Leonardo da Vinci (Isaacson, 2017) is a deep analytic study of the historical figure who defines the “Renaissance Man” of the 15th century and sets a standard for genius with which few of us would argue. With no formal education, Leonardo set out to explore various fields of knowledge from engineering and architecture to painting and sculpture. As he matured he began to explore “received” knowledge, but always by combining theory, experience/experiment, and handed-down knowledge.
Leonardo’s prodigious intellect led him to pursue opportunity from Florence to Milan to Rome and back again and brought him into contact with the most influential aristocrats, sponsors, and other artists of the era. The great thing about Isaacson’s book is that it starts with a list of the characters included throughout the book and a timeline of Leonardo’s life; both are extremely helpful when the reader gets lost in the details of his inexhaustible curiosity. And it is this curiosity about so many things that, in the end, is the mark of his genius. “With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, water flows, and weaponry” (Introduction). This curiosity was coupled with an ability to make connections across disciplines that triggered imagination and innovation in all his endeavors.
Leonardo was not privileged. He was the illegitimate child of Piero da Vinci, with whom he stayed connected while spending most of his childhood in the care of his grandfather and uncle. Illegitimacy was not an impediment at the time and was seen as allowing a free-spirited and imaginative lifestyle. Leonardo’s homosexuality was also relatively accepted and allowed him to have relationships, dress, and conduct himself in ways that were freeing and unconventional. Having spent his earliest days in the small town of Vinci, Leonardo blossomed under the Medici family in the artistic and commercial center of Florence. His early training in sculpture caused Leonardo to study the mathematical proportions of the human figure in ways that had never been considered before. This obsession with mathematical relations is best captured in the famous sketch of “Vitruvian Man” with circle, triangle, and square defining the proportions and placement of the perfect human figure. Isaacson reveals in the text that this sketch not only captures perfect proportion but represented a “metaphor of Renaissance humanism: the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth” (Loc 2382, Chapter 8). This connection between man and the cosmos would lead to the architectural cross configuration of temples and cathedrals throughout the world. His interest in harmonic ratios and proportions were evidenced not only in anatomy but also in other sciences, art, and music; he believed these ratios were an essential quality of what we recognize as beauty.
Although Leonardo produced many artistic and scientific analyses and projects, his evolving and spontaneous curiosity left many unfinished. Urban planner, designer of military weaponry and musical instruments, producer of pageants, and many other things, Leonardo is probably most noted for his critical innovations in painting. He is credited with innovating both the sfumato (a word derived from “smoke” in Italian) approach, characterized by blurred outlines and dark/soft colors that allow for a natural blending of forms, as well as chiaroscuro (dark shadows with striking illumination); these innovations portray the subject in ways more like the eye sees most objects. The list of paintings of greatest note include; Ginevra de’ Benci, Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, Lady with an Ermine, La Belle Berronniere, The Last Supper (in which he explored innovations in perspective), Leda and the Swan, Salvator Mundi, Saint John the Baptist, and the Mona Lisa. Leonardo started the Mona Lisa portrait in 1503 but he regularly revised and improved it through the end of his lifetime (1519); the Mona Lisa is viewed by many as the epitome of Leonardo’s attention to fine detail and artistry.
Isaacson gleaned several lessons from Leonardo’s life that we might emulate in order to be more creative and innovative (Chapter 33, Conclusion): be curious, relentlessly curious; seek knowledge for its own sake; retain a childlike sense of wonder; observe; start with the details; see things unseen; go down rabbit holes; get distracted; respect facts; procrastinate; let the perfect be the enemy of the good; think visually; avoid silos; let your reach exceed your grasp; indulge fantasy; create for yourself, not just for patrons; collaborate; make lists; take notes, on paper; and be open to mystery. After acknowledging the tediousness of the research for the book and his own limitations to be as curious as his subject, Isaacson comments at the end of the introduction of this fascinating book, “But I did learn from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.” Good advice for those of us in the 21st century seeking to imagine and innovate our way to a better world.