"Leonardo da Vinci" by Walter Isaacson

"Leonardo da Vinci" cover image shown here.

In a recent interview, Walter Isaacson was asked who he would invite to his ideal literary dinner party. Some authors give a non-committal response to this question, but for him the answer was obvious – Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson spent over a decade working on monumental biographies of each of these innovators. 

“They would have a jolly time explaining things to one another,” he reasoned. 

In each of these portraits, Isaacson explores a common theme, as he puts it, “how the ability to make connections across disciplines is the key to innovation, imagination and genius.” His most recent subject is the ultimate example of this, the true Renaissance Man. 

“Leonardo da Vinci” is a heavy book – literally; it is as though you can feel the weight of information contained in the pages pulling your arm downward. However, this doesn’t make it boringly dense; far from it. This biography is a magnificent achievement of scholarship and insight into the life of one of the world’s great curious minds. 

Isaacson draws upon every source available, most notably the 7,000 pages of Leonardo’s own notebooks, along with the early accounts of Vasari, and also modern research and analysis of the paintings. It is Isaacson’s synthesis of these ideas and engaging writing that will make this the definitive account. For Isaacson, Leonardo's inspiration comes with his interconnected interest between disciplines. His studies of optics and light are reflected in his drawings and paintings as perfect perspective and shading, his fantastical imagined mechanisms were born from observing birds in flight, and Mona Lisa’s smile is informed by anatomical studies of which muscles move the lips. 

While visiting Windsor Castle to view Leonardo’s studies of water called the “Deluge Drawings,” Isaacson wondered whether Leonardo created them as works of art or of science, before realizing it was a dumb question. The lead curator thought, “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction.”

This book also gets you to look at Leonardo’s artworks and paintings with a keener eye, pointing out the paint smudged by a fingertip, the edges carefully blended, or the hatching that goes upward to the left, as a left-handed artist would do. These observations aren't just an academic game – a painting attributed to Leonardo would be worth vastly more to the museum or collector. The painting “Salvator Mundi,” which depicts Christ raising his hand in benediction, was long thought to be a study or copy, but after a recent restoration and analysis verified it as Leonardo's original, it sold at auction for $450 million, far exceeding the price of any piece of artwork previously sold.

Throughout his portrait of Leonardo, Isaacson dispels the idea of "genius" as a given trait. Instead, it was his boundless curiosity and quest for knowledge that led to such ingenuity; we are encouraged to try thinking similarly. Isaacson also draws a comparison between the world of Renaissance Florence and our modern society as epicenters of art, technology and commerce, where creativity and innovation can flourish.

One can’t criticize any of Isaacson’s choices of biographical subjects – they each played a crucial role in some of the greatest moments of creativity and innovation the world has seen – though I hope he adds more chairs to his hypothetical dinner party and invites some of the groundbreaking women to the table in future books. The conversation will become even more engaging.

In his tenure guiding the Aspen Institute, Isaacson always promoted a great diversity of voices, and I can’t wait to see what his coming projects will bring. He’ll certainly be missed around Aspen, though we can only hope he has plenty of time to devote to writing. His books are for the ages.