Leonardo da Vinci
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
Illustrated; 599 pages; $35
Because Walter Isaacson
has made a cottage industry of writing about Renaissance men, it’s no surprise, really, that he’s finally landed on a subject from the actual Renaissance. Like the other idols in Isaacson’s gallery of polymaths and visionaries — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs
— Leonardo da Vinci
was born with extra bundles of receptors, attuned to frequencies his peers could not hear and capable of making connections no one else could see, especially between the sciences and the humanities.
There is a significant difference, though, between “Leonardo da Vinci” and Isaacson’s previous biographies. His other geniuses left behind bountiful source material about the lives they led. Leonardo did not. There are, famously, 7,200 pages of his glorious notebooks to work from, and yes, they are rich in maps, doodles, anatomical drawings, schema for new machines, models for new weapons, proposals for city redesigns, geometric patterns, portraits, eddies, swirls, curls, pensées, scientific observations of uncanny prescience. (Among the most staggering: He intuited the first and third laws of motion, 200 years ahead of Newton.)
But what Leonardo’s notebooks lack — which Isaacson readily concedes — are “intimate personal revelations.” Some biographers are perfectly comfortable composing a full-body portrait based solely on a few faint footprints. (Consider the legions who have tackled Shakespeare.) Isaacson does not seem to be that kind of writer. Absent the documentary material he’s accustomed to, he overcompensates with copious analyses of Leonardo’s works.
I’m not sure the role of art critic suits him. Isaacson’s enthusiasm is admirable, but he hails many of Leonardo’s creations in the same breathless tone with which a teenager might greet a new Apple product. The words “brilliant,” “wondrous” and “ingenious” come up a lot.
Isaacson is stronger when he’s on familiar turf, showing us Leonardo the scientist and innovator, the engineer and secret doctor. Between 1508 and 1513, Leonardo skinned at least 20 cadavers, some as they were decomposing in his hands, in order to study and draw muscle groups, organs, skeins of veins. His analysis of the human body was so thorough that he determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did.
I should mention here that Isaacson’s book includes dozens of colour illustrations, all ravishing.
Isaacson is at his finest when he analyses what made Leonardo human. He was an inveterate deadline misser, more beguiled by starting projects than finishing them. He abandoned a 23-foot equestrian statue intended for a prince; he gave up on paintings and murals intended for wealthy patrons; he sketched “flying machines that never flew, tanks that never rolled, a river that was never diverted.”
One of his most underrated achievements may have been his eloquent defence of procrastination. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he told one of his employers, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”
Leonardo was an implacable perfectionist. (“He saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles,” wrote an early biographer.) He worked on the Mona Lisa for 16 years, and it was in his bedroom when he died.
Like many artists, Leonardo’s weaknesses were inseparable from his strengths. If he hadn’t been an easily distracted perfectionist, he would have left behind a larger official oeuvre but a less impressive one. Instead, he abandoned what he could not work out, which allowed him to “go down in history as an obsessed genius rather than merely a reliable master painter,” Isaacson writes.
One often associates perfectionism with a toxic variety of neurosis. Yet Leonardo seemed quite well-adjusted, particularly for an artist. Unlike Michelangelo, who was dour and self-denying, Leonardo was generous and convivial, partial to robes of purple and pink. He wasn’t especially competitive. He didn’t spend his days spoiling for a fight. (He was no Caravaggio.) He was comfortably open about being gay (Michelangelo was not), merrily indulging his longtime companion with enough shoes and jewelled stockings to keep even Imelda Marcos in clover.
And he was strikingly devoid of ego, “more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it,” Isaacson writes. “He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history.”
In recent years, there’s been a glut of books
about the so-called science of creativity, which in truth are TED lectures in waiting, motivational business books
that instruct us on how to unleash our own inner Leonardos. The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable.
Yet in the conclusion of “Leonardo da Vinci,” Isaacson capitulates to the easy seductions of TED-ism, and boy, is it disappointing. Under the subheading of “Learning From Leonardo,” he offers 20 italicised platitudes, including Retain a childlike sense of wonder and Let your reach exceed your grasp. Each gets its own elaboration. None is especially helpful. It’s all about as cloying as canned peaches. Though perhaps I’m just too old to Be open to mystery.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service