Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Review of "Leonardo Da Vinci" by Walter Isaacson - An insightful glimpse into the mind and life of the prototypical Renaissance Man

Before I opened the cover of Walter Isaacson's "Leonardo Da Vinci," I thought I was reasonably knowledgeable about the Renaissance and its artists. Yet as I journeyed through the 500 + pages of this fascinating biography, each chapter offered new vistas and levels of understanding into the unique genius of the prototypical Renaissance Man - his life, his research, his artistry.

A common thread that runs through the book is Isaacson's conviction that Da Vinci's penchant for not finishing projects- even commissions for which he had been paid - is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, he shows Leonardo as a flawed human being, not a god of extraordinary genius. On the other hand, he theorizes that it was the artist's perfectionism that prompted him to hang to works of art sometimes for decades, adding small modifications as his growing corpus of scientific research informed his artistic sensibilities and techniques. This was true of his growing awareness of the physiology of how light and shadow interact with the human eye.

As the narrative unfolds, the author intertwines insights into Leonardo's personal relationships, and how they may have impacted his work and career. We are offered views of the ruling Borgias and Medicis, Pope Leo X, King Francis I of France, writer and diplomat Machiavelli, and a stream of young assistants and lovers. These young associates both supported the artist in his work and his personal life, and drained him financially and emotionally. The most important of these young men was the impish Salai, whose relationship with Leonardo lasted for decades, beginning in 1490 when Salai was 10 years old. He evolved into Leonardo’s model, most trusted confidant, lover, ad surrogate son. Late in Da Vinci’s life, Salai’s role was evidently supplanted by younger associates, Melzi and Battista.

Another mixed blessing that the author points out was Da Vinci’s position as the bastard son of Piero, who was involved in Leonardo’s life, but never legitimized him. This fact meant that Leonardo was not eligible to follow the family profession of notary, nor to receive the classical education that most young sons of the Florence nobility and the merchant class received. This meant that Leonardo was forced – or enabled – to learn from experience and personal observation, rather than accept at face value the received knowledge that his peers were taught. He was free to explore new ways of seeing the world and thinking about the meaning. “Why is the sky blue?” “What is the anatomy of the woodpecker’s tongue?”

No matter the depth of one’s knowledge of the Renaissance, I guarantee that reading Isaacson’s masterpiece study of Leonardo and his era will lead to new levels of understanding and inspiration.