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Leonardo da Vinci

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Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo's astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo's genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy. He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history's most creative genius

600 pages, Hardcover

First published October 17, 2017

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About the author

Walter Isaacson

95 books15.6k followers
Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of 'Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Visit him at Isaacson.Tulane.edu and on Twitter at @WalterIsaacson

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Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books509k followers
May 21, 2018
Shortly after Melinda and I got married, I told her I was bidding on a notebook that could wind up costing a lot of money. “Don’t you already have a great portable computer?” she asked.

I explained that by “notebook,” I meant the old-fashioned kind. And by “old-fashioned,” I meant really old-fashioned, as in more than 500 years old. The notebook in question was one of the 32 surviving journals of Leonardo da Vinci.

After I won the bid, I broke a longstanding tradition. I was supposed to change the name from Codex Hammer (the previous owner was the industrialist Armand Hammer) to Codex Gates, but I thought that sounded silly and I changed the name back to Codex Leicester, the name it held from 1719 until 1980.

The Codex Leicester is not nearly as famous as artworks such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. And Dan Brown fans will be disappointed to know that it doesn’t contain codes protecting age-old secrets. But it’s a scientific treasure. In fact, there are insights, such as one about how blood flows through the heart, that were so far ahead of their time that researchers finally verified them only a few decades ago.

Given my fascination with Leonardo, I was eager to read Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson’s new biography. I’ve read a lot about Leonardo over the years, but I had never found one book that satisfactorily covered all the different facets of his life and work. Walter—a talented journalist and author I’ve gotten to know over the years—did a great job pulling it all together. If you liked Walter’s major biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, you’ll probably appreciate this one.

More than any other Leonardo book I’ve read, this one helps you see him as a complete human being and understand just how special he was. He came close to understanding almost all of what was known on the planet at the time. That’s partly because scientific knowledge was relatively limited back then, partly because he had a high IQ, but mostly because he was insatiably curious about pretty much every area of natural science and the human experience. He studied, in meticulous detail, everything from the flow of water and the rise of smoke to the muscles you use when you smile.

Amazingly, he did it with almost no formal schooling. His father was a notary, a profession that gave him some prominence and prosperity, so Leonardo never had to work in the fields. But because Leonardo was born out of wedlock (his mother was a poor, orphaned peasant girl), he was not sent off to school. That turned out to be a blessing. Leonardo got free time to wander, look at nature, and start creating notebooks full of observations and ideas. He became, in his own words, “a disciple of experience.”

Isaacson also does a great job of explaining why Leonardo’s work is so revered. Unless you’re an art historian, you might even wonder if paintings like the Mona Lisa are famous just for being famous. But Walter shows how Leonardo’s genius is in the details. “He became fascinated about how a smile begins to form and instructed himself to analyze every possible movement of each part of the face and determine the origin of every nerve that controls each facial muscle,” he writes. “Tracing which of those nerves are cranial and which are spinal may not have been necessary for painting a smile, but Leonardo needed to know.”

Despite his remarkable artistic talent, Leonardo barely thought of himself as a painter. When he was about 30 years old, he applied for a job with the ruler of Milan. After listing interests from military engineering to science to designing sets for plays, he included almost as an afterthought, “I can also paint.”

There was one downside to having such broad interests: He often switched his focus to new domains right in the middle of a project, leaving works unfinished. Here’s a classic example: After Leonardo won a coveted commission to create a large statue of a nobleman perched on a horse, Leonardo procrastinated by going down multiple rabbit roles. For example, he dissected horses to understand their anatomy, created new systems for feeding horses, and designed cleaner stables. He never completed the statue, and he never published the treatise on horses he started.

When you look across all of Leonardo’s many abilities and his few failings, the attribute that stands out above all else was his sense of wonder and curiosity. When he wanted to understand something—whether it was the flow of blood through the heart or the shape of a woodpecker’s tongue—he would observe it closely, scribble down his thoughts, and then try to figure it all out.

It’s a bit of a lost art these days—even though, in the age of free Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos, it’s easier than ever to satisfy your curiosity. It’s ironic that we can be reminded about the wonders of modern life by a man who lived 500 years ago.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
June 18, 2020
”Although generally considered by his contemporaries to be friendly and gentle, Leonardo was at times dark and troubled. His notebooks and drawings are a window into his fevered, imaginative, manic, and sometimes elated mind. Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder. One need not subscribe to the artist-as-troubled-genius trope to believe we are fortunate that Leonardo was left to his own devices to slay his demons while conjuring up his dragons.”

 photo LeonardodaVinci20dragon_zpsc7ff85di.jpg

This paragraph made my blood run cold, not because I thought about how different the world would have been if Leonardo da Vinci had not been Leonardo da Vinci (tragic for sure), but because it made me wonder how many potential geniuses we are drugging into “normalcy.” Are some of the great artists and innovators of the 21st century hidden beneath the layers of a cornucopia of drugs?

I remember, as a child, reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I thought that he had the coolest name I’d ever heard. My name seemed so pedestrian in comparison. I was even more struck by the term that still best defines him…Renaissance man. I wanted to be a Renaissance man. Unfortunately, I have fallen woefully short of that title, but the eclectic books I choose to read still show that that original desire to be a well rounded person is alive and well. In an age of specialisation, I find myself to be an outlier. I am asked so many times a year...how do you know that?

<I read.
I ponder.
I am gifted with infinite curiosity.
I want to know things just for the sake of knowing them.

”’Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,’ wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. ‘Genius hits a target no one else can see.’”

Whenever I read anything about Leonardo or gaze upon his paintings/drawings, I feel that same pang felt by Antonio Salieri whenever he would read that latest music composed by Mozart. I am awed by Vitruvian Man and Mona Lisa, but I am enamored with Lady with an Ermine, the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of the Duke Ludovico of Milan. Ludovico commissioned the painting after Cecilia gave him a son. There are so many things about this painting that arrest my attention. The alert, coiled energy of the ermine, looking as if it will jump out of the frame of the picture into my arms any second. The slight upward tilt of her lips, implying the hint of a smile. The enormous limpid eyes. The long elegant fingers that would have been a gift to a concert pianist. I can imagine the Duke coming to see her and just sitting in her rooms and watch her do...anything.

 photo The20Lady20WIth20an20Ermine_zpsoefr0f8u.jpg

While in Milan, Leonardo was also working on the famous bronze horse that was going to be three times bigger than any sculpture existing at the time. Unfortunately, this is one of the many great pieces of art by Da Vinci that was never finished, but in this case war was at fault. The bronze for his horse was used to make cannons, to no avail. The French take Milan, and troops used the clay model he had made, a masterpiece in itself, for target practice. Da Vinci left many unfinished paintings in his wake: The Adoration of the Magi, Battle of Anghiari, and Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, just to name a few. Despite being unfinished, these paintings rocked the art world, and students flocked to see them.

We have about 7,200 pages of Da Vinci’s notebooks, about a quarter of what he wrote. These notebooks are filled with sketches of inventions, few realized and most centuries ahead of their time, scribbles of ideas, doodles, and detailed drawings of his research into anatomy. Walter Isaacson absolutely loaded this volume with plates of Leonardo’s artwork, but also of pages of his notebooks. One, in particular, was very moving. I know I’ve seen this very image before, but life creates changes in all of us; something seen at 20 may not have near the impact on the same person who sees it at 50.

 photo Leonardo20Da20Vinci20fetus_zps2x7gfx3y.jpg

There is something just so fragile, so human, so perfect about it that I felt overcome by the beauty of...us.

He worked for a variety of powerful, diverse men, from Ludovico Sforza to Cesare Borgia to Francis the 1st of France. Leonardo was a sensitive man, but also had a very astute interest in war. He offered many times in his life to make machines of war for various patrons. ”The brutality of war didn’t repulse him as much as it seemed to mesmerize him, and the goriness he described would be reflected in the drawings he made for his battle mural:

”You must make the dead covered with dust, which is changed into
crimson mire where it has mingled with the blood issuing in a
stream from the corpse. The dying will be grinding their teeth, their
eyeballs rolling heavenward as they beat their bodies with their fists
and twist their limbs. Some might be shown disarmed and beaten
down by the enemy, turning upon the foe to take an inhuman and
bitter revenge with teeth and nails….Some maimed warrior may
be seen fallen to the earth, covering himself with his shield, while
the enemy, bending over him, tries to deal him a deadly blow.”

