Book Review | Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

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.

Issacson’s book contains hundreds of color reproductions of da Vinci’s work and notebook sketches

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.

 

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25 Comments

    1. I just heard the interview with the author on our local radio station CBC Toronto,On, and I was so impressed with his IMO about DaVincis life, and now to see this book review, immediately connected to amazon and can’t wait to read this bio.

  1. Excellent review, Jason. I just started this a few nights ago and I couldn’t agree more about how well this book addresses Leonardo’s art, and how wonderful it is to have high quality images of that art right in the same passage. It’s well written and a pleasure to read.

  2. I am still reading this book, you can’t jump through it. Wonderful insights, I wondered as an artist how he would treat the paintings and it’s really interesting and insightful. Love it, I got it the week it came out at Barnes and Noble, luckily I am a member, still not an inexpensive book and….very heavy, I have to put a book under it to read it in bed!! Love it, give it to yourself and your BFF!!

  3. On your recommendation, I bought it. I bought the e-book version — the images will show up beautifully on my iPad, and it’s much easier to hold in my lap or take with me than a heavy conventional book. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. So glad you mentioned that. I was at the bookstore yesterday and picked this book up and immediately put it back down because of the heft. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take it on a trip. But I will be able to by taking my iPad. Had totally forgotten that was an option.

  4. I am listening to the audiobook. It comes with a downloadable pdf so you can see the images Isaacson is discussing. (In my case, I listen in the car, so it isn’t possible for me to view the artwork while he’s discussing it.)
    I love hearing da Vinci’s thoughts on painting and art. It’s as close to a conversation with the master as you can get. I was interested to hear how da Vinci was influenced by the book, On Painting, by Alberti. Alberti’s admonition to draw the figure from the inside out, starting with the skeleton is still the way drawing the figure is taught today!
    I puzzle at how someone who bought caged birds at the market to set them free could turn his great intellect to weapons of war.
    It certainly is a fascinating book with much to think about!

  5. Looking forward to reading it! Da Vinci Art Alliance in phila will have a book discussion about the book in January. Please email linda@davinciartalliance if you want details about our book discussion. All are welcome to join in!!!
    Linda Dubin Garfield

  6. Great review and insight!
    Ordering one for me. Great read for the upcoming snowy days!
    Thanks Jason!
    Kathleen Krzewinski

  7. I haven’t read this new biography but have Volume I and II of da Vinci’s notebooks (Dover, 1970, unabridged from the 1883 publication). I wanted to gain some insight into Leonardo’s thinking that produced such magnificent, but limited art. Instead, I found insight into discovery and the creative process. The text observations and sketches are from a mind of insatiable appetite for knowledge.
    I couldn’t get through all 865 total pages because it was exhaustive narrative. I kept wanting him to write about his art but it was far more scientific observation. His sketches appeared to be visual shortcuts in his research. Granted, genius is all of that.
    Those pages with repeated figure studies were lovely. I’m not sure he was trying to perfect his draftsmanship … he was exploring anatomy as well. That was my takeaway ….
    From your review this book is more about his art … thankfully. Humbling personality.

  8. Great review. I was actually wondering if it was worth buying or not. Will get it in 2018. The last book I read on an artist which I thoroughly enjoyed was The Life of Van Gogh by Naifeh and Smith.

  9. This book is fascinating, beautiful, and I am taking it slow to study both the art and notebook pages. Leonardo da Vinci has always fascinated me, and once I read through his notebooks, his grasp of science, biology, botany, anatomy, etc . Thank you for this wonderful review, Jason!

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