“Leonardo da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson | Quintillion Ink-Strokes

I am looking forward to reading more from Walter Isaacson, since he knows how to write about innovators.

Plot

This is the biography of the life and achievements of Italian thinker Leonardo da Vinci; specifically documenting the achievements that live after him and into popular culture and any rich person’s or collector’s possession.

Themes

Observation is a major theme behind Da Vinci’s lifelong research, whether it is as simple as a bird flying or complicated mathematics. In the case of drawing, he wrote about the importance of lighting and optics when trying to create realistic pictures. These observations helped him befriend plenty of the intellectuals in Milan and ultimately collaborating with them on projects. He would work with an anatomy professor later on in recording and documenting the body being dissected.

Though he was particular in his favor of illustration and painting as opposed to sculpture, since he saw it as allowing more possibility for optics. He would have these types of debates with his friends about this, and would get into a rivalry with sculptor Michelangelo over this.

Considering how Milan was a sprawling, thriving city-state at the time, it reflects off Richard Florida’s book about how cities actively attract creative types in order for it to function.

Because of these observations, this would lead Da Vinci to make comparisons and analogies when science was not yet as we know it. He used this in his scientific musings, particularly in an effort to understand how mechanisms would work. His stories were also filled with analogies, particularly the ones relating to Aesop’s fables.

He is more well-known for his paintings and how he applies his observations to them. Specifically, he believed that the expressions people express are reflective off their soul. While he did not believe in physiognomy in terms of morality, he did believe that mannerisms and the soul were interconnected. This led him to create caricatures based on the emotions that people showed on their face when being interviewed by him. This was done for the purpose of seeing how their faces contort and replicating them.

One of the major paintings that is the focus is the Last Supper in which every technique Isaacson noted about Da Vinci’s painting style is explained in the painting. The tone of all of the Apostles’ movements and hand gestures in the painting reflect their reactions to Jesus’ claim that someone in at the table will betray him.

There were plenty of inspirations to Da Vinci’s artwork and engineering and architectural concepts. He was inspired by Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, who were also polymaths from Florence. This would provide an important foundation to Leonardo’s success, as he found inspirations from people he might otherwise have never met. As for the ancients, such as Vitruvius, for the philosophical groundwork for his architectural designs, such as humans being considered a “lesser world,” in other words being in so much connection to the world, that the architectural designs he made were based on the human figure, which led to the creation of the well-known Vitruvian Man. He also learned from more contemporary figures in his own time, such as Galileo and Alhazen. Even when he took up anatomy later in his life, while he did rely on manuals written by surgeons before Da Vinci’s time, he mainly relied on his own experimentation.

Da Vinci

Although he did have those figures to be his inspirations, he relied more on his trial-and-error experimentations in order to come to any conclusions.

While Da Vinci was regarded as an innovator, many of his creations actually did not become realized, at least outside of plays. Isaacson also notes that while Da Vinci was fascinated by geometry, he was not taught about the process of multiplication.

Historical Context

Isaacson mentions that Da Vinci was born in fortunate circumstances, since he was illegitimate that meant that he was not obliged to become a notary and was given the opportunity to develop proficiency in his artistic and scientific interests. He further includes many other Italian intellectuals who were also illegitimate.

There was also the issue of French troops invading Milan, which stifled his creative pursuits. Though when it came to working with Cesare Borgia, he would help him build a fortress by creating a map detailing its components, as well as being in company with Machiavelli in advising Borgia to divert a river in order to successfully take over a city-state.

Isaacson also talks about Da Vinci’s paintings done in his time, but also how they stood the test of time. He talks about the various buyers, such as royalty, art collectors, and capitalists, who have bought his artwork through a chain of customers. This would show just how relevant Da Vinci has become.

Many of his observations were so far ahead of his time that they were not looked upon with interest in da Vinci’s own time. When he concluded that the reason why fossils were found on mountain-tops was because of the tectonic shifts, he somehow predicted the establishment of the study of fossils hundreds of years later. A thing to remember about da Vinci’s world is that it existed before the Scientific Method revolutionized European thought, so in his own “proto-science” he relied on making analogies, comparisons, and observations in order to answer nature’s trying questions.

Writing Style

Isaacson provides wry humor within his prose through the use of juxtapositions, which definitely can show that the biography is not tepid or tedious.

There is a lot of emphasis on the methodologies of Da Vinci’s observations when it came to his illustrations and attempted engineering feats.

Isaacson also gets into detail about the Italian artistic terminology, such as sfumato, in order to describe how Da Vinci was able to take advantage of these types of illustrative techniques.

Isaacson was also kind enough to include a list of how any reader can learn from da Vinci in his concluding chapter, which helps to demystify da Vinci and provides advice at the end of it in a big pay-off. This is where I would segue into the next section.

Real World Application

While even Da Vinci had inspirations behind his artistic and engineering feats, he still needed to be able to practice them in his personal life, almost religiously, in order to be proficient in them. This was especially the case when he could not rely on the words alone, rather on the concrete application of those skills onto either an anatomy or a painting.

Though it would rely on intense concentration and observation, which was among the pieces of advice given by Isaacson. They can provide hints of protyposymbiosis which is needed for innovations to be inspired.

Another advice is to provide some form of interdisciplinary approach to your field, since it would provide an in-sight not previously seen before. Da Vinci did this by combining his anatomy studies with his painting when trying to paint lip movement, which resulted in the most famous example of the smile of the Mona Lisa eliciting enough attention to be considered his most famous work.

Suggest This To…

  • Anyone who might have had some idea of da Vinci but only as the painter of the Mona Lisa and other surface-level facts about him. Isaacson gets into very specific detail about his life from his interactions to the material used in his paintings and his observations of those references for those paintings.
  • Anyone who has a knack for observation in a daily basis. They might relate to da Vinci in some way. The recommendations can be made towards any artists or in the Fine Arts field, since they can understand that their interests do not have to be monolithic.

Isaacson, Walter. “Leonardo da Vinci.” Simon & Schuster. 2017.

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