So vivid, without him even picking up a brush, we know this mural would have been unsettling and would not at all idealize the splendors or nobility of war. It might have even given a psychopath like Cesare Borgia pause.

 photo Peter20Paul20Rubens_zpsaeqinkm1.jpg
Peter Paul Rubens reimagining of what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari would have looked like.

I’ve read other books by Isaacson so I knew that the genius of Leonardo da Vinci was safe in the hands of the writer who has specialized in writing about some of the greatest minds in history. Da Vinci comes vividly to life in this biography and the magnificent plates scattered throughout the text of his life’s work. This is a beautiful, heavy book, printed on high grade paper, and will make the perfect gift for those of infinite curiosity.

 photo Jeffrey20Keeten20Da20Vinci_zps2dqtmo6r.jpg

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Nataliya.
743 reviews11.8k followers
January 7, 2023
Relentless curiosity. Careful observation. Flights of fancy grounded in reality, centuries ahead of his time.

That’s Leonardo da Vinci in a nutshell. The definition of Renaissance Man. The man who gave us the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and even Madonna of Benoit (say what you want, Walter Isaacson, about it being an imperfect early work, but I loved it since I was a kid). And all those notebooks in the left-handed mirrored writing, full of insanely detailed mechanics schematics, anatomy studies, and lists underscoring how exciting the world must have been when seen by Leonardo’s sharp gaze.

“There have been, of course, many other insatiable polymaths, and even the Renaissance produced other Renaissance Men. But none painted the Mona Lisa, much less did so at the same time as producing unsurpassed anatomy drawings based on multiple dissections, coming up with schemes to divert rivers, explaining the reflection of light from the earth to the moon, opening the still-beating heart of a butchered pig to show how ventricles work, designing musical instruments, choreographing pageants, using fossils to dispute the biblical account of the deluge, and then drawing the deluge. Leonardo was a genius, but more: he was the epitome of the universal mind, one who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.”

Walter Isaacson wrote the best biography I’ve ever read, the amazing Steve Jobs (ant this one comes very close), and so I am happily going to use Apple “Think Different” ad when it comes to Leonardo, the one Isaacson quoted himself. Because it’s so true when applied to the Renaissance master:

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Had he actually made his discoveries public instead of using them for his own “omnivorous curiosity”, as a means to satisfy that incredible thirst for knowledge, we’d probably been strolling along human-made Martian canals in a perfect city by now.

“This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the route of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway.”
“His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years.”

“In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.”

Isaacson is a great biography writer. He’s both objective and yet clearly an admirer of his subject. He writes in the way that makes nonfiction feel exciting and fresh and very interesting.

5 stars. Loved it. (No wonder Leonardo was always my favorite ninja turtle as a kid).

“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.”


Also posted on my blog.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,534 followers
February 1, 2022
Honestly, I preferred Serge Bramly's 1991 Da Vinci biography to this one by Isaacson. I read (and reviewed here on GR) his biographies of Einstein and Ben Franklin, and found them both really good. In the present work, the author is way too present in my opinion and pitches his Steve Jobs biography on nearly every other page. OK, I am exaggerating but only a little bit. Did I learn some stuff about my favorite Renaissance Man? Yes, I did and I did appreciate the insight into the major works and the theories about some of the lost or disputed ones as well. However, I felt the presence of Isaacson more than that of Da Vinci and would have preferred the latter over the former.
Removing a star because this really was an awful excuse for a biography. At the 2019 epic exposition about Leonardo at the Louvre in Paris, only the Bramly and Vecce biographies were featured. Read those first and avoid this one. I literally asked the Louvre bookstore and they told me that they did not consider the Isaacson book accurate or worthy of promotion.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,719 reviews12.8k followers
January 19, 2018
“ How might you describe the tongue of a woodpecker?” And so it begins, in my ongoing attempt to learn more about important figures in history. This time, I turned to the latest biography by Walter Isaacson, exploring the life of Leonardo da Vinci. A man of many talents, da Vinci lived a full and exciting life as he sought to scratch the many itches that came to mind and paved the way for scores of significant discoveries. Isaacson offers a thorough and highly informative piece that will educate the reader without inflating the narrative with scores of minute facts. Isaacson presents da Vinci in three distinct lights throughout this piece: the animated artist, the inquisitive inventor, and the abstract anatomist, all of which are interconnected and help to better understand the man whose name is synonymous with so many things. Supported by an extensive collection of drawings, referenced throughout, Isaacson brings Leonardo da Vinci to life with this exceptional biography. Perfect for the curious mind and those who want a better understanding of art, history and symbolism without the dramatic scandal of a certain Robert Langdon.

Leonardo da Vinci was surely one of the most animated artists of his time, if not in history. Born a left-handed bastard during the golden days of those who were conceived out of wedlock, da Vinci found his early years to be ones of independent exploration. His father refused to legitimate him, nor did he push to have the young Leonardo follow in his footsteps as a notary, which left the young da Vinci to turn to one of the other important positions of the time, an apprenticeship with a local artist. Florence was a rich locale for art and da Vinci learned his trade from many who sought to teach him how to capture the human form. However, as Isaacson denotes throughout, da Vinci chose not to capture the ‘wooden’ nature of artists at the time and sought to forge his own path by injecting curves and softer depictions of canvas creations. As he grew older, da Vinci tried to instil those beliefs in his own apprentices, with a strong focus on detail and nuance to bring the portraits to life, without falling back on a ‘sack of walnuts’ when presenting images on canvas. Isaacson references something that da Vinci wrote in one of his journals, where the master artist is said to have expressed that painting is both artistic and scientific in nature, with shading and colours that helps capture the subject from all angles. Given some key backgrounds on a number of da Vinci’s key pieces of art, Isaacson provides the reader with something that will open the mind and lead to a number of questions. Biblical references and symbols fill many of da Vinci’s works, which cannot be lost on the attentive reader, though this is more than the controversial ideas Dan Brown offers in a piece of fiction. The eager reader will be happy to see that Isaacson spent an entire chapter analysing and positing the foundations of the famed Mona Lisa, as well as speaking to its intricate detail, which combines all three personas from the biography. It is clear that da Vinci’s art is both full of detail and animated in its own right, which provides the viewer a chance to thoroughly interpret it when taking the time to absorb his vast collections found all over the world. Surely the man’s art is innovative and worthy of deep exploration, without getting stuck on too many stuffy aspects.

The inquisitive nurture of da Vinci’s art work can easily be duplicated in his numerous inventions, as documented in his journals. At a time when the Renaissance was in full swing, da Vinci began to have many ideas about how he might be able to help with the new forms of artistic expression. Isaacson discusses da Vinci’s desire to help personalise some of the religious stage plays of the day, where angels had to fly from one end to the other, at a time when man and earth were sorrowfully bound together. The idea of flight and pulleys came to da Vinci, as he crafted these theoretical mechanisms. Hundreds of years ahead of his time, da Vinci had many ideas that would, at one time, find their way into the mainstream. Isaacson argues that da Vinci’s inventions could sometimes be practical means of filling a gap in what was on the market, but there were also strong influences (particularly anatomy) that left da Vinci full of questions, only to be solved by the development of some inventions to better understand concepts that were unknown to the scientific world. The reader will marvel at the extent to da Vinci’s innovative spirit, pushing the boundaries of what might be possible, all to help fill the void of his inquisitive nature. Not all of his inventions were meant to aid in artistic expression. There is surely a strong influence on the political happenings of the day—da Vinci had relationships with both the Borgia and Sforza families, vicious as they were—whereby war machines were devised. There is talk of tank-like structures and catapults to launch objects over palace walls, both ideas that would have been fostered by the bloody campaigns those two aforementioned families sought in their respective domains. The collection of drawings included in the biography permit the reader to marvel at the vast array of sketches and how da Vinci could have made a greater name for himself (as if he needed more notoriety). It is readily apparent that da Vinci’s innovative spirit was fuelled by a need to better understand the world around him, just as his art sought to open new means of expression at the dawn of the Renaissance. Well before his inventions could be formally created, da Vinci showed how his inquisitive nature was influenced by his thirst for knowledge, especially when he was parched and left to wonder about the inner workings of the human machine, the body!

