I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things. Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.
What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush. He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.
And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things. That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on. It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa. Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole. Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.
Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human. That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often. This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity. In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.