Book Review— ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: The Biography’ by Walter Isaacson

Before I started reading the biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, I did not know much about the life of this celebrated personality. In fact, I was not even interested to know ‘a lot’ about this personality. However, I had read stuff written by Walter Isaacson earlier and felt that this could also be a good read. And the author didn’t disappoint me.

The first fascinating thing that I learnt was Da Vinci was an illegitimate son or a bastard. His father belonged to a respectable social class but his mother was probably a peasant. Da Vinci’s birth outside a formal relationship might have worked to his advantage. It liberated him from the well-defined career path that people of his father’s class generally followed. As the author points out, many achievers of the renaissance period were bastards. This was a big revelation to me.

“Illegitimacy freed some imaginative and free-spirited young men to be creative at a time when creativity was increasingly rewarded. Among the poets, artists and artisans born out of wedlock were Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, his son Filippino, Leon Batista Alberti, and of course Leonardo.”

~ Walter Isaacson.

Leonardo Da Vince: The Biography, Page 16

According to the author, these individuals were thrown into a situation where their status was ambiguous. They were neither high-born, nor were they low-born in terms of status. They neither belonged to a family completely, nor were they orphans. Apparently that forced them to be more ‘adventurous’ and ‘improvisational’.

However, that doesn’t mean that Leonardo’s journey as a multi-talented renaissance mascot was smooth. He lacked discipline when it came to meeting deadlines and completing work assigned to him. Many of his patrons were disappointed when they did not receive completed works of art from him. I learnt that many of Leonardo’s works were never completed. The painting ‘Battle of Anghiari’ is one such work.

He did not enjoy unbridled success as it is made out to be in some of his shorter biographical descriptions. Da Vinci’s stay in Florence wasn’t as pleasant as he wished it would be. By the time he was thirty, he had not established his career as an artist or an engineer. Isaacson writes “As he approached his thirtieth birthday, Leonardo had established his genius but had little to show for it publicly. His only known artistic accomplishments were some brilliant but peripheral contributions to two Verrochio paintings, a couple of devotional Madonnas that were hard to distinguish from others being produced in the workshop, a portrait of a young woman that he had not delivered and two unfinished would-be masterpieces.”

This highlights the tumultuous life of the renaissance genius. Leonardo’s career was neither stable nor smooth.

Leonardo had to move to Milan and constantly look out for patrons who would not demand ‘results’ from him and instead give him the freedom to explore things as per his whims. That would probably looked down upon if one were to see it purely from a professional perspective. Leonardo’s varied interests constantly distracted him from completing his commissioned work. His obsession with perfection forced him to work hard on his preparation for each commissioned work. But his curiosity and passion for knowledge prevented him from completing many of these works.

Initially, Leonardo takes pride in the fact that he is an unlettered man. Isaacson quotes from Leonardo’s notebook where he writes: “ I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! … They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labours, but by those of others… They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe – but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.

But eventually, Leonardo starts reading works of people who have already done some work in the areas he is interested. This pivot in his approach towards knowledge happens when Leonardo works on his sketches of the ‘Vitruvian Man’.

 I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! … They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labours, but by those of others… They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe – but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.” ~ Leonardo Da Vinci in his notebooks

The author brings out this aspect of Leonardo’s personality in his long detailed narratives. Each and every chapter of Leonardo’s life is dealt in great depth by Isaacson. He refers to different sources, present and past, as he tries to figure out the most likely story after assessing all available evidence. This approach of the biographer, in spite of its relevance from the academic perspective, seems unnecessary for an audience that wishes to know the essence of Leonardo’s life.

It is a book that caters to a Leonardo fanatic rather than an amateur individual who’s interested to know the most important events of Da Vinci’s life. Isaacson has done a lot of research for this book and he was far too eager to include as many details as possible in the final version of his draft. Isaacson writes detailed chapters about every major artwork, personal relationships, important professional relationships and patrons that Leonardo had in his lifetime. I strongly felt that some of the chapters went into too many details of Leonardo’s life. The world needs a crisp and fast read about Leonardo without tedious details.

So, what should be the key takeaway for a reader after reading 500 odd pages about Leonardo’s life? The author does not leave this to our imagination. He writes a list of things to learn from Leonardo’s life in his conclusive chapter. Some of these ‘lessons’ seem counterintuitive. The author asks you to ‘go down rabbit holes’, ‘get distracted,’ ‘procrastinate’ and ‘allow the perfect be the enemy of the good’. Of course, all these behaviours can give you an advantage in the right circumstances. In spite of this caveat, I don’t expect to see another Leonardo Da Vinci capturing the imagination of the world like the original one did.

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