In recent years, I have made extensive incursions into the literary corpus of Walter Isaacson, including The Innovators, Einstein and Steve Jobs, I have always appreciated his work for its keen insight, attention to detail, and thorough research. Isaacson has served as CEO of the Aspen Institute and the chairman of CNN, but he is a class apart as a writer, above all of his deconstructions of the multifaceted subjects he treats in his book.
Yet da Vinci is a unique book within his repertoire in many ways. Above all, it draws upon a historical eminence grise rather than a contemporary figure, which is both an advantage due to historical distance, but also a challenge in terms of offering something new to the study of such a well-known figure, which Isaacson does indeed do.
Leonardo da Vinci’s life is fascinating in many regards. He is the product of a unique historical period, the Renaissance, when new ideas supplanted the old across many domains, and had a lasting effect onto the present day. Isaacson makes a contribution to our understanding of both the character of da Vinci and macro-environment in which he lived by chronicling the interactions that da Vinci had with key figures of the time, including the Medici monarchs.
Isaacson also proceeds with a study of every major oeuvre created by da Vinci, therein subsuming the cultural and economic context in which each work was produced. The most fascinating thing I took away from this book was how da Vinci’s manuscripts became the backbone of the research that Isaacson undertook.
We’re all familiar with the beautiful sketches such as the Vitruvian Man, or his designs for helicopters and war machines, but the reality is that da Vinci spent his whole life drafting his manuscripts, which really were mere sketchbooks for him. Since paper was an expensive commodity in those days, da Vinci filled every inch of every page with concepts that emerged in his mind. Individually, those sketches are beautiful and insightful in their own right, but taken together, they offer a vast kaleidoscope of a reflective polymath and genius at work.
I find it interesting that one of the great purchases of modern times has been Bill Gates’ acquisition of da Vinci’s Codex Leicester for $30 million in 1994 (which is more than $54 million USD in today’s terms), the highest price paid for a book to date. The Codex Leicester is a rich collection of da Vinci’s thoughts on the mechanics of water flow, lunar surfaces, and oceanic movements, among other things.
Meanwhile, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi became the most expensive piece of art ever to be sold at a public auction, purchased by Prince Badr bin Abdullah and currently owned by Prince Mohammad bin Salman. For me, one of the most interesting excerpts of Isaacson’s book discusses Salvator Mundi, specifically the orb that Christ holds in his left hand, for its scientific inaccuracy.
The question of whether this was a deliberate act or an oversight by da Vinci is treated at length, and exemplifies Isaacson’s analytic attention to detail. Isaacson arrives at the conclusion that da Vinci would not have made such an error in his work. It is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated, and a rich deconstruction of a figure who I consider to be one of the greatest minds to have ever lived.
This is part of a series of book reviews by Dr Aron Ping D’Souza.