Review of Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography” 2017

/ by Katy Blatt

Leonardo da Vinci’s “ability to combine art and science…made him history’s greatest genius,” Isaacson claims in his new biography of the Renaissance artist. Indeed, there have been few individuals in history who have mastered to such a high level the diverse lines of enquiry that Leonardo accomplished. In his 76 years Leonardo not only produced some of the most famous works of art in western history – The Last Supper, Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man – but he also broke new ground in the research of human and animal anatomy, the science of light and optics, astronomy, the behaviour of water; as well as making revolutionary designs for flying machines, armoured tanks and diving equipment. All this is explored in Isaacson’s beautifully illustrated, clearly written biography. Dividing the chronological narrative into bite-sized sections, each dealing with a separate work of art, body of drawings, or life event, Isaacson leads the reader through the dizzying array of Leonardo’s output, from his early days as an illegitimate boy in Vinci and Florence under the tutelage of Verrocchio, to his mythologised death in the arms of King Francis I of France in 1519.


Leonardo is an apt subject for Isaacson, whose interests have long been peaked by “blue sky” thinkers: his previous autobiographies include Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Although Isaacson is not an art historian, this book is thoroughly researched, and professionally read through by some of the greatest Leonardo scholars in the world today, including Marco Cianchi of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Juliana Barone of Birckbeck College London, and Martin Kemp emeritus professor at Oxford University: the facts are to be trusted. This is a book written for the intelligent layman, by an intelligent layman, and one gets a sense that discovering Leonardo has been a revelation to Isaacson. The book is full of energy and infectious enthusiasm. Additional details of Leonardo’s life, artistic painting process, and key characters - such as Lorenzo de’ Medici and Cesare Borgia – that might have been overlooked by a Leonardo scholar, are here given extensive coverage, setting the scene for a newcomer to Leonardo’s Renaissance world. Neither does Isaacson baulk at complex detail; he gives a full technical description of the perspectival system of the Last Supper, for example.


Thirteen years have passed since Charles Nicholl published the last great Leonardo biography (Penguin, 2004), and Isaacson updates his information with subsequent research. The underdrawing beneath the London Virgin of the Rocks, discovered in 2005, reveals that a cartoon of St Philip from The Last Supper was intended as a revision to the first painted Virgin. Martin Kemp’s (2017) recently published discoveries regarding the identity of Leonardo’s mother, the 15-year-old orphan Caterina di Meo Lippi, also find their way into Isaacson’s book. New light shed on the identity of the Mona Lisa (based on the scribbled marginal notes of Agostino Vespucci in 1503 on his edition of Cicero, and published by Jill Burke in 2008) is noted; as well as new evidence as to a painting beneath the surface of the famous Mona Lisa, based on high resolution scans made by French art technician Pascal Cotte in 2008. Of course, the painting Salvator Mundi, discovered in 2011 (and recently sold for a world-record-breaking $450) finds its place amongst Leonardo’s other painted masterpieces.


The difficulty – and also the fascination - with Leonardo, has always been his elusive identity. He wrote very little about his own emotional life: his notebooks are packed full of intellectual puzzles and discoveries, but little exists about how he actually felt. A case in point, when his estranged mother came to Milan to live with Leonardo at the Corte Vecchio, her arrival is signalled simply by his note: “Caterina came on the 16th day of July 1493”. In contrast, Leonardo’s references to his adopted apprentice and perhaps later lover, Salai (“little devil”), form the longest written passage dedicated to another person in the entirety of Leonardo’s extant notebooks. From this we deduce that Salai took up a great deal of Leonardo’s mental and emotional time. Isaacson creatively interprets and fills in the gaps left by Leonardo. Lengthy translations of the notebooks (Longer passages than in previous biographies of the artist) also give more of an insight into Leonardo’s nuanced character. Dating to the end of his life, for example, a description of how to depict floods, apparently intended to instruct his students (“ Let the dark and gloomy air be seen buffeted by the rush of contrary winds…”), breaks into a diatribe that may well reflect painful memories of his time working under the warmonger Cesare Borgia: “others, with desperation, took their own lives…some flung themselves from the lofty rocks, others strangled themselves with their own hands…” In contrast, Isaacson gives us the courtly Leonard, dressed in pink satin designing fantastical devices and pageantry for Sforza and Francis I; Leonardo the lover of the imaginary, the fantastical, and the colourful. Amusing snippets of text, that have previously not found their way into biographies, add a sense of intimacy and humour to the puzzle, for example, Leonardo notes, in a drawing of the male anatomy, that “the penis sometimes displays an intellect of its own”.


In places, Isaacson stretches his metaphors too far without signposting his own creative intervention to the reader: his links can feel forced rather than organically related to Leonardo’s character. In this respect, Isaacson’s assumptions reveal as much about his own outlook as about Leonardo’s. As Richard Turner wrote famously in his book “Inventing Leonardo” (1993), Leonardo has been systematically re-imagined since his death, with each successive author reinterpreting the evidence in ways relevant to themselves. Isaacson’s authorial voice is strong throughout his biography. To the question: “who was Leonardo?” Isaacson gives us an overwhelmingly optimistic character, endlessly curious and outward looking. The text is peppered with suggestions as to how the contemporary reader might apply Leonardo’s learning to their own lives. Isaacson explicitly draws out this thread at the end of the book: “observe; retain a childlike sense of wonder; respect facts; procrastinate; indulge fantasy; create for yourself, not just for patrons; collaborate”; and value old fashioned note taking as much as new computer technology: note paper will last, tweets won’t! Although perhaps a little clunky, there is mileage in Isaacson’s sentiment. There is a real danger today that, by promoting the sciences above the arts, and the literary above the visual, we will short-circuit education and culture. What Leonardo exemplifies – through his life and work – is the extent to which there are links between forms of knowledge; how one form is redundant without the other (without his knowledge of artistic processes, Leonardo would not have been able to make his anatomical break-throughs, for example); and how success comes through creative link-making. What becomes very clear in Isaacson’s book is how many of Leonardo’s characteristics are still relevant today: he modelled a deep and meaningful contemplation of our world in all its complex glory.

Katy Blatt

is author of “Leonardo da Vinci and The Virgin of the Rocks: One Painter, Two Virgins, Twenty-Five Years”, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017. An Art Historian, educated at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Katy has worked at MoMA in New York, Tate Britain, London, and currently teaches Art History in London.

For more information on her book, see: www.virginoftherocks.com


Available on Amazon.