Review of “Leonardo Da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson

In this book, the famous author (and professor, and think tank president, and CNN chairman…) of other STEM illuminaries (Jobs, Einstein, Gates, and Ada Lovelace, most famously), takes on the ultimate Renaissance man and painter of the Mona Lisa and Last Supper.

The book is enjoyable, and I say that as someone who isn’t a art buff by any means — Isaacson explains the ways Da Vinci’s paintings stand out and are a product of his insatiable curiosity of other domains, but the book isn’t an art history lecture. It proceeds roughly chronologically through Da Vinci’s life, but chapters are organized around events or works of art, and the author routinely returns back to describing the same idea or event multiple times through different lens, much as he claims Da Vinci did with his artwork.

The central idea connecting the book is that Da Vinci — a gay, vegetarian, illegitimate son of a notary — was curious about and experimented with everything; he described himself and made contributions as a musician, painter, sculptor, anatomist, dentist, hydrology and military engineer, and theater producer, among others. While some historians have bemoaned the time he spent on pursuits other than painting and sculpting (leaving many of his works unfinished) as something that ‘left the world poorer,’ Isaacson argues that they nevertheless enriched Da Vinci’s own life and made countless almost imperceptible contributions to his art.

Instead of a more organized review, I’ll just list some of the factoids that stuck out to me:

  1. Da Vinci was friends with Machiavelli, and they once planned (and began engineering, in an ultimately failed project) to divert a river that served as the chief water supply of Pisa, a rival of their city of Florence.
  2. Da Vinci was a careful anatomist who dissected more than 30 people. My favorite fact here is that Da Vinci once wanted to study eyes, but they kept losing their shape once he started cutting into them. So, he boiled it inside egg whites before cutting into them.
  3. He was a perfectionist, carrying around some paintings for decades as he moved between cities, adding touches here and there. His works all were preceeded by many underdrawings, and he and his students often made many versions at once in order to try various ideas.
  4. Unfortunately, he never seemed to want to publish or share his scientific ideas and experiments; though he discovered many things not rediscovered until centuries later (in one case, something about the human heart only verified in the 1960s), he didn’t seem to have much impact on scientific fields because his discoveries were hidden away in his notebooks, not analyzed again until much later.
  5. He was a known chronic procrastinator and someone who wouldn’t finish his works — several contracts he signed were expressly designed to try to prevent such procrastination, yet failed.
  6. His curiousity of all fields often but not exclusively served to ultimately help his painting; in one case where it decidedly didn’t, he was obsessed with figuring out what a woodpecker’s tongue looked like.
  7. His anatomy and optics studies in particular informed how he would draw people and scenes such that they seem to be capturing a moment in movement.
  8. For many parts of his life, he fancied himself more an engineer (especially military engineer) than a painter, and for some periods he seemed to loathe painting, even as he became a world-famous one.
  9. He and Michaelangelo (a younger contemporary by a couple of decades) did not like each other, though the author seems to blame the latter. Da Vinci especially enjoyed saying that Michaelangelo’s drawings of people looked like a “sack of walnuts;” they were wooden, unlike Da Vinci’s lifelike and flowing people, informed by decades of close study of the human body.
  10. The reason we know much of the above is because he kept journals intermixing his drawings with observations, to-do lists, and thoughts, and luckily many of these papers were preserved.