Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

I bought this book thinking that it was a typical biography – typical, that is, in the sense that it would be an absorbing story of an extraordinary individual set in a fascinating time period of world history. In these expectations I was disappointed. It is not a standard biography, and even the historical background in it is rudimentary.

Isaacson explains his intention at the beginning, so I should have seen it coming. In the introduction he emphasizes that his starting point for the book was Leonardo’s notebooks, which contain thousands of pages of drawings and text on all of the many subjects that fascinated him. As a result, this book is not so much a biography as a dissection of Leonardo’s interests. Rather than tell the chronological story of Leonardo’s life, which he does in some parts of the book, Isaacson devotes chapter after chapter to various topics that Leonardo studied and various subjects that he painted. For instance, there are chapters on birds in flight, mechanics, mathematics, hydraulics, dissection of the human body, and other subjects, as well as, of course analyses of works of art such as the Vitruvian Man, the Last Supper, and the Mona Lisa.

To be honest, I found the book slow going at first. Part of the reason was my disappointment that it was not a fast-paced biography like other works of Isaacson I have read such as The Innovators. Once I got over my expectations and took the book on its own terms I was able to accept its pace and get more into it. I still would have preferred a standard biography to the more disjointed analysis of Leonardo’s interests, but it is interesting and even fascinating in its own way.

By the way, the reason I keep using the name Leonardo instead of referring to him as da Vinci is explained in the book. Da Vinci is not really a name. Leonardo da Vinci simply means Leonardo who is from the town of Vinci. I’m from Seattle, and calling Leonard by the name of da Vinci would be like calling me “from Seattle.”

Anyway, one of the strengths of this book is its illustrations. It is full of reproductions of Leonardo’s sketches and paintings so that as you read about the works, you can study them at the same time. It greatly enhances the experience of going through Isaacson’s history and analyses of the various works to be able to see them and understand visually what he is talking about. Isaacson is not impartial, by the way. He is an enthusiastic Leonardo fan and doesn’t attempt to tone down his praise or enthusiasm. Which is fine. He’s not the only one who considers Leonardo one of the greatest geniuses of all time.

In conclusion, sure, I can recommend this book. However, when you go into it, it is important to remember that it is not a conventional biography. It spends far more time on explanations and discourse than it does on telling Leonardo’s life story. That’s not a bad thing unless you are looking for an intriguing historical drama.

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