Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster- £30.00
Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering.
Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.
The portrayal of the landscape behind Lisa contains other tricks of the eye. We see it from high above, as if from a bird’s-eye view. The geological formations and misty mountains incorporate a mix, as did much of what Leonardo produced, of science and fantasy. The barren jaggedness evokes prehistoric eons, but it is connected to the present by a faint arched bridge […]. The horizon on the right side seems higher and more distant than the one on the left, a disjuncture that gives the painting a sense of dynamism. The earth seems to twist like Lisa’s torso does, and her head seems to cock slightly when you shift from focusing on the left horizon to the right horizon.
Where most biographies start with an Introduction, Leonardo Da Vinci – The Biography – a most terrific of book if ever there was one – embarks upon a list of principal characters; all of whom fall within the ‘Primary Periods of Leonardo da Vinci’s Life.’ This is then immediately followed by a colourful, four-page Timeline – which almost acts as something of an inadvertent reminder of just how much da Vinci achieved in his lifetime.
Thus by the time one has reached the actual Introduction itself (endearingly entitled ‘I Can Also Paint’), one has already gleaned an undercurrent of periodic knowledge. And if there’s one thing and one thing alone that one ought to equate with Leonardo da Vinci, it is surely knowledge.
That said, to say Walter Isaacson herein deciphers and homes in on someone who was very clearly a most complex human being, is something of the quintessential understatement.
Such a simple, albeit effective line as ”vision without execution is hallucination,” is as surely alluring from a reading perspective, as it is most profound within the parameters of da Vinci’s work itself. Might as much stem from the openness of the author’s approach throughout these thirty-three chapters; most, if not all of which, are underlined by a more than regal, sensible and what’s more, relatively current grounding: ”[…] when Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of streets signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. ”He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, ”and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”
Moreover, one does feel the need to openly admit that such grounding is as equally aligned with daring, as the very first of the above three opening quotes – with regards Leonardo’s technical fantasies – ought surely substantiate.
After all, such daring is itself immediately clarified by the following, wherein Isaacson writes: ”His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.”
I do indeed rather like the author’s use of the word ‘contraptions,’ which again, focuses on the subject’s potentiality, as opposed to a seemingly fawning conglomeration of all that da Vinci achieved throughout his lifetime. As such, these 525 pages (excluding Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources, extensive Notes, Illustration Credits and Index) are just as much an appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, as they are a chronological re-telling.
Suffice to say, there’s an entire chapter devoted to The Mona Lisa which is as equally revelatory as it is informed.
If not scientific in description.
Throughout the chapter, Isaacson bequeaths both the reader as well as the art lover, with oodles to ponder upon. Not to mention, continue thinking about: ”Covering Lisa’s hair is a gossamer veil, worn as a mark of virtue (not mourning), which is so transparent that it would be almost unnoticeable were it not for the line it makes across the top of her forehead. Look carefully at how it drapes loosely over her hair near her right ear; it is evident that Leonardo was meticulous enough to paint the background landscape first and then used almost transparent glazes to paint the veil over it […]. Depicting veils came naturally to Leonardo. He had a fingertip feel for the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception. Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, he wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything with a sfumato-like softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscapes stretching out to infinity; it applies even to the outlines of Lisa’s fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.”
That Isaacson’s previous books, among others, include Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, A Benjamin Franklin Reader and Kissinger: A Biography; one invariably knows one is in good academic, if not well researched company whilst reading this most audacious and engaging of biographies. Along with a menagerie of colour plates, reproductions and r-produced diagrams throughout, Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography is a veritable treasure-trove of literary finesse, analyses and a whole lot more besides.