You would expect to find in a biography of a luminary on the scale of Da Vinci an enormous constellation of facts and insights and delights, and Walter Isaacson certainly provides those and then some. As with the two other Isaacson biographies I’ve reviewed in Carlrbrush.com–one of Benjamin Franklin (http://bit.ly/2CFj1zh) and the other of Albert Einstein (http://bit.ly/2CfgxM8)–I find Walter the most amenable of biographers. He’s not always the easiest to read, but he rewards a bit of effort more than, say, the more facile David McCulloch, whom I admit to enjoying as well.
So after exploring the intricacies of this archetypal Renaissance man’s life, what did I come away with? Perhaps the most amazing item was that he was no good at math. Never mastered long division or multiplication. It would seem as if a brain like that would find such mundane subjects–well–no-brainers. Of course, if he’d had calculus as a tool, he might have fared better, but he didn’t get around to inventing it, and Isaac Newton was still a few centuries in the future, so he did without. How? This is the most marvelous fact of all, and one I still don’t understand. When he had to solve a vexing puzzle of, say, perspective, he did it all geometrically. Same with learning to calculate the relative areas of a square and a circle, or the volumes of a sphere and a cube. Isaacson explains these operations in some detail, but read and re-read though I might, they are as beyond me as Einstein’s insights about the speed and shape of light.
Another thing. One of his most amazing paintings was in some sense a failure. He was an obsessive worker and reworker materials and processes. So much did he insist on returning to his favorite works over and again that he couldn’t stand the thought of having to paint the fresco of The Last Supper on wet plaster and let the result stand. He painted on dry plaster, tried to find ways to make it fast. But it began to deteriorate quite soon. Thus, despite centuries of restorations, what we have is nowhere near the original.
What else? He and Michelangelo were pretty much enemies. Leonardo thought Mr. M. painted like a sculptor, all hard edges with no subtlety of line or texture. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had no respect for his elder.
So those are a few factoids to go along with what most of us know about this guy who could paint the Mona Lisa (whose smile was based on his observations about the muscles of face and lips gleaned from hours at the dissection table) with one hand (by the way, he was a southpaw) and draw fantasies of flying machines and submarines with the other, and stop along the way to give us the Vitruvian Man. One of the reasons, of course, was that he seems to have been totally ADHD, seldom able to concentrate on a single project for long at a time. So, of course, we want to beat that sort of thing out of our kids?