Leonardo da Vinci
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
572 pages, $35
Biographer Walter Isaacson has a thing for genius. He has chronicled the lives of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger. In this latest work he tackles Leonardo da Vinci, grandaddy of all polymaths, archetypical Renaissance Man and arguably, history’s most creative genius.
Isaacson is clear-eyed in his evaluation, avoiding hagiography and dissecting the source of this creativity. He warns against the genius label as in “touched by lightning,” or supernatural gifts, noting: “Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.”
Leonardo was “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times, heretical.” Not a great resume for a guy in Renaissance Italy (the left-handed piece affecting the traditional drawing style). Yet in many ways these traits spurred his psyche into freethinking rebellion and an intense attitude of observation, curiosity and wonder. The times were right for these qualities -the 15th century blossoming with advances in literacy, exploration, commerce and income in a rare period in Italy of feudal decline and relative peace.
One of the major sources for the biography was Leonardo’s astonishing notebook. A table of contents of the notebooks would be a small book in itself, as there are more than 7,200 pages crammed with notes and scribbles: “math calculations, sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, siphons, plant stems, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles, and studies for paintings. The cross-disciplinary brilliance whirls across every page, providing a delightful display of a mind dancing with nature.”
It is clear from Isaacson’s description that Leonardo was an obsessive-compulsive personality, “... evident not in each measurement but in the staggering accumulation of them. He goes on and on, relentlessly. We can picture him in his studio, as he made his models move ...When a man kneels down, he will diminish by the fourth part of his height ... When a heel is raised, the tendon and ankle get closer to each other by a finger’s breadth ... When a man sits down, the distance from his seat to the top part of his head will be half of his height plus the thickness and length of the testicles.”
The author engages in a certain amount of speculation as to the personal life of the artist, as there are few examples in the notebooks of emotional or inter-personal expression. Thus, Isaacson deduces from an inventory of clothing in the notebook that “... he was comfortable being a distinctive character ... he made a point of being different, dressing and carrying himself as a dandy. Leonardo made sure that his companion Salai was dressed with similar brio, usually also in pink and rose.” In another example, the artist refused a commission to paint a portrait of a lady, “... revealing of Leonardo’s unwillingness to fulfill commissions that bored him...his dilatory style, and aloof attitude towards wealthy patrons.” And as for Leonardo’s notoriety for leaving many works abandoned or unfinished, Isaacson concludes that “he enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.”
Elsewhere, the author constructs scenes based on contemporaneous accounts. Here, a description of a late-life vignette:
“We can imagine the scene. The visitors are welcomed into the large oak-beamed manor house, are served drinks by Leonardo’s cook Mathurine, and Leonardo proceeds to play the role of the venerable icon of art and science, hosting the guests in his upstairs studio chamber ... Here is Leonardo, in a comfortable room with a large fireplace, nurturing the paintings he loves and showing them off as his private treasures.”
This may stretch the limits of pure biography, but the author makes it clear that these are his own projections, fleshing out the dry bones of mere fact.
As to the art itself, Isaacson’s treatment is both exhaustive and brilliant. With over 140 illustrations of da Vinci’s works, contemporary paintings and scenes of the time, this biography might well serve as an art-appreciation primer as well as an important addition to the art history literature. Isaacson takes the time to analyze and compare selected works, pointing out often overlooked details, subtleties, weaknesses and strengths. It is a revelation, and one goes back to the illustrations with new eyes.
Whole chapters are dedicated to the masterpieces. Of “The Last Supper” he analyzes the painting in detail - its complex perspectives and theatrical gestures, light and shadow, the narrative power and symbolism. He describes the technique and materials used by Leonardo, some failed experiments, and the subsequent modern-day attempts at restoration.
Of the “Mona Lisa”, he waxes poetic:
“What began as a portrait of a silk merchant’s young wife became a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion, made memorable through the mysteries of a hinted smile, and to connect our nature to that of our universe. The landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined.”
Perhaps Isaacson’s greatest strengths (purists might say weaknesses) as a biographer are his own imaginative constructs and analytics, derived from data in evidence and brought to instinctive logical conclusions. After all, what can we really know about the actual persona of a man who lived six centuries ago? But the author, combining conversational style and deep scholarship, personalizes Leonardo and his genius in the same way that Leonardo recorded himself - an accumulation of detail to a sort of pointillist image, still mysterious, still elusive - but the best we can do through the veiled lens of time.
Kenneth Young is a veteran contributing critic to the Buffalo News.