When I heard that Walter Isaacson was writing a biography of quintessential renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, I thought it made a lot of sense. Isaacson has built a career writing about great innovators, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Leonardo was both an artist and an innovator. I knew the general outline of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work, but I looked forward to getting to know about his life and work at a greater depth.
Isaacson’s book didn’t disappoint. Though the biographical details are a little bit lighter than one would expect in a biography of a modern subject, this shouldn’t come as a surprise in a book about an artist who lived over five hundred years ago. It’s not a wonder that we have few details of Leonardo’s day to day life, but rather that we have as much information as we do. Leonardo left volumes of notebooks, most of the notes written right to left and backwards in a mirror script (Leonardo was left-handed and wrote this way to avoid smudges). These notebooks offer dramatic insights into the artist’s thoughts and interests.
Isaacson’s description of Leonardo’s keen curiosity and the analysis the author provides into the artist/inventor’s ways of thinking and approaching problems greatly enriches the reader’s appreciation for Leonardo’s genius. Da Vinci wanted to understand how everything in the world worked and had tremendous patience as he observed natural and manmade phenomena. These observations helped him become an amazing scientist and theorist, but they also helped him create some of the most iconic art the world has ever seen.
I find some artist biographies to be a bit dry when the author spends time describing and analyzing individual works of art, but that wasn’t the case here. Isaacson was able to not only talk intelligently about the work, but he was able to show what was interesting about each piece and use the works to help the reader better understand Leonardo’s approach to art.
I also appreciated the format and layout of the book. I noted how heavy the book was when I received it and quickly realized this was because the book had been printed on heavy glossy stock which allowed for full-color imagery throughout. Isaacson was able to place artwork and notebook sketches in full-color in the text that talked about the images. I can’t adequately explain how helpful this was when reading the book. Most biographies are required to place all of the color plates together in several sections of the book, requiring the reader to flip back and forth to see images. It might seem like a small difference, but I found myself spending far more time examining paintings and sketches because they were conveniently placed and beautifully reproduced.
If you are looking for a better understanding of one of history’s most prominent artists and thinkers, I can highly recommend Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci.
Have you Read It?
Have you already read Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci? What did you find most interesting? Did you enjoy the book? Leave your thoughts and comments in the comments section below.