Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years on the Mona Lisa, but the painting, like so many other things in his life, remained unfinished.
Leonardo da Vinci liked to write to-do lists, and they are more interesting than mine. “Examine a crossbow. Describe the tongue of a woodpecker. Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men. Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length. Get the measurement of the sun. Draw Milan.”
Walter Isaacson, former Time editor and biographer of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, is interested in genius, especially wide-ranging polymathic genius, especially weird polymathic genius: his Jobs biography was filled with stories about the Apple co-founder relieving stress by, for instance, soaking his feet in the company’s toilets. His new subject is well chosen. Few men were as polymathically brilliant, or as downright weird, as da Vinci.
From a distance, the master painter, sculptor, scientist, architect and engineer’s intellect seems remote, god-like; up close, he’s more human. He struggled with arithmetic and Latin; he was a habitual fantasist; he indulged his handsome young companion Salai, who he admitted was “a liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton”; he lived in a state of constant obsession but constant distraction – his great mind’s great flaw was that it rarely finished anything.
Early in da Vinci’s career, the Duke of Milan commissioned him to build a large statue of his father on a horse. Da Vinci focused on the horse and spent months obsessively drawing them, which led to a scientific study of horse anatomy, which led him to begin writing a definitive treatise on horses, which led to the architectural study of stables, which led him to design elaborate machinery for stable cleaning. The machines were never constructed, the treatise was never completed and the statue was never built.
Isaacson’s book is structured as a series of chronological essays on da Vinci’s life based on the contents of his notebooks, which teem with sketches, landscapes, lists, experiments, stories, scientific theories, ideas, portraits of gender-fluid angels and autobiographical notes. One art historian referred to them as “the most astonishing testament to the powers of human observation and imagination ever set down on paper’’.
There are about 7200 pages of these notes extant, representing about a quarter of what he wrote during his life. This trove from the 15th century is a higher percentage, Isaacson points out, than the emails and documents he was able to recover from Steve Jobs’s digital archives from the 1990s.
Drawings from the notebooks are reproduced throughout the text, along with High Renaissance paintings and sculptures. It’s a beautiful book: Isaacson is a fine writer, but I spent most of my time staring at the pictures. Many of them are, of course, incomplete, including the Mona Lisa, which da Vinci spent 16 years perfecting, painting by day, spending his nights in a morgue, studying facial tissue by peeling the flesh off corpses, to capture history’s most famous smile.
Isaacson’s portrait of the artist doesn’t cut that deep, but 500 years after da
Vinci’s death, he takes us as close as we can get. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson
(Simon & Schuster, $59.99)
Some of Leonardo da Vinci’s works: Horse and Rider, Vitruvian Man, the Mona Lisa.