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Leonardo Da Vinci


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.

David Marx

Age of Discovery


Age of Discovery –
Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
By Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna
Bloomsbury – £18.99

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all (Michelangelo).

To compare the current era to that of the Renaissance might well be a welcome yet debauched conversation piece amid the bars of France as the 2016 European Football Championship kicks off; but to seriously consider such a travesty of history (for that is what it surely is) is way, way off the mark of remote plausibility.

In Age of Discovery – Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New RenaissanceIan Goldin (who is a Professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford University) and Chris Kutarna (who has a Doctorate in Politics at the same University) attempts to show how western society can ”draw courage, wisdom and inspiration” from the bygone age of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Whether seized by Gutenberg or Zuckerberg, their thesis has essentially been written ”in order to fashion our own age,” wherein ”this Renaissance moment dares humanity to give its best just when the stakes are at their highest.”

Renaissance moment? Surely this is complete and utter bollocks?

In the opening of chapter one’s ‘To Flounder or Flourish,’ the authors write: ”If Michelangelo were reborn today, amidst all the turmoil that marks our present age, would he flounder, or flourish again? Every year, millions of people file into the Sistine Chapel to stare up in wonder at Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam. Millions more pay homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Through five centuries, we have carefully preserved such Renaissance masterpieces, and cherished them, as objects of beauty and inspiration. But they also challenge us.”

Too right they do.

What, amid the current, bankrupt euphoria of celebrity culture, is even going to come anywhere near close to the above paintings? Or indeed, the actual Renaissance? Katie Price and her annual, squalid wedding? The Islamic State’s ideology of crass and pointless murder?

In the same chapter, under the sub-heading ‘The Past is prologue,’ they continue with: The present age is a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks. Whether we each flourish or flounder, and whether the twenty-first century goes down in the history books as one of humanity’s best or worst, depends on what we all do to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers that this contest brings.”

Admittedly, Messrs. Goldin and Kutarana are right about one thing: ”The stakes could not be higher. We each have the perilous fortune to have been born into a historic moment – a decisive moment – when events and choices in our own lifetime will dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come.”

Indeed, the stakes could absolutely not be higher. And we do all have the perilous (mis)fortune to have been born during a time of nigh catastrophic change – where events and choices in our own lifetime will indeed dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come.

One need look no further than June 23rd, the day the nation votes on the European Referendum; where many millions of people will no doubt vote to turn the clock back to the dark ages. Or perhaps back to the actual Renaissance itself. Who knows? The frightening trajectory of which will invariably ”dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come.”

Alas, by the time one has reached the ninth chapter, simply entitled ‘David,’ bucolic bravado has finally subsided and an assortment of clear-cut-telling enters the fray: ”In the developing world, an estimated $1 – 2 trillion per year is siphoned away from public treasures by corrupt officials and cosy monopolists, facilitated by global investors and financial firms in the developed world. In advanced economies, scandals like the five-year diesel emissions fraud uncovered at Volkswagon in 2015, or the twenty-year Libor rate-fixing swindle conducted by London banks until 2012, remind us that people everywhere may cheat when given the incentive and opportunity.”

Key words in the above quote are ”developing world,” which to all intents and preposterous purposes, have nothing whatsoever to do with the Renaissance. Niente. Niks. Nada.

In fact, to compare today’s world with that of the Renaissance, is akin to comparing cement with Simone de Beauvoir.

David Marx