Reviewed by Jim McCarthy
“Just out of curiosity. Pure curiosity.”
These are the final words of Isaacson’s impressive biography of Leonardo da Vinci, which includes a number of excerpts from da Vinci’s writings as well as over 100 illustrations of artistic accomplishments, mechanical designs, study sketches, and more. The final page of over 500 reflects upon a direction da Vinci scribbled in a notebook, a common practice of the artist: “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” The author painstakingly traces da Vinci’s intellectual pathways through the Renaissance as he staged pageant extravaganzas for royalty, consulted with military leaders, and accepted commissions to produce paintings and murals. The artist’s course is anchored by the author’s discipline in using his writings and notebooks as evidence of events and descriptions five centuries past.
Powered by an astonishing capability of observation, da Vinci’s curiosity propelled him to conduct autopsies to understand the mechanics of blood flow, muscle function, bone structure, and even the corporal functions that produce a smile. As the author asserts in the opening pages of this work, it is much too simple a characterization to call his subject a genius, as you learn from following da Vinci’s travels and engagements around Italy and France.
The description of the science, optics, and chemical composition of paints that contribute to many years of work on Mona Lisa are emblematic of the complex processes that have endowed our culture with treasures from 500 years ago. As with so many of his projects, the artist was never quite satisfied with the results, as we learn that Mona Lisa was commenced in 1503 and continued in his possession until his death in 1519.
Two cautions to readers: It is helpful to load this book onto a tablet to permit enlarging the illustrations for examining fine details described by Isaacson; and be patient and think about the information being presented. This reviewer was struck somewhere about halfway through that the line drawings learned in school art do not exist in the world as observed by da Vinci, as they yield to blending in to backgrounds and foregrounds. His sfumato technique of allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms, developed based upon his experience and observations; it reflected the visible world, without lines or borders, beyond the focus plane.
Just out of curiosity, this is a worthwhile read.