Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Isaacson's Magnificent Leonardo

One of the books I have read over the summer is Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson is probably best known for his highly-acclaimed authorised biography of Steve Jobs (which I would strongly recommend even to those who have no particular interest in Apple or its products), and he has excelled once again.

This book traces Leonardo's life from his illegitimate birth in Vinci, his apprenticeship to the painter Verrocchio in Florence, and his productive years in Milan, Rome and eventually France. We all know Leonardo was a brilliant polymath but Isaacson presents a level of detail about the great man's discoveries - in the fields as diverse as geometry, biology, irrigation, military machines, flight and the human body - that is fascinating. I knew about Leonardo's prototype flying machines and submarine, but Isaacson reveals far more obscure discoveries of the great man, many of which were only rediscovered centuries later - the most astonishing being an accurate description of the functioning of the human aortic valve that was only conclusively validated in 2014!

The author doesn't just capture Leonardo's achievements, he tells us much about the great artist and inventor as a man. Leonardo was gay at a time and in a place that was almost as tolerant as our own and, with the help of generous patrons, he had the space to pursue his art and science relatively free from harassment. We learn about Salai, the companion and lover Leonardo had for much of his adult life (and the subject of so many of his drawings), his difficult relationship with his father and his legitimate brothers, his popularity in the social elites of the cities in which he lived, and his love for sartorial finery.

Isaacson captures the important elements of Leonardo's character - particularly his obsessional pursuit of knowledge - that drove his many discoveries but which meant he finished few projects, much to the frustration of his patrons. However, the projects he did complete benefited from his incredibly detailed knowledge across so many fields. His studies of human anatomy, light and perspective are what made his paintings, particularly his portraits such as the sublime Mona Lisa, some of the greatest works of art of all time. Indeed, Isaacson concludes the book with a section 'Learning from Leonardo' in which he compares the traits he identifies in Leonardo - such as relentless curiosity and the ability to 'see the unseen' - with those of Jobs and Einstein (about whom he has also written). 

This is a book you have to buy in hardcover. It is beautifully produced with more than 500 glossy pages interspersed with full colour prints of Leonardo's greatest paintings, drawings and manuscripts, and is well worth the price.

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