Currently I am reading a new book, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. It is a very good book for several reasons. The subject matter is fascinating to me. Leonardo really was a genius and Isaacson does a good job of pointing out the things that make him so. I’ve read Isaacson’s previous works on Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin and as in those books, the author weaves a fantastic narrative that is clear, understandable, and makes the subject approachable. Isaacson takes care to explain the differences in time and culture, and really delves into the why of the actions of the characters in the book.
One of the things that captivates me about Leonardo is a point Isaacson returns to often. Some of the main skills that made Leonardo who he was are things we can all work on to improve in ourselves. Skills such as intense and careful observation, passionate curiosity, and a childlike, playful imagination. How often do we not really look at a thing? Leonardo was passionate about the curves he saw in curls of hair and eddies of water. And he took the time out to really look at them. For me, I often decry the days I don’t look at the mountains. They are there, right outside the windows of my house. Or my windshield as I drive to work. How often do we not notice the things that are right in front of us?
Leonardo combined science and art. He maintained that in painting people one had to start with the bones, then layer on the muscles, the skin, and finally drape on the clothing. In order to gain knowledge to do this he dissected cadavers. When commissioned to create a bronze monument featuring a horse and rider, he dissected horses in addition to spending hours observing how they moved, their twists and turns. He built many stage sets and worked out elaborate systems of gears and levers to change out scenery and to make actors ascend from the heavens or up from the pits of hell. Sometimes he even made them fly.
All of these things he wrote down and beautifully illustrated in notebooks, many of which still survive and form the basis for much of Isaacson’s work. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Leonardo would draw “exploded” versions of his machines, detailing exactly how they worked. There are numerous occasions when Isaacson remarks that some theory or discovery of Leonardo’s was two or three centuries ahead of his time. Things Leonardo discovered, that because he didn’t publish his works, were rediscovered in the 1800s or 1900s.
Another reason I am really loving this book is the physical quality of the book itself. It’s heavy, true, but besides the length, that is because it is made of really nice paper. The pages are thick and the illustrations are exquisitely done. It isn’t an easy read, which is true of all of Isaacson’s works. But it is a pleasurable read and you can tell it is meticulously researched. I highly recommend it and of course you can check it out at your library.
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