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Thoughts from Linda:


Leonardo da Vinci

By Walter Isaacson, 2017

This book is one of the ‘Genius Series,’ which includes Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo. I find all of these to be page-turner books, as Isaacson is such a good teller of a story for starters and seems to find the most interesting points to notice. 

For example, in the Introduction to Leonardo, he tells a story that shows just how this amazing artist actually thought of himself. He recounts that at age 30, Leonardo applied for work in Milan and gave his credentials. He wrote a letter extolling his experience, never mentioning art, until the 11th paragraph of his accomplishments and skills. He ran through his skills in engineering, the design of bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and even public buildings before saying, “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.”

In researching this book, Isaacson took Leonardo’s advice on how to begin any investigation: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Thus, he traveled widely to see many originals of his work, including Madrid, wherein 1965, two Codices were discovered which had not been seen in over 200 years. They contain at least 10% of Leonardo’s writings. In addition, Isaacson immersed himself in doctoral dissertations and other works that other authors have not so thoroughly explored.

The result is this stunning biography of one of the most brilliant people in human history. When explaining his fascination with da Vinci, Isaacson notes that the most interesting of Leonardo's works that remain are the notebooks, including his ‘to do’ lists. There are 7,200 pages of Leonardo notes and scribbles that have survived, which reveal the mind of the person art historian Kenneth Clark called “the most relentlessly curious man in history.” You’ll learn about the interest in the “tongue of a woodpecker” as an excellent example of his curiosity just for the sake of knowing. By the way, it is indeed an interesting story of this seemingly innocuous bird.

Walter Isaacson is a son of New Orleans with a vast background. He is a graduate of Harvard, where he majored in history and literature as well as being a Rhodes Scholar. He took over as CEO of CNN two months before 9/11; he served as the Aspen Institute president and CEO and now is a professor at Tulane University.

The book is organized into 33 chapters, including ones devoted to The Last Supper, Virgin of the Rocks, and the Mona Lisa.

I particularly appreciated the chapter on Michelangelo and the Lost Battles. In this chapter, we learn more about his ability to convey emotions and learn of yet another example of a commissioned piece that he ultimately does not complete. He followed that pattern his entire life, and that is why we have so many ‘unfinished works’ available in museums and other sites. 

He externalized his thinking in these notes of a battle, especially applying his knowledge of anatomy and scientific drawings to explain how he worked. For example, in describing how to portray facial expression, he wrote, “the sides of the nose should have certain furrows, going in an arch from the nose and terminating at the edge of the eyes. Make the nostrils drawn up, causing these furrows, and the lips arched to disclose the upper teeth, with the teeth parted in order to shriek lamentations.” The story of his model for Battle of Anghiari (unfinished and ultimately copied and created by Rubens) is fascinating for the themes of his life, which it exemplifies: his obsession with details and his engineering approach, his scientific experimentation with materials (having introduced oils into Milan years earlier), and how he externalized his thinking over and over in these notes, which documented this approach with the accompanying drawings.

As Isaacson tells the story of this work on the Battle of Anghiari, It was also interesting to understand the big picture and context surrounding da Vinci and Michelangelo at this particular time as Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a competing mural in the same room at the same time. He was 23 years the junior of Leonardo.

Isaacson tells a fascinating story describing this situation in 1500 when Leonardo was 48 and Michelangelo a hot, rising star of Florence at age 25. He gives a vivid description of the young Michelangelo as a “celebrated but petulant” artist and da Vinci as one who was a “genial and generous painter… with a following of friends and young students.” As Isaacson notes, how amazing it would have been had the two chosen to collaborate, but alas, that did not happen. In fact, Michelangelo held a significant grudge and disliked the older da Vinci as the story illustrates. Not only did they not collaborate, the work was not completed by either man and in 1506 Leonardo returned to Milan, while Michelangelo was recruited by Pope Julius II to Rome for what he thought would be the design and construction of a tomb.  

There are many amazing things to learn/remember about this most extraordinary man, Leonardo from Vinci. It is interesting to learn about his time in France, with the patronage of Francis I, late in his life, his iconic contributions to the study of anatomy, which, unpublished, had to be discovered much later to be appreciated. His voluminous writings and drawings include all types of scientific issues, including such things as the “world and its waters,” along with his dissecting bodies in order to better understand muscular structures, tendons, and veins.  Many of his inventions are explained with terrific illustrations included in the book, and a wonderful explanation of his famous invention of the artistic treatment which the Italians call ‘sfumato’ is given.  This is the approach which includes a blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another, thus leaving something to the imagination.  Of course, this is a trademark of his masterpiece, The Mona Lisa.


There are 39 pages of notes in the concluding part of the book, which include terrific references to other sources of knowledge on Leonardo.

There are many lessons in this rich book as we face the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) of the 21st century. To quote the cover, “His ability to combine art and science, made iconic by his drawing of what may be himself inside a circle and a square, remains the enduring recipe for innovation. His life should remind us of the importance of instilling in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge. Still, a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”

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