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects that recurs throughout the biography is da Vinci’s love of all things anatomical. From the veins in the hands to the inner workings of a foetus and the valves of the heart, da Vinci was keen to dissect bodies to better understand the inner workings of various organs and systems. During a time when the Church was still wavering on the dissection of humans, da Vinci sought to open his horizons by exploring the inner workings of various animals, when human cadavers were not available. The desire to better comprehend the human body fuelled da Vinci’s desire to posit about the workings of organs and systems, at a time when nothing could be done ‘live’ or with the body still functioning. Isaacson explores da Vinci’s desire to better understand heart valves and the movement of blood, simply because he could not wrap his head around what might be going on. While he could devise a few experiments and reconstructed the heart, it was only in the 1960s that much of what da Vinci predicted could be proven entirely correct. Not only did da Vinci seek to explore the anatomy of the human body, he felt it essential to depict it in sketches from all angles. Without the ability to properly store the cadavers, da Vinci had only a short time to properly sketch the anatomical subjects. Some of these anatomy explorations surely led to inventions that made their way into da Vinci’s journals and also permitted some of the intricate detail found in numerous pieces of art, namely one of his most popular, the Vitruvian Man, where da Vinci showed extensive understanding of length proportions of the ‘perfect’ subject. Isaacson explores this in detail during part of the biography and may be of significant interest to the reader. Surely his biological curiosities made da Vinci’s creations better and provided the viewer with a better understanding of the realism the artist sought in his work. It is baffling not to look at all three aspects of Leonardo da Vinci now that I have taken the time to explore them, and see just how imbued his art and innovations were with all three perspectives.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the presentation of the biography and place Isaacson under the literary microscope. The thorough presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life helped create a better understanding of the man and his numerous endeavours. I will admit that I am not a major fan of art, nor do I pretend to understand the intricacies of paintings (gasp or toss the odd rotten tomato now). That being said, after reading this and viewing the countless images that Isaacson included in the book, I have a better understanding of the nuances that certain artists use, as well as the symbolism inherent for the viewer to better communicate with the artist. Isaacson takes the time to explain many of da Vinci’s influences, as well as fleshing out some of the symbols that da Vinci uses in his work. Referencing not only da Vinci’s work, but also scholarly references and fellow biographers, Isaacson provides a thorough narrative for the reader to better understand the man and some of his thinking. Adding the images to the book permits the reader to see, first hand, some of the sketches that da Vinci created at different times in his life, even if it creates an Olympic event to toggle between text and image (only made more difficult for those who used the audio version, such as myself). When referencing his various creations, having a visual compendium helps the reader to match something up with the narrative and brings the story to life in a new dimension. This enriches the experience and permits the reader to feel an active part of the process as the layers of da Vinci’s life become more apparent to the attentive reader. While some chapters are long, they ought not be daunting, as the narrative flows so well and the storytelling is second to none. Isaacson has spent as much time here as he did with some of his other key biographical pieces, all of which should be considered by the reader whose curiosity is not sated with this piece. And... as for that woodpecker question I posed to start this review, there’s a nugget of interest that da Vinci never fully explored, but Isaacson offers up.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson, for helping pave the way towards a better understanding of this key historical figure. You bring Leonardo da Vinci to life and help the reader want to know more, which is essential in a biographical piece.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Ana.
60 reviews290 followers
August 9, 2019
As the writer says in the final chapter LEARNING FROM LEONARDO

Seek knowledge for its own sake. Not all knowledge needs to be useful. Sometimes it should be pursued for pure pleasure.
Such was the reading of this book to me.

This book introduced me to a man from a long ago time who was thirsty enough for knowledge and information that he valiantly erased all the lines between reality and fantasy, broke all the rules separating science and arts and even made use of the illegitimacy of his own existence! Before knowing about him, I thought I may be inspired by him but now WOW, OH WOW, I am so unable to start expressing my feelings.

And the credit definitely goes to the author for bringing every single detail of Leonardo's life to light taking into consideration his illegitimate birth, the divide between parents, upbringing, the environmental, economical, social and cultural conditions of places he lived in, the works of other great minds (friends/competitors/inspirations) existing during and before his time and how they charged his mind, the financial situations behind his works (complete/incomplete), his company (lovers/friends/teachers) and vast majority of subjects and fields Leonardo was interested in, the author has, without any doubt, performed a huge feat demanding applause, by giving notes on what the subject might or might not have felt while performing various acts of observation and experimentation!!

The only thing that made Leonardo what he was were the never-ending questions his mind threw at him and its curiosity to know the answers to why, what and how of anything and everything he encountered. The delicate detail with which the author has handled and expressed this Renaissance man's brain and its working is amazing!

A few words from Leonardo's writings I found moving and totally agree with;

Intellectual passion drives out sensuality

...while you are alone, you are entirely your own master...

If there is no love, what then?

Make her ride upon death, because ENVY never dies!

First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further because my intention is to consult experiment first and then with reasoning show why this is experience is bound to operate in such a way

One of the things I liked about this book is that the author has provided pictures with every minute detail that could have ever thought about, every reasoning that existed either controversial or not and every fact lost as well as established about the works mentioned!

Another brainstorming feature I liked is that the author has placed dates and times from other people's manuals who were involved with Leonardo during his personal and professional achievements as well has also tried to explain the effects of certain events and people on the great works of Leonardo!
Alongside this, the author has made research, read books & papers and quoted other biographers (new/old) to charge up arguments regarding various aspects of the great masters' works!

It states in the book that Leonardo rarely wrote about his own emotions so it is hard to know what he felt. Here, the author has well taken care to define the personal and professional levels of da Vinci's life to their very core so that we may be able to grasp the depth of his mind and heart through his achievements!

Alberti once said;
"One must apply the greatest artistry in three things;
walking in the city, riding a horse, speaking!"
Leo mastered all three.

Vasari regarding Leo a beauty of body beyond description , a splendor that rejoiced the most sorrowful souls__Isaacson

No matter how many controversies they may relate to the name of LEONARDO DA VINCI, his works or the working of his mind, this book has made sure that I stay eternally inspired by a man like him!

Thanks to the author.
My 5 stars!
A must must read!
Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,291 followers
May 7, 2023
Ciudat om!

Am citit cam în același timp monografia lui Michael White și pe cea de față. Și, odată cu ele, o mulțime de articole din bibliografia recomandată de Walter Isaacson. Ca urmare, imaginea mea despre Leonardo da Vinci s-a modificat substanțial. A fost artistul care a ilustrat cel mai bine Renașterea, așa fusesem învățat de Jacob Burckhardt și de profesorii mei de la universitate. Un „monstru de erudiție”, un om universal, un creator pătimaș, un ins înzestrat cu o curiozitate ubicuă, neobosită, un vizionar.

Nu pot spune că eroul meu s-a prăbușit de pe piedestal. Nici vorbă... Dar a devenit, brusc, mai uman, a căpătat slăbiciuni la care nu m-am așteptat. Modul lui de a-și trăi viața (ca „inginer și arhitect”) și de a se analiza pe sine (sau a refuza să o facă) m-a pus pe gînduri. Nu mă întrebasem pînă de curînd cîte picturi de Leonardo au supraviețuit. Walter Isaacson mi-a dat impulsul. Rezultatul m-a uluit. Doar 5 tablouri îi aparțin cu certitudine maximă. Alte 6 sînt acceptate de specialiști cu minime rețineri. Restul e îndoielnic. Puțini acceptă că lui îi aparțin La bella principessa și Salvator mundi. Criticii polemizează între ei (pornind de la date extrem de precare), dar nu sînt semne că numărul tablourilor originale va spori.

