Leonardo by Walter Isaacson

This book is all about the life of Leonardo da Vinci and all of his various interests. It is written by Walter Isaacson, a famous author that also wrote The Innovators, which I also reviewed here.

As you are probably aware, Da Vinci was a very curious person and was ahead of his time in the many varied fields he was interested in such as anatomy and optics. Most of the information in this book comes from notes still in existence Da Vinci wrote about his many interests. Apparently, it was common for people in the 1400’s and 1500’s to take extensive notes. His notes frequently included to-do-lists, one of which included the item “describe the tongue of the woodpecker”, which the author uses to illustrate Da Vinci’s famous curiosity.

My favorite parts of the book are the parts about things other than his paintings, such as his anatomy studies. The book explains that he did not finish many of the things that he started, including his paintings and his discoveries in the sciences. For a short time, he was assisted in his anatomy studies with a doctor that died in a plague. The author believes that the doctor would have helped Da Vinci to publish their joint discoveries and that they would have had a huge impact on medicine. This is only a small example of the things Da Vinci learned about due to his curiosity.

The author describes the criticism from the art world that his scientific curiosities served only to distract him from finishing more paintings and therefore prevented humanity from more artwork like the Mona Lisa. The author makes the point that his curiosities, specifically in anatomy and optics, gave him the knowledge that allowed him to paint his various masterpieces. The author gives several compelling examples of exactly how his studies in both anatomy and optics influenced his masterpieces The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

I also found the portion of the book about how paintings are certified as authentic Da Vinci artwork to be interesting. The fact that Da Vinci was left-handed is critical to the authentication process since he never signed any of his artwork. The authentication process for a disputed Da Vinci drawing discovered in the 1990’s is used to illustrate the authentication process.

I enjoyed this book a lot and I would suggest this to anyone that enjoys the art or sciences. The book provides the reason for his studies when they are known or can be reasonably guessed. I learned a lot about Da Vinci that I didn’t already know. I placed this on level 2. If you are interested in another deep dive into a historical figure, I would suggest checking out my review of Washington by Ron Chernow here.

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