Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci

Before reading this biography I'll admit I didn't know a lot about Leonardo da Vinci other than being the painter of the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man. Now I know he was a true Renaissance man—arguably the first Renaissance man—and a man ahead of his time. Centuries before minds like Newton, Galileo, Bernoulli, and Valsalva were experimenting, da Vinci was discovering concepts in a huge number of fields: relativity, motion, metallurgy, fluid dynamics, cartography, anatomy, optics, geology, ichnology, and even stagecraft just to name a few. The reason we don't associate Leonardo with all these topics is that he largely kept his discoveries in his personal notebooks rather than publishing. When he died these notebooks were scattered amongst collectors, not being catalogued and available for general study until well after other luminaries had rediscovered what he already knew.

Isaacson does an amazing job examining much of da Vinci's art in detail, discussing the approach to light and shade, perspective, and color and pointing out how the pursuit of science (especially anatomy and geology) was accurately reflected in his work. While impressed at the detail, I admit that after the first few my eyes would glaze over a bit as it all seemed a bit repetitive; I apparently don't have the right genes to truly appreciate art at this level. I much more enjoyed the history of the paintings, learning which pieces were actually finished (not many!) and which have been lost to time.

Many, many of Leonardo's notebook pages are reproduced here as well, and these are the true heart of the book. The detail in everything from horses in motion to deconstructed machines to muscular and skeletal body parts is both amazing and beautiful. His notes are on nearly every page as well, sometimes right over the drawings or in the margins. da Vinci wrote in mirror script (right to left) and in Italian, giving even a simple paragraph a look of beauty.

Isaacson's admiration for da Vinci's genius shines through nearly every page, causing a sense of wonder for the reader. Weighing in at over 500 pages this isn't a quick read, but well worth the time it takes. I could have done with less art criticism and more actual history (topics like his homosexuality and his intense rivalry with Michelangelo are only briefly covered, and the oft-changing politics of Europe at this time even less so) but this is still a wonderful book.

First Sentence:
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.

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