Sigur, în vremea lui Leonardo, pictorii nu-și semnau lucrările și nici nu-și făceau liste cu operele vîndute. Leonardo nici nu era foarte dispus să vîndă, își păstra cu avariție picturile în atelier. La Gioconda a lucrat cu întreruperi din 1503 pînă la moarte, în 1519. La 23 aprilie 1519, și-a dictat testamentul, l-a semnat în prezența notarului, Guglielmo Boreau, și a cinci martori. Lăsa aproape totul copilului său de suflet (pe care îl înfiase legal, crede Isaacson), Francesco Melzi. Din manuscrise s-a păstrat doar o treime. Un singur tablou moștenit de Melzi s-a pierdut: Leda con cigno (c. 1505 - 1510).

Urmarea se înțelege de la sine. Deși a fost indiscutabil cel mai important pictor din Renaștere, Leonardo nu prea a avut chef să-și exerseze talentul. Cel puțin 4 tablouri au rămas neterminate. Ca să nu mai menționez fresca intitulată Battaglia di Anghiari din Palazzo Vecchio, Florența (1503). Din păcate, principalul interes al lui Leonardo da Vinci nu a fost pictura. Curiozitatea l-a mistuit. A preferat să realizeze decoruri pentru serbările lui Lodovico Sforza și veșminte pentru actori. A decorat apartamentul ducesei Beatrice d'Este, soția lui Lodovico Moro. Aceste activități nu sînt demne de un geniu, chiar dacă și geniile au nevoie de bani...

Pentru comparație, Rafael (1483 - 1520) a pictat 80 de tablouri. Neîndoielnic, Leonardo a fost un om foarte știutor (chiar dacă nu a urmat școli înalte, ca Michelangelo, și nu cunoștea limba latină). A lăsat executorului său testamentar, Francesco Melzi, o bibliotecă de 150 de cărți. Și-a risipit energia pe nimicuri (el însuși o spune: „Nevoia de a-mi asigura subzistența mă obligă să mă ocup de fleacuri”) și nu a avut puterea (sau dispoziția) de a se rezuma la un singur talent, cel mai mare: a fost, în opinia mea, un portretist fără seamăn.

Pînă la sfîrșitul vieții, nu a conceput „ceva care să semene a plan”. Vorba lui Vasari: „Mai mult a vorbit (și a scris) decît a făcut”.
Profile Image for Annette.
763 reviews335 followers
July 11, 2022
This biography of Leonardo da Vinci offers a fresh look at the artist and scientist, who was distinguished by his curiosity, something we all can develop.

Through passionate curiosity, careful observation and an imagination, we can all benefit, and that’s what propelled Leonardo to all his discoveries, not an academic knowledge, which he didn’t have.

The first sentence of the first chapter had my attention right away. “Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.” Otherwise, the expectation for him would have been to become a notary.

Leonardo was known for many projects and “he envisioned what innovators would invent centuries later.” My favorite of his projects has always been an ideal city. When Europe was ravaged by plaques, he recognized that it was due to poor sanitation. So he designed a city with two floors, with lower one hidden for canals, commerce, sanitation, and sewage.

He was known for unfinished commissions, but as this biography points, he was continuously refining his paintings as he was gaining knowledge in anatomy. He “enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.”

He always had a pen and paper with him to write down his observations in order not to miss anything.

His mind was always as important to him as his body. He kept his mind busy and his body in good shape. He was a vegetarian most of his life, driven by his love for animals.

This biography emphasizes Leonardo’s curiosity, which is beautifully explored, from bird-watching to observations of shape transformation in motion, and how that related to his work. A spellbinding story of one of the most extraordinary human beings, who is no longer seen as one who was known for unfinished projects, but rather as a self-taught man who cared about the process more than just finishing an assignment.

“Be curious, relentlessly curious.”

“Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do, every working hour, just as he did.”
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,734 reviews1,469 followers
December 18, 2020
The audiobook is a fantastic production. It is in this manner non-fiction audiobooks should be made. You are given a huge PDF file with 144 pictures, a character list and a timeline. To get the most out of the audiobook one should sit by a computer and look at the pictures as one listens; the audiobook follows the pictures one by one in the order they are presented, each picture being referred to in the text. Each is minutely analyzed and discussed. A listener is given clear instructions stating where exactly to look and what you will there observe. I did see exactly what I was told I would see, most of the time. You could say that rather than listening you are looking at a flow of pictures while someone is giving you a well thought out guided tour of Leonardo da Vinci’s artworks, his notebooks and models of his imaginative creations. Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are of course shown. While I have seen both in reality, the first in the Louvre and the second in Milan, I saw them more clearly here in this book! There are pictures of Leonardo’s death-bed with his final patron King Francis supporting him, pictures of Michelangelo’s statues and paintings enabling the listener to make comparisons of the artists’ divergent techniques and pictures of Leonardo’s closest companions.

You see some pictures up close and others at a distance giving you the most advantageous perspective. The pictures are of high quality and can be magnified, making it possible to focus in on a detail. The notebooks are mirrored; Leonardo being left-handed, wrote from right to left. I actually believe that the audio version may in fact be better than the written book in that you can magnify the pictures and you can listen while you look!

Alfred Molina reads the audiobook clearly and at an appropriate tempo. I cannot judge the Italian accent, not knowing Italian myself. If Italian names are not your forte, the accompanying PDF list of main characters is very helpful. I found the narration very good and so have given the performance four stars.

What about the book’s content? Is it balanced, revealing Leonardo’s weaknesses as well as his talents? Are sources referenced? Are opposing views voiced and a convincing resolution to the disputes drawn? Yes, yes and yes. The book has a pedagogic tone. It is not long; it does not go off on lengthy tangents detailing history, state and religious conflicts, description of cities (Florence, Milan and Rome) nor famous people (such as other artists, several of the Medicis, Machiavelli, the Popes of the late 15th and early 16th centuries and of course Savonarola). The information is at times repetitive, this being done most often to emphasize a point. A basic understanding of the history of the early Renaissance will make the book more interesting, but is not a prerequisite.

First and foremost, the author wants to make clear Leonardo’s ability to see the world as a whole. His knowledge was multidisciplinary. He excelled in not one field but in many – art, engineering, optics, anatomy, architecture, urban planning and more. He drew analogies from one field of thought to another. His curiosity was boundless.

Did I get to know the man, by that I mean his personality, his sexual proclivities and desires, his dreams and his shortcomings? Yes. Some of his projects failed totally, and often he did not finish what he had begun. One could debate if that is a fault or a strength. Perhaps by putting an artwork or a project aside he could later make improvements. Think the Mona Lisa, St. John the Baptiste, St. Anne and his calculations concerning the comparative areas of a circle and a rectangle. His penchant for list-making is both wonderful and humorous. What shines out most is his curiosity, his imagination, his ability to observe, really observe things you and I do not even notice, things right there before our eyes but to which we are blind. Have you looked at the speed of birds’ wings on the up versus the down swing? Or how water swirls or how what we see up close differs from what we see at a distance or from the side. From observations, he then devised experiments. He saw patterns and drew analogies linking disparate fields of science. To say he was ahead of his time is an understatement.

The book moves forward chronologically. Not much is known about his earliest years.

The book begins with an introduction and ends with a conclusion, both of which in the audiobook are read by the author. His admiration for Leonardo is evident, but he remains clear-eyed too. The conclusion summarizes what we can learn from Leonardo’s life. What can he teach us? What can we do to make our own lives fuller and better? It’s a good conclusion, albeit a bit preachy.

In the same vein, I will finish with these guidelines:
*Be curious.
*Open your eyes. Observe all that around you.
*Appreciate nature.
*Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
*Making to-do lists is good.

