Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Nine stars

“ How might you describe the tongue of a woodpecker?” And so it begins, in my ongoing attempt to learn more about important figures in history. This time, I turned to the latest biography by Walter Isaacson, exploring the life of Leonardo da Vinci. A man of many talents, da Vinci lived a full and exciting life as he sought to scratch the many itches that came to mind and paved the way for scores of significant discoveries. Isaacson offers a thorough and highly informative piece that will educate the reader without inflating the narrative with scores of minute facts. Isaacson presents da Vinci in three distinct lights throughout this piece: the animated artist, the inquisitive inventor, and the abstract anatomist, all of which are interconnected and help to better understand the man whose name is synonymous with so many things. Supported by an extensive collection of drawings, referenced throughout, Isaacson brings Leonardo da Vinci to life with this exceptional biography. Perfect for the curious mind and those who want a better understanding of art, history and symbolism without the dramatic scandal of a certain Robert Langdon.

Leonardo da Vinci was surely one of the most animated artists of his time, if not in history. Born a left-handed bastard during the golden days of those who were conceived out of wedlock, da Vinci found his early years to be ones of independent exploration. His father refused to legitimate him, nor did he push to have the young Leonardo follow in his footsteps as a notary, which left the young da Vinci to turn to one of the other important positions of the time, an apprenticeship with a local artist. Florence was a rich locale for art and da Vinci learned his trade from many who sought to teach him how to capture the human form. However, as Isaacson denotes throughout, da Vinci chose not to capture the ‘wooden’ nature of artists at the time and sought to forge his own path by injecting curves and softer depictions of canvas creations. As he grew older, da Vinci tried to instil those beliefs in his own apprentices, with a strong focus on detail and nuance to bring the portraits to life, without falling back on a ‘sack of walnuts’ when presenting images on canvas. Isaacson references something that da Vinci wrote in one of his journals, where the master artist is said to have expressed that painting is both artistic and scientific in nature, with shading and colours that helps capture the subject from all angles. Given some key backgrounds on a number of da Vinci’s key pieces of art, Isaacson provides the reader with something that will open the mind and lead to a number of questions. Biblical references and symbols fill many of da Vinci’s works, which cannot be lost on the attentive reader, though this is more than the controversial ideas Dan Brown offers in a piece of fiction. The eager reader will be happy to see that Isaacson spent an entire chapter analysing and positing the foundations of the famed Mona Lisa, as well as speaking to its intricate detail, which combines all three personas from the biography. It is clear that da Vinci’s art is both full of detail and animated in its own right, which provides the viewer a chance to thoroughly interpret it when taking the time to absorb his vast collections found all over the world. Surely the man’s art is innovative and worthy of deep exploration, without getting stuck on too many stuffy aspects.

The inquisitive nurture of da Vinci’s art work can easily be duplicated in his numerous inventions, as documented in his journals. At a time when the Renaissance was in full swing, da Vinci began to have many ideas about how he might be able to help with the new forms of artistic expression. Isaacson discusses da Vinci’s desire to help personalise some of the religious stage plays of the day, where angels had to fly from one end to the other, at a time when man and earth were sorrowfully bound together. The idea of flight and pulleys came to da Vinci, as he crafted these theoretical mechanisms. Hundreds of years ahead of his time, da Vinci had many ideas that would, at one time, find their way into the mainstream. Isaacson argues that da Vinci’s inventions could sometimes be practical means of filling a gap in what was on the market, but there were also strong influences (particularly anatomy) that left da Vinci full of questions, only to be solved by the development of some inventions to better understand concepts that were unknown to the scientific world. The reader will marvel at the extent to da Vinci’s innovative spirit, pushing the boundaries of what might be possible, all to help fill the void of his inquisitive nature. Not all of his inventions were meant to aid in artistic expression. There is surely a strong influence on the political happenings of the day—da Vinci had relationships with both the Borgia and Sforza families, vicious as they were—whereby war machines were devised. There is talk of tank-like structures and catapults to launch objects over palace walls, both ideas that would have been fostered by the bloody campaigns those two aforementioned families sought in their respective domains. The collection of drawings included in the biography permit the reader to marvel at the vast array of sketches and how da Vinci could have made a greater name for himself (as if he needed more notoriety). It is readily apparent that da Vinci’s innovative spirit was fuelled by a need to better understand the world around him, just as his art sought to open new means of expression at the dawn of the Renaissance. Well before his inventions could be formally created, da Vinci showed how his inquisitive nature was influenced by his thirst for knowledge, especially when he was parched and left to wonder about the inner workings of the human machine, the body!

