By Chet Yarbrough
Leonardo da Vinci
By: Walter Isaacson
Narrated by Alfred Molina
Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)
This is the storied life of a self-educated savant. Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother. Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.
Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.
Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man
Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.
Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious. He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence.
The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees. The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.
Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries. From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting.
However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist. Leonardo is a polymath. Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance.
At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings. Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering. Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.
Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death. Some were never finished. Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone.
In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.
Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.
Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders. He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici).
Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.
By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant. Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State. He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations. Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.
Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions. Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation.
One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders. It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.
Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).
Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.
Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience. Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.
A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.
Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.
Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.
Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality.
His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses. They both looked for perfection in their work.
From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time. Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics.
(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)
Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist. From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history. Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.