These are not my guidelines but his. I like them.
Profile Image for Netta.
191 reviews132 followers
November 8, 2017
Unlike many readers of this book who were well acquainted with Walter Isaacson and loved his previous works, I picked this biography being quite sceptical and absolutely unaware of how Isaacson approaches his subjects. His bibliography looks like a very impressive collection of genii of all sorts - Jobs, Einstein, Kissinger and Franklin. Surely, adding Leonardo da Vinci to this list must be tempting, but this task, if you ask me, was too difficult for Isaacson to handle.

Apparently, Isaacson cannot be blamed for the lack of research as he constantly quotes Martin Kemp, Kenneth Clark, Carmen Bambach, Luke Syson, Vasari, early Leonardo biographers and many others (look at the Notes section of this book and you’d be impressed), and often refers to the facts that cannot be easily found on Wikipedia (they can be easily found in better written books on Leonardo and his art, but never mind). And yet it’s not enough to tell the story of an artist, inventor, engineer and a "Renaissance Man". Actually, the question arose while I was reading this book, if telling the story of Leonardo was Isaacson’s original intention at all or what he did want to do was to write a self-help book, dissecting Leonardo’s genius and mercilessly dragging him into the 21st century (the thing that Kenneth Clark thought should be avoided by all means). In the description of this book another question is posed: “What secrets can he [Leonardo] teach us?”, and Isaacson did his utmost to answer it. He devotes the whole chapter to summarizing what we can learn from Leonardo, including being curious, retaining ”a childlike sense of wonder”, observing, getting distracted, respecting facts etc. However, do we indeed have to learn from Leonardo, taking into account that the book is not called “Learning from Leonardo. Mastering your inner genius”?

It is also palpable that Walter Isaacson is neither art critic nor art historian. And yet he burdened himself with creating descriptions of Leonardo’s works which very soon became dull, being mostly constructed out of repeated adjectives, and the analysis of Leonardo’s technics which very soon became dull too, as it never goes farther than constantly mentioning sfumato, soft contours and tones. Describing the painting Isaacson looks like someone who’s reciting something he does not fully understand and thus cannot explain. And I cannot but mention that the Benois Madonna is exhibited in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. not Moscow as Isaacson states. The chapters devoted to Leonardo’s inventions, however, make up for it as Isaacson seem to be more enthusiastic about them or, maybe, this area is more familiar to him (and less familiar to me).

The other thing which makes this book a mess sometimes is its poor structure. Chapters on some life milestones, art, study and what Isaacson calls ”personal turmoil” are mixed, making concentration on the subject of each chapter rather difficult. The fact that Isaacson wants to put everything into the context of the era does not help at all. He creates quite a few characters around Leonardo - all of them vivid and to some extent appealing, but so irritably far away from reality. They look like they stepped into this biography from some fiction book where they were sketched by the author in order to move plot forward.

What has to be admired though is Isaacson’s approach to Leonardo’s personal life. Unlike many other biographers who try to manipulate the facts (hello, Mr Nicholl, I’m talking about you), Isaacson treats Leonardo with due respect and does not make any attempt to own his subject. This is, probably, the very first book where the fact that Leonardo was an illegitimate child is presented as Leonardo’s luck, not as a childhood trauma, because it allowed him to be a painter (and whoever he wanted to be), not his father’s heir burdened with many duties he had no chance to fulfil properly. And yet Isaacson tends to oversimplify some relationship in Leonardo’s life and some of his intentions, apparently trying to mimic his subject and create soft contours and biographic sfumato.

If quickly grasping some general information about Leonardo and forming major opinion of the nature of his genius (and what you can learn from him) is all that you want, Walter Isaacson’s book is almost perfect (or at least very promising). It explores every side of Leonardo’s genius and sums up quite a bit of research, but lacks admiration for the person and has subtle undertones of self-help book which, I suppose, can be excused.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,535 followers
August 9, 2018
This is the third book that I have read of Walter Isaacson. The first one, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, was fantastic. The second one, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution was not as interesting to me. Now this book, about Leonardo da Vinci again brought me to a high level of enjoyment. I learned so much about Leonardo, he was such a fascinating man, one of the true Renaissance men.

Leonardo was truly one-of-a-kind. He had a truly scientific outlook, fueled by his insatiable curiosity. His powers of observation were incredible. Just as an example, he was able to observe that the front wings of a dragonfly beat in the opposite direction from the rear wings. How could he see that?

His scientific mind was continuously trying to learn new things, and he left thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes for us, today. But he did not publish; he did not see science as something to disseminate to others; he only pursued it for his own sake, to fill his thirst for knowledge and understanding.

Leonardo was also a great artist. He saw painting as the highest form of art. And his papers became truly outstanding when he married his remarkable art skills with science. His drawings of human anatomy, as well as a myriad of other subjects, were his expression of beautiful art portraying his scientific observations. Where Leonardo especially excelled, was in his understanding of fluid dynamics, and his realistic art portrayals of fluid flow.

I had not realized that Leonardo spent a good part of a year in the company of Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli. Borgia was an inhumanly cruel and treacherous politician who hired Leonardo to devise military weapons against his enemies. Machiavelli admired Borgia, yet actually left him earlier than did Leonardo, perhaps out of disgust for his cruelty. Leonardo seemed all too happy to comply with Borgia's wishes, as he thought of himself, first and foremost, as an inventor of military innovations.

I highly recommend this book. Walter Isaacson illuminates the life and accomplishments of Leonardo. While Leonardo did have a few foibles, Isaacson shows how he excelled in so many aspects of life, and gains an understanding of his motivations, ambitions, and passions.

I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, narrated by Alfred Molina. He does an excellent reading of the book, and helped make this a very enjoyable experience.
Profile Image for Boris.
419 reviews158 followers
November 13, 2018
"Леонардо да Винчи" - биография от Уолтър Айзаксън (ревю на български след текста на английски)

One of the best books I read in 2018 was a biography. Not to anyone but to Leonardo da Vinci - a historical figure that I'm sure almost every normal person associates with a genius.

Actually after reading the biography written by Isaacson, I was left with the impression that Leonardo was not a genius. He was the most ordinary person in the world who only happened to ask a lot of questions about things around him in times when people were afraid to do so. His whole life path, all his knowledge, his whole contribution to art and science is due not to a rare genius of his DNA but to his curiosity that was stronger than the fear of the unknown.

There is no dramatization in this book - a trend that was kind of annoyingly present in the latest biography books I had read. As you read you can rely on 100% facts with minimal speculation and dramatization. Sources of information are mostly Leonardo's notebooks, many of which are stored in the Windsor Royal Collection and to which Isaacson had access while working on the biography.

I found the artistic moments of Leonardo's life very interesting and leading in the biography. Painting such as the Lady with Hermeline, John the Baptist, The Last Supper, St. Anna with the Madonna, the Savior of the World, etc. The information was very rich, interesting and, last but not least, useful. Useful because it seems to arm the eye of the reader with knowledge - knowledge by which to see the merits in his paintings that have made him an innovator and one of the greatest and influential artists of the Italian Renaissance.

Supporting moments in the biography were his scientific discoveries - the periods in which he studied topics such as optics, anatomy, hydropower, space, and so on. They have not succumbed to Leonardo's artistic activity, but on the contrary - they have outgun his artistic dedication. What really impressed me is the art he created, combining knowledge from all these disciplines.

I'm not a man of art, and that's why I find it a great deal that a book made me understand art in a new way and look differently on Renaissance paintings.


Една от най-хубавите книги, които съм прочел през 2018 г. се оказа биография. Не на кого да е, а на Леонардо да Винчи - историческа личност, която съм сигурен, че почти всеки нормален човек свързва с някакъв гений.

Всъщност след прочита на биографията, написана от Айзъксън, останах с впечатлението, че Леонардо не е бил гений. Бил е най-обикновен човек, който си е задавал въпроси за нещата около него. Целият му житейски път, цялото знание, целият му принос към изкуството и към науката се дължи не на рядък гениален участък от ДНК-то му, а заради любопитството му, което е било по-силно от страха от неизвестното.

