Synopsis (Goodreads): Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.
He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.
The first Isaacson biography I read was Steve Jobs, and his biographies of Einstein and Ben Franklin have both been on my to-read radar for a while. However, when I heard that he’d released a work on Leonardo da Vinci, it jumped the queue, and I am so glad it did. Biographies (not to mention their reviews) can get tedious if not properly handled – they need to be objective and tell a good story without getting gushy. The subject under study also need to be interesting enough to warrant 400-plus pages being devoted to them, and it needs to be a well-balanced account of life and work. Walter Isaacson did this really well with Steve Jobs, but I feel like Leonardo da Vinci has definitely raised the bar further.
My biggest takeaway after reading this book was how human and accessible Leonardo da Vinci was. I loved reading about his foibles and the quirky side of his character – the dandy in him who wandered around town in rich pinks, purples and crimson velvets; the temperamental creative who was known for either abandoning his commissions or getting distracted by another project; the observer/experimenter who meticulously studied and noted down all his thoughts, ideas and conclusions in whatever notebook he was carrying around with him at the time; and above all, the sense of wonder and curiosity that was central to his being.
While art, undoubtedly, plays a central role in the book, I found the most fascinating facet of Leonardo da Vinci to be his sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity about the world around him, and his willingness to experiment, which when combined with his powers of observation and attention to detail, led him to observations and conclusions that were in numerous cases centuries ahead of his time in fields as diverse as astronomy, engineering, anatomy and physics, and all without the benefits of formal schooling. He was someone who was not afraid to be different, and he was constantly questioning the world around him. Failure was not scary and his ability to maintain an open mind about his work, and about the world around him, enabled him to be a true visionary and an apt recipient of the term by which he is still best known by…Renaissance Man.
This is definitely going to be one of those books to which I refer repeatedly, especially ahead of art museum visits. I’m going to leave you with some of my favourite takeaways from the book, but please, please, read it if you can because, as Isaacson rightly points out, he who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jar.
- Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it – to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.
- The glory of being an artist, he realised, was that reality should inform but not constrain.
- The beauty of a notebook is that it indulges provisional thoughts, half-finished ideas, unpolished sketches, and drafts for treatises not yet refined.
- Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously.
- True creativity involves the ability to combine observation with imagination, thereby blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy.
- In order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time.