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Biography: Leonardo da Vinci


Simply put: he is history’s most creative genius.

Leonardo da Vinci was a passionate and brilliant artist. He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper, and Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, Leonardo was more a man of science and technology. With a obsessive way of examining life, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry.

A biographer of other big thinkers-- the acclaimed bestsellers Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin-- Walter Isaacson brings Leonardo (1452-1519) to life in this lavish and masterful new biography.

Isaacson takes the reader backstage behind this legend-- a legend very much touted by Leonardo himself-- and conveys the man as "as a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.”

Hailing from the tiny village of da Vinci near Florence, he was self-taught and willed his way to his genius. Leonardo documented his life's work in painstaking detail. Some 7,200 pages of astonishing scribbles, sketches and uncanny observations survive.

“He made lists of questions every week, from ‘Why is the sky blue?’ to 'Ask [a friend of his] about how to do a measurement of the sun,' to things like 'Describe the tongue of a woodpecker' — something you'd want to know only out of pure curiosity,” Isaacson says. "Now, who in the world would wake up one morning and put on their to-do list 'describe the tongue of the woodpecker'? But there it is."

At his sessions in a hospital morgue near his studio in Florence, Leonardo peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. But the creator of the Mona Lisa only mentioned his artistic abilities as an afterthought.

“What he mainly pitched was a pretense of military engineering expertise,” states Isaacson. "These boasts were aspirational. He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described.

“When he reached that unnerving milestone of turning 30, he writes a job application to the Duke of Milan and he lists all the things he can do in 11 paragraphs. And the first 10 paragraphs are sort of engineering and design, like, I can design public buildings, I can divert the course of waters, I can make weapons of war. It's only in the 11th paragraph where he says, I can also paint."

His "Salvator Mundi" has become the most expensive artwork to ever sell at auction, going for $450.3 million at auction in New York on Nov. 15. Dating back to around 1500, the rare painting is one of fewer than 20 authenticated works by the Italian in existence.

Leonardo's creativity came from standing at the intersection of the humanities and science which is illustrated in his  seminal drawing of Vitruvian Man. Many experts speculate it could actually be him.

“But if you look at say, 'Vitruvian Man,' the guy spread-eagle in the circle in the square," Isaacson writes, "which is a self-portrait of Leonardo figuring out, 'How do I fit in, how do I match the proportions of a church and of the universe?' — you can see that as an icon both of science and of art.”

Isaacson describes Leonardo's lifelong zest for staging theatrical productions by creating sets, costumes, scenery and stage mechanisms to delight his audiences (and employers) at various court celebrations. His theatre work triggered insights to his paintings and inventions.

The author calls the Last Supper a “mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy.” Regarding the uncompleted Mona Lisa, Isaacson writes “never in a painting have motion and emotion, the paired touchstones of Leonardo’s art, been so intertwined.”

This is a powerful story of the pioneering genius four centuries ahead of his time who not only received knowledge, but regularly questioned it. A rebel who dared to think differently.