В книгата няма драматизация - тренд, който ми правеше впечатление в последните биографични книги, които бях чел. Т.е. можете да разчитате на 100% факти, с минимум спекулация и драматизация. Източници на информация са предимно тетрадките на Леонардо, голяма част от които се съхраняват в Кралската колекция в Уиндзър и до които Айзъксън е имал достъп, докато е работил по книгата.

Намерих за изключително интересни и водещи в биографията артистичните моменти от живота на Леонардо. Нарисуването на картини като Дамата с хермелина, Йоан Кръстител, Последната вечеря, Света Анна с Мадоната, Спасителят на света и т.н. Информацията беше много богата, интересно поднесена и не на последно място - полезна. Полезна, защото сякаш въоръжава окото на читателя със знания - знания, с които сам да види достойнствата в картините му, които са го превърнали в новатор и един от най-големите и влиятелни артисти на Италианския Ренесанс.

Като поддържащи моменти бяха описани научните му изследвания и открития - периодите, в които е изследвал теми като оптиката, анатомията, хидроинженерството, космоса и т.н. Те не са отстъпвали пред артистичната дейност на Леонардо, даже напротив - май са я превъзхождали като отдаденост. Но това, което истински ме впечатли е изкуството, което е сътворил, съчетавайки знания от всички тези дисциплини.

Аз не съм човек на изкуството, и точно затова намирам за голяма работа, че една книга ме накара да разбера по нов начин и да гледам различно на Ренесансовите картини.

Смятам, че това e много ценна книга, която трябва да присъства във всяка една библиотека.

А ако не знаете нищо за Леонардо, освен имената на най-известните му картини - то задължително трябва да я прочетете. Няма шанс да не ви хареса.
Profile Image for Philip Allan.
Author 12 books362 followers
August 19, 2019
Before reading this biography my perception of Leonardo da Vinci was of the bearded genius behind a handful of remarkable paintings, and endless pages of drawings devoted to either anatomy or futuristic but impracticable machines. The challenge for Isaacson was to coax the man from behind the work. Five centuries of time and a paucity of sources beyond the work itself, presented the author with considerable difficulties. In spite of these, this book largely succeeds in revealing Leonardo as a charming and well-liked polymath who was also deeply frustrating.

The frustration stems from all the paradoxes of the man, and the thought of what he might have achieved. He was endlessly hard working, yet only completed a dozen paintings. He was considered to be an expert architect, who built almost nothing. A far-sighted inventor who constructed none of his gadgets. A gifted scientist who published no findings. A vegetarian disector of animals. A person with extraordinary gifts, who devoted much of his energy to organising pageants to keep idle Milanese courtiers amused.

This is a fascinating and well-researched biography. Isaacson does, on occasion, fall prey to the biographer's sin of idiolising his subject, but in the case of Leonardo da Vinci this can be forgiven.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,686 followers
January 13, 2018
“he never finished any of the works he began because, so sublime was his idea of art, he saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles.”
― Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci


This was an interesting biography, and an interesting approach, but it just wasn't great. Isaacson is one of those former editors of large, popular news magazines who can seemingly throw out a biography every couple years. He loves writing about transformative geniuses and polymaths, thus his books on: Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, and Kissinger[?].

Obviously, from any perspective, Leonardo da Vinci (the first among Renaissance Men) belongs on this list. I even liked Isaacson's approach of using Leonardo's notebooks as the backbone of this book. Or at least that was how Isaacson presented this book. Isaacson, however, kept drifting back to a soft narrative storytelling that comes naturally to him. It made the book, however, a bit uneven and choppy. The notebooks, with their art, doodles, ramblings, and jumps, are hard to translate into a Costco-selling bestseller.

To be fair to Isaacson, I did just finish, last year, Caro's four (so far) volume series on LBJ. So, it is unlikely ANY biographer would get more than 4-stars after Caro. But still, I was hoping for a bit more from Isaacson.
Profile Image for John Mauro.
Author 5 books394 followers
October 8, 2022
Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci is a beautifully written tribute to this ultimate Renaissance man. The book is accessible for a general audience and contains over one hundred color figures of Leonardo's work.

Always a fan of Leonardo, reading this biography has deepened my appreciation for him. I am completely blown away by all that he accomplished in art, science, and engineering. It's hard to believe that one person could accomplish so much in a single lifetime.

Walter Isaacson's biography is a wonderful testament to the genius and creativity of one of the most gifted and influential people ever to walk this earth. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,051 reviews578 followers
June 26, 2021
I suppose everyone is familiar with DaVinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. It might just be the most famous painting of all time, by anyone. I once queued up to see it in person, only to discover that I could only view it under the arms of and between the heads of a throng of people who’d beaten me to it. I recall being surprised at how small and how dark it was. I also enjoyed Dan Brown’s conspiracy theory regarding his painting of the Last Supper in his novel The Da Vinci Code, a theory comprehensively debunked in this book. I’d even come across his depiction of The Vitruvian Man, even though I didn’t fully appreciate it’s genesis or significance. So in my mind the great man’s ability to draw and paint was not in doubt, but what of his other gifts? I was less sure of these.

I’d enjoyed the author’s biography of Steve Jobs, a man who he’d spent countless hours with and had also been afforded the opportunity to talk to many of his colleagues and acquaintances. I’d found that Isaacson was able to really bring Jobs to life on the page, but what of a man who’d lived over five hundred years ago, how much could he, could anyone, really know about this man? Well, it turns out that Da Vinci was an incessant note taker, carrying a notebook with him at all times and forever scribbling thoughts, drawing pictures and making ‘to do’ lists. Moreover, over seven thousand pages of these notes still exist to this day! To put this in context, the author points out that this is greater in volume than the total number of emails he and Steve Jobs were able to retrieve to aid the writing of his bio.

Born in 1452, from the start there were a number of things that might have be considered obstructions to his long-term success: he was left-handed, gay, did not receive full formal schooling and had been born illegitimately. What he did have going for him, however, was imagination, perseverance, undying inquisitiveness and startling observational skills. His interests ranged from art to mechanics, mathematics (though he was never to become wholly proficient in this subject), the human body and nature in all its forms. His stance throughout life was not to accept received wisdom but rather to conduct experimentation and observation and then draw his own conclusions. And subsequent study of his notes shows that he had formulated theories and made hugely significant discoveries that were to remain hidden for a hundred years or more as he sadly failed to publish his work. Many of these discoveries were later to be attributed to others who devised their own theories independently many, many years later.

It seems that though he’s best known as a painter he became a reluctant participant in this art as years passed. In fact, there are reportedly only around fifteen paintings have been fully, or mainly, attributed to him. He was a perfectionist who continually worked and re-worked his most famous pieces. His practice was to overlay diluted paint, building up layers until he achieved the desired effect. In fact, he worked on the Mona Lisa for sixteen years and had still not delivered the final version of the painting at the time of his death. His knowledge of optics was way ahead of its time and this meant that he could create effects that were simply not achievable by other artists.

Isaacson’s book is exhaustive in detail and at times exhausting to plough through. I listened to an audio version that ran to over seventeen hours in length and was accompanied by a very informative pdf document of one hundred and eleven pages. The combination of the two actually worked very well and I certainly didn’t feel cheated by not having a full colour hard copy to read through. It’s a comprehensive and thoroughly researched piece of work and though it does lack a little of the closeness to the man embodied in the Jobs book I do feel that I was able to gain a real feeling for Da Vinci and felt a genuine sense of sadness as this account of his life drew to a close.
Profile Image for Beata.
729 reviews1,113 followers
October 30, 2017
This book provides an in-depth analysis of Da Vinci's life and works. Have always been interested in the Master, though my interests revolved around his magnificent painting. Thanks to this book I have learnt a lot about everything he was interested in. The books is well-written and the language rather easy to follow, some general knowledge regarding science required at times, though. I have thoroughly enjoyed this massive reading, and was especially drawn by the mystery behind one of the painting, La Princpessa. Da Vinci was one of the real geniuses who tried to understand the world and help others understand it.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
557 reviews7,414 followers
February 6, 2018
Walter Isaacson never makes Leonardo out to be anymore more than a human being. He points out that art history can often descend into hagiography, especially when it comes to its greatest minds. Both Vasari and Kenneth Clark placed Leonardo on a god-like pedestal, untouched by any other human in history and in possession of a truly divine mind. Isaacson does his best to refute this. He paints Leonardo as almost painfully human, as a man who rarely finished any of the jobs he began and whose attention and interests fluctuated like the waves.

