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leonardo da vinci

31 december 2020

Walter Isaacson's Leonardo da Vinci can makes its subject seem like a Renaissance Orson Welles. Gifted at many different pursuits, Leonardo was a celebrity for always just being about to do something big – and then he didn't finish it, or didn't start, or started three different things at once and changed directions halfway through two of them before abandoning them all.

Leonardo's most distinctive work is a massive collection of sketchbook ideas for machines he never built, pictures he never painted, theories he never bothered to nail down. People began to collect these notebooks soon after Leonardo died, because he was a big star and because there was little else to collect. Botticelli and Raphael each produced about 150 paintings that survive today; with Leonardo it's more like 15, and you can't collect The Last Supper. (Isaacson says that a king of France actually tried. Can you move that? he asked. People in Milan were, like, no.)

Even the most iconic among Leonardo's paintings leave something to be desired. The Last Supper began to disintegrate not long after he painted it, and in its current state it is more like "wall on which you can see traces of Leonardo's concept for The Last Supper." The Mona Lisa is the worse for wear too, notoriously un-seeable behind darkening varnish and high-tech glass. No other canonical painter has a reputation based on so few paintings in such tenuous states of preservation.

And yet, that simply means that Leonardo was mainly one of the greatest, certainly the best-known and most-reproduced, draughtsmen in the Western tradition.

Much of Isaacson's book is taken up with reflections on Leonardo's drawings. His biography does not break new archival or interpretive ground. It is a collection of appreciations of Leonardo's genius, from a writer who specializes in biographies of geniuses at the intersections of science, creativity, and popular culture: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs. Is one of those things not like the others? Well, maybe Steve Jobs was a genius; at least, Isaacson thinks so.

Leonardo da Vinci is superbly illustrated and very well written. Isaacson takes a chronological approach and doesn't belabor any episode of Leonardo's life. Leonardo's ventures into military fortifications and hydraulic engineering get as much attention as any of the great paintings; this is the story of a mind, not of a stage in art history.

And it's not really a personal biography. Isaacson is wary of Freud and other distance psychoanalysts who have tried to figure Leonardo out. This Leonardo is a pretty relatable guy, for a genius: an illegitimate son who nevertheless used quasi-family connections to acquire patronage, build an artist's studio, suffer the frustrations of the creative business world, and surround himself with handsome young boyfriends.

Isaacson stresses how well Leonardo took to staging spectacles for rulers: in Florence, in Milan, in France. Much of his work literally went up in the smoke of fireworks, or was struck after the show. Leonardo actually completed a lot more than we give him credit for, but much of his completed work was ephemeral; he was a man of the live theater. But unlike Shakespeare or Lope de Vega, he left no theatrical texts behind – though Isaacson interprets many of the outlandish machines in the notebooks as stage contraptions.

But Leonardo drew from life (or death, in his many dissections) as well as from fantasy. Chapter after chapter examines some element of Leonardo's notebooks and concludes that the guy just looked at nature more perceptively than anybody else, and prescient about science and engineering even if he never built or published much of anything lasting. And above all, Isaacson argues that Leonardo arrived at techniques for rendering reality more precisely – on paper or canvas or walls – than anyone else. Isaacson values straightforward realistic representation above any other aspect of art or science, or indeed culture in general. And that's OK. It isn't like realism is unimportant or uninfluential – it's just that it might not be the only goal of human endeavor.

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. 2017. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. N 6923 .L33I827