Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is wonderful. It’s long, but it needs to be. It’s given me an appreciation of the master’s life, work and political context (you think ours is turbulent), but also takes care to present alternate theories regarding the more mysterious aspects of Leonardo’s life and work. Above all, it humanises a figure that could so easily be merely revered. It spoke to my intolerance towards the notion that geniuses get a free pass because they’re “better”. Isaacson both increased my wonder at his achievements, and confirmed that was as human as any of us.
If all we had of Leonardo was the body of work that he actually finished, we’d still think him the preeminent genius of his age, the archetypal Renaissance Man. But the legion of works that he either lost interest in, abandoned out of dissatisfaction, or merely planned in his voluminous notebooks shows the scale of his genius. By far the most common phrase in the book is some version of “mainstream science wouldn’t make the same discovery for 200 years” when referring to some rabbit hole Leonardo fell down with all the rigour of modern science, recounted with history’s best-illustrated notes. Furthest ahead is his discovery in the fifteenth century of how the heart’s aortic valves close—science didn’t catch up until 1960.
There are indications that Leonardo had plans to publish at least some of his momentous findings, and Isaacson notes previous biographers’ frustration that he did not. Civilisation had to wait, needlessly it seems, for Newton to articulate his Third Law of Motion 200 years after Leonardo. We had to wait centuries for Copernicus and Galileo to demonstrate heliocentric planetary motion. And as an anatomist, Leonardo was—yes—centuries ahead of his time. The list is too long. If he’d published, we’d have had a head start in all these fields, but Isaacson argues that his search for knowledge for its own sake, the indulgence of curiosity, is what led Leonardo to any and all of his wondrous contributions in the first place, and if you want some solid artefact that encompasses it all, you have it: the Mona Lisa.
Isaacson spends time discussing all his paintings in turn, from commission through to completion (if they were completed), but saves the best for last, justifying it chronologically with the fact that, though it wasn’t the last painting he started, he was still working on it when he died. Through all the discussions, he illuminates the art history of the period along with Leonardo’s innovations—the sfumato blurring of lines, his creation of new types of oils and materials. But the Mona Lisa is the culmination of all Leonardo’s works, not just in art but in science and engineering. He knew from his obsession with optics, for instance, that some of the light striking the paint would be reflected back, but also that some of it would penetrate the oil, instead being reflected by the white base beneath, back through the paint from behind, making sections seem to glow. He knew that the periphery of our vision is not only blurred, but sensitive to a different range of wavelengths, which is why Lisa smiles thinly, if at all, when you look directly at her mouth, but broadly smirks when you look in her eyes. It contains wonders that only his obsession with perspective, nature, engineering (particularly flowing water), anatomy (he catalogued the human lips’ hundreds muscles, and it was worth it for that smile), and so on, and so on.
And, of course, we do have his notes. Thank God. Isaacson ultimately recommends that we all keep notes and lists in the same manner. In fact, the book finishes with a list of practical steps we can all take to be more like Leonardo in our openness to discovery and insight. It’s part of the thesis that he was no genetic freak, but just a man who diligently honed his powers of observation, and rigorously indulged his curiosity. (A parallel in the case of a modern genius is musician, Prince: the few completed pages of his memoir reveal a similar list-making technique as a key tool in realising his stratospheric ambitions).
All I knew before about Leonardo Da Vinci was that his name is shorthand for unattainable genius. Isaacson simultaneously reveals that, while his accomplishments are far greater even than I had ever guessed, he is also something better: an inspiration, and a challenge.