Most of us know Leonardo first and foremost as a great artist. However, we are all also aware of his notebooks, filled to the margins with meditations on geometry, mathematics, anatomical studies, studies of hydraulics and numerous to-do lists. If you want a book solely on Leonardo's artistic endeavours then this book is not for you. Isaacson has numerous chapters on every facet of Leonardo's studies. Which means that you will often find yourself deep in a chapter about studies of the flow of water or efforts to square the circle. Interdisciplinarity was something of Leonardo's forte, melding art and science together in his notebooks and canvases, and Isaacson reflects this in his biography, creating a book which covers a vast amount of topics.

Having a degree in art history, I was interested to see how Isaacson would tackle Leonardo. I am very familiar with most of the accounts that Isaacson relies upon, especially Vasari's short, fanciful biography. I found Isaacson to be more than competent when writing about art. I think he keeps it to the basics though, discussing only the most surface analyses of each work, which was probably more an editing issue rather than the fault of the author. Also by not having a background in art history, Isaacson avoids writing in 'international art English' or 'Artspeak' as those of us in the field call it. Basically it is the incomprehensible form of English that many art historians write in which is just drenched in metaphor and imagery and is completely inaccessible to the common reader. Therefore it was actually quite refreshing to read about Leonardo's works in a language resembling English.

However, Isaacson is not afraid to put his opinion across on the meanings on some of Leonardo's most complex mysteries. I suppose he's allowed to be impartial, it is his book, but it does come across as somewhat jarring when the author suddenly jumps from the role as narrator and then begins to give his opinions on topics. Another fault of Isaacson's prose is his repetition of facts. He doesn't use a linear timeline for this biography, instead going topic-by-topic. Therefore, in his jumping around of the timeline he often states things that he has stated before, and events that we have already discussed. It doesn't happen often enough to constitute as bad editing, but it does happen often enough for me to notice.

Overall I found this to be an expansive and well-researched biography of one of the Renaissance's greatest minds. Some may take offence at Isaacson's portrait of Leonardo, which shows him not as a god but as a flawed human being. I found this quite refreshing, personally. It made Leonardo almost seem relatable when we hear about his Olympic-level procrastination and his lifelong inability to actually finish projects. Isaacson has done an amazing job of humanising Leonardo and that is the book's greatest achievement.
Profile Image for Melody Sams.
63 reviews30 followers
December 30, 2017
If you like a little psychology with your history, this is a book for you! It gives you a wonderful insight into the mind of one of the most fascinating men in human history. Da Vinci was quite the character. A bit enigmatic and mercurial. It was a delight learning more about his personality through this book.
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,715 followers
July 30, 2019
When most people hear the phrase “Renaissance Man,” they immediately picture me in hose and doublet, speaking in iambic pentameter or singing lustily whilst expounding on the physical properties of precious metals as I gnaw on a turkey leg at a local festival. While that is, in fact, the proper image to bring to mind, there are a few individuals out there, less culturally astute than the general populace, perhaps, who might think of Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo drew curly hair better than anyone in history. He was also pretty okay at being a painter, polymath, engineer, and scientist of the first order. And so, I suppose, we can reasonably dub him, too, a “Renaissance Man,” even if he can’t enthusiastically butcher a good Bon Jovi song the way I can.

Isaacson offers his usual mix of deep scholarship and eminent readability, just as he does in works that include Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Einstein: His Life and Universe, and The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (all of which, incidentally, I highly recommend). Here, however, he also displays an acute eye for art criticism, albeit at such great length that you might sometimes wish his eyes were, perhaps, a bit less acute because it is, in fact, possible to overanalyze the left-handed hatching within the third button of a gentleman’s coat such that you attribute entirely too much metaphorical meaning to it.

(Relax, art history pedants—I realize there are probably no Leonardo paintings that feature just such a button; it was an example of the kind of extreme behavior that I’m sure you would appreciate despite having no earthly idea how annoying such pedantry is.)

(And shut up—I’m not anything like those people. I do NOT correct people’s grammar in the same way. I just do it silently under my breath. They only hear me like half the time.)

What Isaacson excels in chronicling, however, and what makes Leonardo such a fascinating subject—and likely will make him one in perpetuity—is his boundless curiosity.

We remember Leonardo as one of the greatest painters of all time, sure, as well as an architect, engineer, scientist, and anatomist of uncommon aptitude. But above even all of those attributes, the combination of which arguably makes Leonardo the greatest thinker in chronicled history*, he appears to have been the most insatiably, relentlessly, and obsessively curious human that ever existed. It was impossible for Leonardo to see an animal and not want to know how it did something, a machine without wanting to know how it worked, or a person without wanting to know what they looked like if you flayed them and looked directly at their muscles and organs (okay, sometimes the curiosity thing got a little creepy). I mean, who else makes a note in their journal to remind themselves to “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker”? (I mean, other than someone interested in becoming intimate with Woody Woodpecker, and I’m totally not judging you if that’s you.)

That curiosity, combined with a relentless commitment to, and patience for, observation led Leonardo to become not only a legend in his own day, but to sketch out and lay the groundwork for discoveries and inventions that would take decades if not centuries to be confirmed or brought into being, making him a legend for all time. The fact that he did all of this despite little formal education makes it all the more remarkable, though that same lack of formal schooling drove him, in part because he relied on observation and testing hypotheses before declaring something to be so rather than relying on imperfect—or patently absurd—wisdom from classical thinkers.

If there’s a knock on Leonardo, it’s that he often conceived of grandiose projects that he didn’t finish, either because he lost interest or realized he couldn’t complete them to the level of perfection he demanded of himself. But, Isaacson’s account makes clear that one of the primary reasons—really, THE primary reason—he didn’t always finish what he started is because he became so intensely curious about something else that he couldn’t help but move on to the next thing. It was compulsive, and it’s a characteristic that undoubtedly denied the world at least a few additional masterpieces.

But, curiosity is also what made Leonardo the impossibly gifted cross-functional thinker whose legend has endured for 500 years and seems a safe bet to continue on for at least that much longer. I highly recommend this book for anyone who’s—wait for it—curious about Leonardo, the Renaissance, or how a brilliant mind works. And, I promise you that, when you’re done, you’ll start taking greater note of what’s happening in the world around you.

*Yes, it’s entirely possible, even likely, there existed an even more impressive thinker at some point—probably someone female or a person of color—whose story has been lost to the sands of time (or never written down because, you now, racist and sexist assholery), so, in the interest of not precluding that possibility, I’m qualifying my statement.
Profile Image for Cody.
304 reviews69 followers
January 21, 2019
"What made Leonardo a genius, what set him apart from people who were extraordinarily smart, was creativity, the ability to apply imagination to intellect. His facility for combining observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen. "Talent hits a target that no one else can hit," wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. "Genius hits a target no one else can see." (518)

"Be open to mystery. Not everything needs sharp lines." (524)

What makes Leonardo da Vinci such an enigmatic figure in history also lends to his appeal, and no better contemporary writer would be capable of chronicling his life than Walter Isaacson. The book is such a celebration of Leonardo's talent, but also of his important place in history, his unquenchable curiosity about the world around him, and the continuing impact he has in modern times.