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects that recurs throughout the biography is da Vinci’s love of all things anatomical. From the veins in the hands to the inner workings of a foetus and the valves of the heart, da Vinci was keen to dissect bodies to better understand the inner workings of various organs and systems. During a time when the Church was still wavering on the dissection of humans, da Vinci sought to open his horizons by exploring the inner workings of various animals, when human cadavers were not available. The desire to better comprehend the human body fuelled da Vinci’s desire to posit about the workings of organs and systems, at a time when nothing could be done ‘live’ or with the body still functioning. Isaacson explores da Vinci’s desire to better understand heart valves and the movement of blood, simply because he could not wrap his head around what might be going on. While he could devise a few experiments and reconstructed the heart, it was only in the 1960s that much of what da Vinci predicted could be proven entirely correct. Not only did da Vinci seek to explore the anatomy of the human body, he felt it essential to depict it in sketches from all angles. Without the ability to properly store the cadavers, da Vinci had only a short time to properly sketch the anatomical subjects. Some of these anatomy explorations surely led to inventions that made their way into da Vinci’s journals and also permitted some of the intricate detail found in numerous pieces of art, namely one of his most popular, the Vitruvian Man, where da Vinci showed extensive understanding of length proportions of the ‘perfect’ subject. Isaacson explores this in detail during part of the biography and may be of significant interest to the reader. Surely his biological curiosities made da Vinci’s creations better and provided the viewer with a better understanding of the realism the artist sought in his work. It is baffling not to look at all three aspects of Leonardo da Vinci now that I have taken the time to explore them, and see just how imbued his art and innovations were with all three perspectives.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the presentation of the biography and place Isaacson under the literary microscope. The thorough presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life helped create a better understanding of the man and his numerous endeavours. I will admit that I am not a major fan of art, nor do I pretend to understand the intricacies of paintings (gasp or toss the odd rotten tomato now). That being said, after reading this and viewing the countless images that Isaacson included in the book, I have a better understanding of the nuances that certain artists use, as well as the symbolism inherent for the viewer to better communicate with the artist. Isaacson takes the time to explain many of da Vinci’s influences, as well as fleshing out some of the symbols that da Vinci uses in his work. Referencing not only da Vinci’s work, but also scholarly references and fellow biographers, Isaacson provides a thorough narrative for the reader to better understand the man and some of his thinking. Adding the images to the book permits the reader to see, first hand, some of the sketches that da Vinci created at different times in his life, even if it creates an Olympic event to toggle between text and image (only made more difficult for those who used the audio version, such as myself). When referencing his various creations, having a visual compendium helps the reader to match something up with the narrative and brings the story to life in a new dimension. This enriches the experience and permits the reader to feel an active part of the process as the layers of da Vinci’s life become more apparent to the attentive reader. While some chapters are long, they ought not be daunting, as the narrative flows so well and the storytelling is second to none. Isaacson has spent as much time here as he did with some of his other key biographical pieces, all of which should be considered by the reader whose curiosity is not sated with this piece. And… as for that woodpecker question I posed to start this review, there’s a nugget of interest that da Vinci never fully explored, but Isaacson offers up.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson, for helping pave the way towards a better understanding of this key historical figure. You bring Leonardo da Vinci to life and help the reader want to know more, which is essential in a biographical piece.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons