Walter Isaacson’s biography portrays a man obsessed with knowledge and almost impossible to know.
A review by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Walter Isaacson, at the start of his new biography, “Leonardo da Vinci” (Simon & Schuster), describes his subject as “history’s consummate innovator,” which makes perfect sense, since Isaacson seems to have got the idea for writing his book from Steve Jobs, the subject of his previous biography. Leonardo, we learn, was Jobs’s hero. Isaacson sees a particular kinship between the men because both worked at the crossroads of “arts and sciences, humanities and technology”—as did Isaacson’s earlier subjects, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. For all the unfamiliar challenges this book presents, in terms of history and culture, Isaacson is working a familiar theme. As always, he writes with a strongly synthesizing intelligence across a tremendous range; the result is a valuable introduction to a complex subject. He states right off that he takes the notebooks, rather than the paintings, as his starting point, and it isn’t surprising that he has the most to say when he slows his pace and settles into a (still brief) discussion of optics, say, or the aortic valve. The most sustained and engrossing chapter is largely devoted to Leonardo’s water studies—vortices, floods, cloud formation—and depends on one of the remaining complete notebooks, the Codex Leicester. The codex is currently owned by Bill Gates, who (as Isaacson does not point out) had some of its digitized pages used for a screen saver on the Microsoft operating system.
Isaacson’s Leonardo is a comparably modern figure, not merely “human,” as the author likes to point out, but a blithe societal misfit: “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” True enough, although Isaacson sometimes strains the relatability. His Leonardo is lucky to have been born illegitimate—because he was not expected to follow his father into the notary business—and lucky, too, to have been only minimally educated, in math and writing, rather than schooled in the Latin authors reserved for youths of higher rank. Untrammelled by authority, he was free to think creatively. As for being easily distracted, Isaacson warns that a young Leonardo today might well be medicated out of his creative urges. Beneath its diligent research, the book is a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it. Isaacson’s answer, repeated like a mantra, lies precisely in the Leonardesque (or Jobsian) refusal to distinguish art from science, observation from imagination, and to attain a “combinatory creativity.” And this goal isn’t just the prerogative of genius; we can all approach it.
The most up-to-date if occasionally dismaying aspect of the book is its framing as a self-help guide, along the lines of “How Leonardo Can Change Your Life.” Isaacson explains that, while working on the book, he taught himself to be more observant, and it isn’t hard to respect his good intentions—he mentions sunlight, eddying water—until he writes, “When I saw the hint of a smile come across someone’s lips, I tried to fathom her inner mysteries.” One hopes that she shook him out of it. Fortunately, the book contains several clear and absorbing pages about the “Mona Lisa” ’s famously mysterious smile, particularly in relation to Leonardo’s studies of lip muscles, which he dissected, and drew, alternately, with skin on and skin off. Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life, which is rewarding even if it doesn’t set you on the path to enlightenment.