The amount of dedication Isaacson spent on this book is very appreciated, as each glossy page provides important commentary and backstory into Da Vinci and the places, people, and ideas that incapsulated the Italian renaissance. Beautiful coloured pictures are present that showcase Leonardo's paintings, anatomical and engineering sketches, concept drawings and footnotes. It's quite a heavy tome. Isaacson explores Da Vinci's nature of exploration, reasoning, and scientific fact, and playfully tunes into the persona of the man that feels entirely respectable to the matter at hand. Readers will of course learn about paintings such as the Mona Lisa, Last Supper, Lady with an Ermine, and sketches like the Vitruvian Man but also his association with rulers like French King Francis I or the tyrannical Cesare Borgia, his homosexuality and relationship with the young rascal Salaì, the complicated associations he had with is own family, and of course his own influence and discoveries made sometimes centuries before becoming fact. Sometimes the techniques and science behind each of Leonardo's trials and discoveries in his work become shrouded to the reader in a bit of a fog as Isaacson describes their technical aspects, but otherwise this is a superb book. Da Vinci was always a personification of the duality of passionate knowledge and a veil of mystery, but that's what makes him so special.

Rating 4.5/5
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,469 followers
October 14, 2018
This is an engrossing, well-paced biography that is a pleasure to read. I'm left with a deep and motivating admiration of many facets of Leonardo's character, especially his eager mind, attention to detail, thinking from first principles, his use extensive use of physical notebooks, and, most intriguingly, his use of art as a thinking tool. It's fascinating to get a glimpse of someone so far ahead of his time, and it's fun to think about what he would make of today.
Profile Image for Emiliya Bozhilova.
1,257 reviews185 followers
May 9, 2021
Когато един ум се опита да обхване цялата вселена, значи този ум принадлежи на Леонардо. Светът в цялото му многообразие и богатство остава най-големият магнит за леонардовото любопитство през целия му живот.

Защо небето е синьо? Кои мускули карат устните да се усмихват? Защо водата се завихря във водовъртеж? Защо в планините са открити фосили на морски животни? Как летят птиците и може ли човек да полети? Леонардо неуморно преследва всевъзможни въпроси от детството до старостта си. И в процеса на търсенето прави пробиви в анатомията, оптиката, механиката, архитектурата, хидроинженерството, геологията и куп други дисциплини векове, преди да бъдат преоткрити и приложени днес.

Леонардо има едно огромно предимство пред много свои съвременници - той е напълно непредубеден. Така и неполучил религиозно възпитание и образование заради незаконния си произход, той е свободен да прилага на воля аналитичен и изумително съвременен научен подход към всеки свой въпрос и да прави експерименти, неповлияни от схоластични догми.

Живописта и рисуването за него са просто начин да онагледи резултатите от своите теории и експерименти, използва ги като заместител и за онагледяване на анализи, за които му липсва необходимата теоретична основа. Тази теоретична основа той обаче си набавя сам чрез опита си с природата, която го вдъхновява и провокира през целия му живот.

Наука и изкуство, реалност и фантазия, човек и природа при Леонардо са едно цяло, просто частица от мирозданието.

Веднага щом си отговори на един въпрос, Леонардо се втурва в преследване на следващите десет. Един живот е твърде кратък на фона на вселената, за да бъдат открити вдички отговори. Затова и Леонардо така и не завършва куп картини и проекти. Или не може да ги осъществи точно както си ги представя, във всеки един съсипващо дребен детайл, узнат на база безброй експерименти, или просто е изскочил следващият неустоим въпрос, който се нуждае от отговор.

Леонардо, увлечен от живото си любопитство, трупа знания цял живот. Но няма търпението да ги оформи и публикува в тракрати. Ако го беше направил, Ренесансът щеше да отбележи прогрес в к��п дисциплини столетия напред. И това е много жалко. Леонардо се увлича от процеса, не от резултата.

Айзъксън прекрасно е пресъздал портрета на един ум, опитващ се да обхване вселената, винаги в гонене на поредната пленителна загадка. И създал само като неизбежен страничен продукт няколко картини, куп незавършени скици, често по-красиви от завършените му картини и изумителни записки и дневници с открития и експерименти. И недостигнали до нас карнавални машини и костюми, изработени за забавление на могъщите му покровители.

Българското издание е отлично оформено и преведено, истинска наслада.


🎨 “Той знае, че изкуството е наука и че науката е изкуство.”

🎨 “Любопитството го подтиква да стане един от шепата хора в историята, които се опитват да научат всичко, което има да се знае, за всичко, което може да бъде опознато.”

🎨 “Наред с всичко останало той (Леонардо) е майстор на недовършените картини.”

🎨 “Любопитството му ... често се проявява към явления, които повечето хора над десетгодишна възраст вече не поставят под въпрос.”

Profile Image for Jay Pruitt.
222 reviews14 followers
August 24, 2019
"Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind."

--Leonardo da Vinci

The reviews of this book are extensive and overwhelmingly positive, so I would add only a few points. First, if you listen to the audio version as I did, you REALLY need to have a copy of the accompanying PDF (which I didn't because I listen in my car). The author gets into such detail with regard to Da Vinci's paintings and drawings, that it's difficult to follow along without having the reference material. Also, while exceptionally well written and researched, be prepared for a lengthy read - more than I generally am up for. I recently read a much shorter book on Da Vinci by Kathleen Krull (high school level) which I believe covered many if not most of the points raised by Isaacson.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
676 reviews387 followers
August 23, 2019
Very entertaining, but like the man himself, chaotic, varied, and slightly rambling.

Still thoroughly enjoyable and informative, if not exactly chiseled to perfection.

This one is a tough one to rate, why doesn’t GR have half stars?!

4.5 rounded down.

~ I have a sneaking suspicion your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much you appreciated your collegiate art history class. ~
Profile Image for Joseph Williams.
Author 9 books40 followers
November 2, 2017
I have read two of Isaacson's previous biographies (Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein). I particularly liked the Steve Jobs biography since the author was able to effectively get under his subject's skin due to his unique access to the subject. In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, Isaacson was unsuccessful in my opinon of bringing Da Vinci to life probably due to a lack of primary source material on the subject. That is always the bugbear of writing biographies of subjects from so long ago. In this book, Isaacson seems to try to compensate for the lack of materials by writing an art history book which is so focused on the artist's work that the story of the man himself (of what little can be known) is obscured by distracting and overly glowing details -- that is, it felt extremely padded.

Noting the other reviews of this book placed on GoodReads, I think what is happening is that Isaacson is so well-respected (deservedly so) that readers are biased in his favor based on his previous works and cannot look at the current work in a balanced way.

I rated it two stars since I didn't, on the whole, dislike the book and there are interesting parts to it, but it definitely does not stand up to his prior works.
Profile Image for Ana  Lelis.
459 reviews147 followers
March 21, 2023
I'm not really into biographies. There were only two men that made me read them so far: Elvis Presley before and now Leonardo da Vinci. I'm done with biographies. (For at least a good while) But I'm glad I read this one as well.
If I was already a fan of da Vinci's work now I'm even more.
Painter, engineer, mathematician, anatomist, biologist, astronomer, inventor, playwright, and much more...
But, above it all, a curious man...
An inspiring genius that will never be forgotten.

Profile Image for Diana Stoyanova.
589 reviews123 followers
June 17, 2021
Много добре написана биография. Страхотна работа е свършил Айзъксън.
Profile Image for Gary.
327 reviews197 followers
November 21, 2017
Walter is a storyteller....If you have read his other bios, you already know this. Same situation here...but I must warn you....Leonardo was a very complicated man....a genius in his art....kept copious notes about everything he thought, felt, and dreamed about....he was a scientist,way ahead of his time,and he used science in his art, and mathematics in his paintings. Walter included all the vast details, because that's the type of person Leonardo was.....and while reading this book his painting fetched a $450 million dollar price, a record in the art world..... I can't recommend this book enough...but before you delve into it,and scream how boring it is, and how it's just too detailed for you....... Skip it, because you really don't have the interest or fascination for this genius......just sayin.

I LOVED it all.... I LOVED HEARING everything about this important man in the arts,sciences,and mathematics world. Truly an amazing individual.

If you think you are ready to read about this vastly complicated, and eccentrically interesting man....enjoy! It's quite a ride!!
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