According to the Italian painter and writer Giorgio Vasari, upon his deathbed Leonardo da Vinci lamented how much he had “offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done”.
If there was one particular quality that matched (and was central to) da Vinci’s genius, his tendency to procrastinate meant that most of the artist’s works were left unfinished and many commissions left abandoned, much to the chagrin of his patrons.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born an illegitimate son to Ser Piero da Vinci – a successful Florentine lawyer – and an orphaned woman known only to historians as Caterina, who lived in a derelict farmhouse with her brother and grandmother just outside the Italian town of Vinci.
To be born a bastard child was a stroke of good fortune for the young Leonardo. This was a time in which boys were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps and inherit their business which, for Italy’s foremost polymath, would surely have made for a tedious existence.
By the age of 12, Leonardo was showing signs of great artistic skill and this – along with other less desirable qualities – cemented Ser Piero’s opinion that his son was not destined to become the world’s greatest notary. As a result of his obvious destiny, Leonardo was never legitimised.
In recognition of his talents, Ser Piero arranged for his son to become the apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio, a painter and engineer who ran one of the best workshops in Florence. And so began the development of one of history’s greatest artists. Da Vinci enjoyed the workshop environment so much that he continued to live and work there even after his apprenticeship had ended.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography, we are presented with an exquisitely detailed account of the life and works of an artist he describes as “history’s most creative genius”. Having penned critically acclaimed biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, he stresses that the word “genius” is not one he uses lightly, but one that perfectly fits da Vinci.
Drawing on da Vinci’s notebooks (all 7,200 pages) and pouring over “hundreds of academic articles and doctoral dissertations” to gain insights into the Italian master and his works, Isaacson’s book is as intricate and layered as one of Leonardo’s paintings.
And yet, despite the deluge of academic references, the biography – written over five years in his spare time – flows as an accessible and thoroughly enriching narrative, giving the reader the impression that da Vinci is as well known to them as any of his early biographers knew him.
All of the highs and lows of da Vinci’s life are meticulously delivered with just the right balance of reverence and a healthy dose of realism for the complexities and contradictions of its subject. Isaacson does well to avoid falling into the trap of idolising da Vinci.
What made the man a genius was primarily an intense curiosity for life. This was a man with very little formal education, and yet he possessed an insatiable thirst for knowledge that would lead him to develop a polymath’s intellect which informed his work in ways that revolutionised how art was created and how it would evolve.
However, da Vinci’s curiosity could be as much of a curse as it was a blessing, giving birth to a perfectionism that would render the artist incapable of handing over commissioned works. The most famous of these – The Mona Lisa – took him 14 years to complete, and yet the painting was, in terms of importance, among the least of his works at the time, commissioned by a silk merchant for his young wife.
Writing on the painting’s most alluring feature, Isaacson notes, “At the time when he was perfecting Lisa’s smile, Leonardo was spending his nights in the depths of the morgue under the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, peeling the flesh off cadavers and noting the muscles and nerves underneath.
“Tracing which of those nerves are cranial and which are spinal may not have been necessary for painting a smile, but Leonardo needed to know.”
Isaacon’s biography is sure to delight anyone with an interest in the Italian genius. There are so many riveting insights into da Vinci’s life and works that I suspect the reader might still be discovering little gems here and there over the second or third reading.
While this is a fairly hefty tome (at over 500 pages), it feels like it ends too soon, given that the attention is held so intensely captive at each turn of the page. He might not be the on the level of da Vinci’s polymathic genius, but Isaacson has surely delivered a masterpiece.
Leonardo Da Vinci
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, biography