above reproach. He had to be someone fully in the mainstream of society.”12
These strictures had an upside. Illegitimacy freed some imaginative and free-spirited young men to be creative at a time when creativity was increasingly rewarded. Among the poets, artists, and artisans born out of wedlock were Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, his son Filippino, Leon Battista Alberti, and of course Leonardo.
Being born out of wedlock was more complex than merely being an outsider. It created an ambiguity of status. “The problem with bastards was that they were part of the family, but not totally,” wrote Kuehn. That helped some be, or forced them to be, more adventurous and improvisational. Leonardo was a member of a middle-class family but separate from it. Like so many writers and artists, he grew up feeling a part of the world but also detached. This limbo extended to inheritance: a combination of conflicting laws and contradictory court precedents left it unclear whether a son born out of wedlock could be an heir, as Leonardo was to find out in legal battles with his half-brothers many years later. “Management of such ambiguities was one of the hallmarks of life in a Renaissance city-state,” explained Kuehn. “It was related to the more celebrated creativity of a city like Florence in the arts and humanism.”13
Because Florence’s guild of notaries barred those who were non legittimo, Leonardo was able to benefit from the note-taking instincts that were ingrained in his family heritage while being free to pursue his own creative passions. This was fortunate. He would have made a poor notary: he got bored and distracted too easily, especially when a project became routine rather than creative.14
Another upside for Leonardo of being born out of wedlock was that he was not sent to one of the “Latin schools” that taught the classics and humanities to well-groomed aspiring professionals and merchants of the early Renaissance.15 Other than a little training in commercial math at what was known as an “abacus school,” Leonardo was mainly self-taught. He often seemed defensive about being an “unlettered man,” as he dubbed himself with some irony. But he also took pride that his lack of formal schooling led him to be a disciple of experience and experiment. “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia,”16 he once signed himself. This freethinking attitude saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking. In his notebooks he unleashed a blast at what he called the pompous fools who would disparage him for this:
I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! . . . They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others. . . . They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe—but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.17
Thus was Leonardo spared from being trained to accept dusty Scholasticism or the medieval dogmas that had accumulated in the centuries since the decline of classical science and original thinking. His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years.
To that was added an intense desire and ability to observe the wonders of nature. He pushed himself to perceive shapes and shadows with wondrous precision. He was particularly good at apprehending movement, from the motions of a flapping wing to the emotions flickering across a face. On this foundation he built experiments, some conducted in his mind, others with drawings, and a few with physical objects. “First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further,” he announced, “because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.”18
It was a good time for a child with such ambitions and talents to be born. In 1452 Johannes Gutenberg had just opened his publishing house, and soon others were using his moveable-type press to print books that would empower unschooled but brilliant people like Leonardo. Italy was beginning a rare forty-year period during which it was not wracked by wars among its city-states. Literacy, numeracy, and income were rising dramatically as power shifted from titled landowners to urban merchants and bankers, who benefited from advances in law, accounting, credit, and insurance. The Ottoman Turks were about to capture Constantinople, unleashing on Italy a migration of fleeing scholars with bundles of manuscripts containing the ancient wisdom of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, and Aristotle. Born within a year of Leonardo were Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who would lead an era of exploration. And Florence, with its booming merchant class of status-seeking patrons, had become the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism.
The most vivid memory Leonardo had of his infancy was one he recorded fifty years later, when he was studying the flight of birds. He was writing about a hawk-like bird called a kite, which has a forked tail and elegant long wings that allow it to soar and glide. Observing it with his typical acuity, Leonardo perceived precisely how it opened its wings and then spread and lowered its tail when it landed.19 This aroused a memory from when he was a baby: “Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since among the first recollections of my infancy, it seemed to me that, as I was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.”20 Like much of what came from Leonardo’s mind, there was probably some fantasy and fabulism in the brew. It is hard to imagine a bird actually landing in a cradle and prying open a baby’s mouth with its tail, and Leonardo appears to acknowledge this by using the phrase “it seemed to me,” as if it were perhaps partly a dream.
All of this—a childhood with two mothers, an often absent father, and a dreamlike oral encounter with a flapping tail—would provide great fodder for a Freudian analyst. And it did—from Freud himself. In 1910 Freud used the kite tale as the foundation for a short book, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.21
Freud got off to a stumbling start by using a poor German translation of Leonardo’s note that mistakenly called the bird a vulture rather than a kite. This sent him into a long tangential explanation about the symbolism of vultures in ancient Egypt and the etymological relationship of the words for vulture and mother, all of which was irrelevant and, Freud later admitted, embarrassing.22 Leaving aside the bird mix-up, the main thrust of Freud’s analysis was that the word for tail in many languages, including Italian (coda), is slang for “penis” and that Leonardo’s memory was related to his homosexuality. “The situation contained in the fantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio,” Freud wrote. Leonardo’s repressed desires, he speculated, were channeled into his feverish creativity, but he left many works unfinished because he was inhibited.
