Back in November of last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Texas Book Festival here in Austin, Texas for the first time. I was especially excited to get to be there because Walter Isaacson was present and was signing his books. I picked up his biography of Leonardo da Vinci (as well as his Steve Jobs biography) and he graciously autographed both for me. It took me until February to work my way through my TBR stack to his da Vinci bio and it was well worth the wait.
I was especially interested in the da Vinci biography because I have always admired his artistic skill, his scientific mind, and the incredible inventiveness of his life. The man took old ideas and reimagined them into something even better and also created completely new ideas, some of which were too far ahead of their time to be possible in his lifetime.
But another reason I was very excited to read the da Vinci biography was because back in May of 2007, I had the immense pleasure of visiting the town of Amboise in the Loire Valley of France and the Château du Clos Lucé, just down the road from the King’s palace, where Leonardo spent the final three years of his life. I count it as one of the highest experiences of my life that I was able to walk through the same halls of the Château du Clos Lucé that da Vinci walked, tour through his workrooms, his living quarters, and his bedroom where he drew his last breath, surrounded by some of his incredible paintings and writings.
I wish that they had allowed photos inside the Château du Clos Lucé, but sadly they did not. You could only take photos outside and on the grounds, which are beautiful, but you would have been so amazed to see the things inside. Paintings and sketches in various stages of completion, inventions, notebooks using his “mirror handwriting”, the view from his bedroom of the palace (which had an underground tunnel so that the King could come to Clos Lucé unseen, or so Leonardo could do the same going to the palace). The bed where he passed away.
Isaacson’s biography is absolutely incredible on multiple levels. Not only does he tell the story of the life of Leonardo da Vinci, but he deeply explores the thoughts, relationships, skill, and talent of the man. Isaacson is a writer and journalist, as well as a professor of history at Tulane University. To read Leonardo’s biography, you might be inclined to believe that Isaacson is also a university art professor. He delves deeply into the artistic style of da Vinci (and how that changed and improved over the years), and incredibly explains the techniques the master employs to achieve the effects that he does in his sketches and paintings. Isaacson makes you appreciate all the more the wonderful artistic works of da Vinci by explaining the technical mechanics that enhanced the talent.
In addition, Isaacson goes into great detail about da Vinci’s engineering and scientific thought processes, showing how he imagined the way things should work and then proving or disproving those imaginations through observation, experimentation, and building scale models of his inventions to see how they would actually work in practice.
The last writing we have from Leonardo is a page in his notebook where he is working out a puzzle involving rectangles within triangles. Abruptly he stops writing his observations with the words “et cetera” followed by these words, in his distinct mirror script, explaining why he is putting down his pen. “Because,” he writes, “the soup is getting cold.”
On May 2, 1519, three weeks after he turned 67, Leonardo da Vinci passed away in his bed at Clos Lucé. There is a painting done afterward called “The Death of Leonardo” that shows the King cradling the head of this genius of a man, but historians are divided on whether that actually happened or not.
At 525 pages, Isaacson’s book is a hefty read, but not one word, sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter is wasted. And while it contains all the facts of da Vinci’s art, engineering and science accomplishments, he also lays out the kind of life Leonardo lived. How he thought, what his reasonings were, and why he took the actions that he did at different phases of his life.
If you want to examine the life and work of one of the greatest thinkers and artists of our time, the true Renaissance Man, then Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is the book you should read.