Leonardo Da Vinci ~ by Walter Isaacson

Great book – I didn’t get “involved” really until about 100 pages into it but after that I was hooked and finished in three days which, considering my current schedule, is great.

I read it for the All-Nonfiction group and if they had not chosen it I likely would not have even picked it up because I’ve read at least a couple other biographies of Leonardo over the years and for some reason I was never particularly impressed by him – too much hype by a 6th grade teacher perhaps.

But the books I’ve read have focused on a simple chronology or his “vision,” one aspect or another. Isaacson has written a knowledgeable and sensitive overview of the whole man hitting the highlights and fleshing them out. Fascinating – after you get into it.

Leonardo Da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson
2018 / 634 pages
read by Alfred Molina – 17h 1m
rating – 9.25 / biography
(both read and listened)


I suppose this is because Isaacson employs the rather unusual approach of using Leonardo’s famous notebooks as his point of entry – a truly primary source, which he amplifies and enhances via other sources.

If there’s one thing which stands out about Leonardo it’s the notebooks which reveal how advanced his thinking and art and science were for that era and the loss to mankind that they were never published. He was not well enough organized to do that – when he died he left his unedited notebook pages and drawings to his friend Melzi.

It starts out a wee bit boring but I started getting way more interested at Chapter 8, Vitruvian Man, (page 148) when the focus became church architecture and then turned to the Vitruvian Man drawings which are fascinating. (See below.). After that it went from one interesting aspect to another.

The chapters on science had information which was new to me. Leonardo worked first by observation with very little theory but later added theory and experimentation – not “scientific method” but approaching it. He worked with patterns in all kinds of natural phenomenon, but also engineering and architecture.  And he brought all he learned to his art. A perfectionist genius.

Rather than developing the material in chronological order, Isaacson has taken the theme approach and it works better than a filled-in time-line of Leonardo’s life, loves and art. There is a beautiful and very helpful chronology in the front pages of the book with pictures of some artwork to illustrate it.

If there’s one chapter which should not be missed it’s Chapter 16, “The Milan Portraits” which outlines the finding and authentication of a new Leonardo painting, La Bella Principessa (1496) , in Manhattan, 1998. That’s a page-turning story.

Another interesting chapter is that on Leonardo’s relationship with the sculptor genius Michelangelo, a somewhat younger but more religious curmudgeon who got along with no one. They and Raphael were contemporaries who didn’t associate much even when they were in the same town.

And another fascinating chapter, if you’re interested, is “Anatomy, Round Two,” which starts on page 394. This is about how Leonardo dissected and depicted the parts of the body in order to sculpt and paint more accurately and possibly just to know how the circulatory system worked the man was so curious. There is even a part dealing with the muscles involved in human lips and smiles which brings us to the Mona Lisa.

Isaacson refers occasionally to his biographies of two other “Renaissance” men – Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin. I’ve read both books, but their mention still seemed a bit intrusive. I probably shouldn’t even mention it.
Isaacson directly asks the question of what makes a real visionary genius, there have been precious few of them and Leonardo is definitely in the group. And then Isaacson answers that.

I was not crazy about the reader of the audio version because he used a bit too much Italian accent for something Isaacson wrote – the accents on names were a bit over-emphasized. It took me a long time to get used to. Molina’s English accent was okay otherwise.

I’ll probably read bits and chapters of this book again during the discussion as I think my mind may have wandered and I missed some good stuff.