These interpretations have prompted some devastating critiques, most famously by art historian Meyer Schapiro,23 and they seem, at least to me, to reveal more about Freud than about Leonardo. Biographers should be cautious about psychoanalyzing someone who lived five centuries earlier. Leonardo’s dreamlike memory may have simply reflected his lifelong interest in the flight of birds, which is how he framed it. And it does not take a Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality,” he wrote in one of his notebooks.24
A better source for insight into Leonardo’s formative character and motivations is another personal memory he recorded, this one about hiking near Florence. The recollection involved chancing upon a dark cave and pondering whether he should enter. “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”25
Desire won. His unstoppable curiosity triumphed, and Leonardo went into the cave. There he discovered, embedded in the wall, a fossil whale. “Oh mighty and once-living instrument of nature,” he wrote, “your vast strength was to no avail.”26 Some scholars have assumed that he was describing a fantasy hike or riffing on some verses by Seneca. But his notebook page and those surrounding it are filled with descriptions of layers of fossil shells, and many fossilized whale bones have in fact been discovered in Tuscany.27
The whale fossil triggered a dark vision of what would be, throughout his life, one of his deepest forebodings, that of an apocalyptic deluge. On the next side of the sheet he described at length the furious power once held by the long-dead whale: “You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships.” Then he turned philosophical. “Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kings, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished.”
By this point Leonardo’s fears were about a realm far different from whatever dangers might be lurking inside the cave. Instead they were driven by an existential dread in the face of the destructive powers of nature. He began scribbling rapidly, using a silverpoint on a red-tinted page, describing an apocalypse that begins with water and ends with fire. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die,” he wrote. “In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.”28
The dark cave that Leonardo’s curiosity compelled him to enter offered up both scientific discoveries and imaginative fantasies, strands that would be interwoven throughout his life. He would weather storms, literally and psychologically, and he would encounter dark recesses of the earth and soul. But his curiosity about nature would always impel him to explore more. Both his fascinations and his forebodings would be expressed in his art, beginning with his depiction of Saint Jerome agonizing near the mouth of a cave and culminating in his drawings and writings about an apocalyptic deluge.
I. Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes incorrectly called “da Vinci,” as if that were his last name rather than a descriptor meaning “from Vinci.” However, the usage is not as egregious as some purists proclaim. During Leonardo’s lifetime, Italians increasingly began to regularize and register the use of hereditary surnames, and many of these, such as Genovese and DiCaprio, derived from family hometowns. Both Leonardo and his father, Piero, frequently appended “da Vinci” to their names. When Leonardo moved to Milan, his friend the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni referred to him in writing as “Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine.”
Main Characters xi
Currency in Italy in 1500 xiii
Note Regarding the Cover xiii
Primary Periods of Leonardo's Life xiii
Introduction I Can Also Paint 1
Chapter 1 Childhood 11
Chapter 2 Apprentice 23
Chapter 3 On His Own 68
Chapter 4 Milan 91
Chapter 5 Leonardo's Notebooks 105
Chapter 6 Court Entertainer 112
Chapter 7 Personal Life 129
Chapter 8 Vitruvian Man 140
Chapter 9 The Horse Monument 160
Chapter 10 Scientist 170
Chapter 11 Birds and Flight 181
Chapter 12 The Mechanical Arts 190
Chapter 13 Math 200
Chapter 14 The Nature of Man 212
Chapter 15 Virgin of the Rocks 223
Chapter 16 The Milan Portraits 236
Chapter 17 The Science of Art 260
Chapter 18 The Last Supper 279
Chapter 19 Personal Turmoil 293
Chapter 20 Florence Again 299
Chapter 21 Saint Anne 315
Chapter 22 Paintings Lost and Found 325
Chapter 23 Cesare Borgia 335
Chapter 24 Hydraulic Engineer 347
Chapter 25 Michelangelo and the Lost Battles 355
Chapter 26 Return to Milan 380
Chapter 27 Anatomy, Round Two 394
Chapter 28 The World and Its Waters 425
Chapter 29 Rome 444
Chapter 30 Pointing the Way 463
Chapter 31 The Nona Lisa 475
Chapter 32 France 495
Chapter 33 Conclusion 517
CODA Describe the tongue of the woodpecker 525
Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources 527
Illustration Credits 571
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'DonnellThe Barnes & Noble Review
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
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
★ 09/11/2017Publishers Weekly
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.)
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.starred review Booklist
"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
“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."
“Exuberant . . . a richly illustrated ride through the artist’s life . . . a fascinating, bonbon-size tribute to the man who thought to ask.”
“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.”
“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.”
"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."
"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 BEASTFrom the Publisher
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.David McCullough
★ 10/15/2017Library Journal
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
★ 2017-09-03Kirkus Reviews
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.