Re­nais­sance man

Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years on the Mona Lisa, but the paint­ing, like so many other things in his life, re­mained un­fin­ished.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - by DANYL MCLAUCH­LAN

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.