Author: Walter Isaacson,

Publisher: Simon & Schuster,

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3915-4

Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance Man, was both an artist and scientist (that could have been a subtitle for this excellent book, connecting it to Mr. Isaacson’s Einstein and Jobs biographies). Mr. Isaacson’s book is a historical description of the man, his art and science, and his milieu—the power struggles at the political and artistic levels.

From a detailed analysis of the paintings and drawings and the advanced techniques he developed and used in them to the description of his troubles with patrons and family, the author puts Leonardo and his creativity in historical context. Unfortunately the details described in “The Last Supper” aren’t visible in the book’s reproduction (that’s possibly only a reflection on its sorry state now after centuries of neglect), but I was amused when the book’s author belittles Dan Brown’s observation that St. John looks effeminate in that painting and is really the Magdalene. Effeminate men in Leonardo’s paintings aren’t uncommon. The discussion of that other classic painting “Mona Lisa” (AKA as “La Giaconda”) is excellent, especially in how the author explains how Leonardo’s anatomy studies influenced that mysterious smile. Those are just two of the many paintings and drawings discussed in the book.

Some historical description stood out too. Michelangelo, more a Lorenzo Di’ Medici darling than Leonardo (Medici’s sons, one a pope, made up for it, though), was more contentious in his dealings with people, and his feud with Leonardo reflects that. There’s ample evidence that Michelangelo was jealous of Leonardo’s easy affability (the references used for the book cover many pages), but the feud continued to when Firenze as finding a place for the towering statue of “David” (Leonardo was on the committee to decide the statue’s placement within the city). Both men were probably gay, but Leonardo was better adjusted, not repentant about it, and much more open, while Michelangelo struggled with the religious overtones.

The author also portrays Leonardo, the scientist, who was curious about so many things, much more so than the average person, and proposed many conjectures, theories, and devices in his notebooks, often mixing art and science on the same page in his mirror-reversed handwriting. He was fascinated with human anatomy, using knowledge gained from dissections in his paintings and drawings, and correctly described the phenomenon of arteriosclerosis in the aging process and how the aortic valve works, the latter description only recognized as correct in the 1960s (probably necessary for the development of artificial aortic valves?).

Science was called philosophy in those days, and Leonardo was as famous for being a philosopher (scientist and engineer) as he was for his art. He was far ahead of his time, so much so that I recall a sci-fi story that postulated that he was really Leonard Vincent, a scientist from the future stranded in the past. (I’ll profusely thank any reader who can tell me the title of that short story and the author.)

There aren’t many places in the book where I lost interest, but I could have done with less in the long chapter about Borgia and Machiavelli. While interesting, its length is a distraction and interrupts the main flow of the narrative. It’s an example of how much has been made of Leonardo’s affinity for attaching himself to strong men—it’s said that he died in the arms of the King of France—but the Renaissance was a brutal political times when the patrons of the arts often were strong men, something that continued through the 19th century. Leonardo had to work within his cultural constraints, and there’s no doubt that the affinity found some of its genesis in his engineering interests in military weapons and fortifications.

This book is very different from the Einstein and Jobs bios. For one thing, Leonardo is a more complex and versatile genius. For another, Leonardo’s creativity is also complex because there’s so much to his art—he was revolutionary in his use of new techniques, many derived from his scientific studies. That’s why the book is a masterwork of biographical analysis. At 500+ pages, it’s not easy to read. Your best tactic is to do it in short sessions, just as Leonardo did with many of his paintings (the “Mona Lisa” was painted over many years, tiny layer by tiny layer). You can also skip around a bit, focusing on the art first, then the science, or vice versa. I read it straight through, though—wanting to see how Leonardo’s science influenced his art, something personally meaningful to me as an ex-scientist and now full-time writer. Of the three bios by Mr. Isaacson that I’ve mentioned, I consider this his best.