By Walter Isaacson
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the great geniuses in history. He was born in Florence in the 15th century. (Actually, he was born in the small town of Vinci, and his name is Leonardo and he was from Vinci. History now knows him as Leonardo da Vinci.) He was an incredibly gifted artist, perhaps the greatest ever. After all, he did create the two most famous paintings in history, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
But he was so much more than a master painter. He was a brilliant man who was also a scientist, an engineer and a writer, and a creative producer of festivities. He epitomized the Renaissance Man.
Here was a man who would spend endless hours dissecting cadavers and making brilliant drawings and illustrations of those bodies. He would spend hours in the morgue dissecting, probably to inform his art and to understand how muscles worked beneath the skin. But he also had unlimited curiosity about the human body and so much else.
Was Leonardo the most curious man in history? I cannot answer if Leonardo was the most curious man in history, but he is the most curious man I have ever read about.
Walter Isaacson remarks: “His notebooks are the greatest record of curiosity ever created, a wonderous guide to the person whom the eminent art historian Kenneth Clark called ‘the most relentlessly curious man in history.’”
Isaacson notes that Leonardo’s notebooks were the greatest testament to his mind and to his brilliance. His notebooks include 7,200 pages of notes, scribbles and drawings that survive to this day. Isaacson includes an entry of a to-do list in one of his notebooks:
“The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,” is the first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: “Draw Milan.” Others show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick: “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle … Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled … Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders … Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner … Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” He is insatiable.
Isaacson goes on later in the chapter:
Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you even find out? It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture or even to understand the flight of birds. But there it is, and, as we shall see, there are fascinating things to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker. The reason he wanted to know was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.
It is fascinating how da Vinci saw himself. At age 30, he was applying for a position in a letter to the ruler of Milan. In that letter, he had 10 paragraphs of the things he could do, including various engineering skills. Only in the 11th paragraph, he added he was also an artist. It was almost an afterthought: “Oh yes, I can paint.” Could he paint? He produced the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, among other brilliant works.
Late in the book, Isaacson is summing up Leonardo:
What made Leonardo a genius, what set him apart from people who are merely extraordinarily smart, was creativity, the ability to apply imagination to intellect. His facility for combining observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen. “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,” wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.” … His curiosity impelled him to become among the handful of people in history who tried to know all there was to know about everything that could be known.
I might also add that Leonardo was highly unusual and that is understating it. It is not unusual for geniuses to be eccentric, but this is a step beyond eccentricity. In fact, one leading art critic once wrote, “Leonardo remains weird, matchlessly weird, and nothing to be done about it.”
I find it interesting that both Leonardo and Michelangelo, arguably the two greatest artists in history, lived on this planet at the same time, and they both came from the same place, Florence. However, Michelangelo was an artist, even more a sculptor than a painter, though he was brilliant at both. Leonardo was the Renaissance Man. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, they did not get along very well and did not spend much time together.
Would I recommend this biography? The biographer, Walter Isaacson, is a superb writer. Stephen Jobs wanted his authorized biography written. As he neared death, he sought out Walter Isaacson. Isaacson has also written major biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger. I recommend this biography if you are ready to tackle this rather large tome with adequate curiosity about our intellectual and artistic history.
I will conclude this review by quoting the eminent historian, David McCullough, who might well be the most popular historian today:
To read this magnificent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is to take a tour through the life and works of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time in the company of the most engaging, informed, and insightful guide imaginable. Walter Isaacson is at once a true scholar and a spellbinding writer. And what a wealth of lessons there are to be learned in these pages.