Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: 10/2/2018
"He was history's most creative genius. What secrets can he teach us? The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography. 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.

Book Summary - Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Key Insights

This biography tells the story of one of the greatest geniuses in history, Leonardo Da Vinci. Drawing on the notebooks of the master painter, engineer, architect, and theater producer, Isaacson pulls back the curtain on Da Vinci’s life, providing the historical context to his most important works and insight into how he developed his unique abilities through self-education and observing the natural world.

Key Points

As a boy, Da Vinci dealt with a difficult background, but his isolation introduced him to self-education.

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Florence in 1492. His father was Piero da Vinci while his mother was a 16-year-old peasant girl named Caterina Lippi. They never married, making Leonardo an illegitimate child.

Piero came from a line of notaries, a respectable job at the time. He handled business transactions and resolved disputes among merchants. In normal circumstances, Leonardo would have had to inherit this position from his father, but because he was illegitimate, he was free of that obligation.

In his boyhood, Leonardo felt like an outsider. He was left-handed, which carried a stigma in Renaissance Italy, and jailed several times for his homosexuality on sodomy. Because of his illegitimacy, he was not sent to formal school and had to teach himself. This left him free to pursue whatever interested him instead of learning Latin or studying ancient scholarship in the schools. He spent his days learning about the world through observation and experimentation.

Da Vinci began a painting and engineering apprenticeship at age 14 and later surpassed his master in ability.

In 1467, when Leonardo was 14, his father moved them from Vinci to Florence, a city famous for its resident artists. There were thirty painters living in the city and dozens of other craftsmen, not to mention the highest literacy rate in all of Europe.

Leonardo became apprenticed with Andrea del Verrocchio, a master painter, and sculptor who ran an important workshop in the city. In his workshop, Verrocchio was also a goldsmith selling things like doorknobs alongside his paintings.

Verrocchio had a talent for conveying motion in his sculptures, representing people and animals in movement, which gave Leonardo a strong education in portraying motion in his own paintings. Over the years, he developed his understanding of geometry, light, and perspective.

By the time he was 20, Leonardo seemed to surpass the skills of his master. In a painting that was a joint effort between the two artists, Da Vinci and Verrocchino each paint an angel in The Baptism of Christ. Leonardo’s angel is softer and more lifelike than Verrocchi0’s which seems two-dimensional in comparison. This softness was achieved through Leonardo’s signature “smufato” style, a blurring of lines of edges to better mimic the eye’s way of seeing. It’s said that Verrocchi0 was so impressed by the angel that he quit painting altogether.

Several of Da Vinci’s famous early works were painted in the studio in the early 1470s. He painted a portrait of Ginerva de Benci, a well-known Florentine woman sitting in a three-quarter pose. He managed to capture the lady’s temperament in her unsmiling and mysterious expression, demonstrating an early skill for capturing the psychology of his subjects.

Da Vinci briefly opened his own studio when he was 24, but left many projects unfinished. Still, his unfinished projects became as influential as his finished ones.

In 1477, he left Verrocchino’s studio to open his own, but found himself struggling to secure commissions. He was plagued by whiffs of scandal that involved his homosexuality and couldn’t shake this dubious reputation in the city.

It was here that he worked on many unfinished pieces. In 1481, he made sketches for Adoration of the Magi, a concept that included 60 figures overlaid with perspective lines that created an illusion of depth. In the drawings, Mary holds the baby Jesus in a crowd of people and animals, overcome with a spiritual feeling. The painting was never finished, but the sketch remained influential and an early sign of his genius.

In another unfinished painting, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, Leonardo’s talent for portraying psychological depth re-emerges, along with his ability to capture subtle motion.

Several decades later, when Leonardo would return to Florence, he would continue his habit of starting ambitious projects and not finishing them. He had planned a massive fresco cover one-third of a 174-foot wall depicting The Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine war victory. The painting was a collaboration with Michelangelo, the famous sculptor behind David.

The Battle of Anghiari, which was envisioned to be a swirling portrait of blood, dust, and distressed soldiers, was abandoned because Leonardo was never trained as a Fresco artist and couldn’t find the right materials to preserve the great work. Still, even his preparatory sketches for the painting found renown when displayed to the public in Florence— young artists traveled from across the continent to see them in perform. Even the world-famous Raphael drew his own version of the sketches while Cellini called them “the school of the world”. These unfinished sketches are still widely viewed and admired today.

In Milan, Da Vinci finds his first royal patrons but ends up designing theater productions instead of implementing his big ideas.

In 1982, Leonardo decided to move to Milan where there were fewer master painters, hoping to secure more commissions and maybe even a royal patron. At the time, Milan was a city-state with a royal family of its own and Leonardo set his sights on the future Duke, Ludovico Sforza.

He marketed himself to the court as a military engineer, capable of designing weaponry, but then as a talented sculptor and painter during times of peace. He supplied Sforza with intricate designs, giant crossbows, and chariots with scythes on the wheels, but the designs were never built. Sforza preferred Da Vinci’s work in court entertainment, where he was tasked with designing the sets. Leonardo threw himself into his work as a theater man. He painted elaborate backgrounds and invented mechanical props that delighted his royal audiences.

In his downtime, Leonardo continued to dream up all kinds of engineering plans in his notebooks. In 1480, he wrote that he believed a healthy city would operate like a human being with canals to move clean water through the system, like blood, and a sewage system to remove waste underneath the city. These concepts were far ahead of their time, but again, weren’t implemented by the Duke.

Da Vinci valued his relationships with people and loved spending time with people who could teach him something new.

Leonardo had a charm about him. He was a gifted storyteller, quite handsome, and a generous listener known to “comfort even the most troubled soul” that came into his orbit.

Perhaps these qualities came from his genuine appreciation for the other people in his life. He was always seeking friends that could learn from, trading his expertise for theirs. He was close with a mathematician named Luca Pacioli who helped him improve his math skills, which he felt he never got to sufficiently learn in his personal studies. In his notebooks, he writes in one of the many to-do lists that he hoped to learn the multiplication of roots from “Maestro Luca”.

Later, he would illustrate Paciolo’s 1498 mathematics book On Divine Proportion with drawings depicting polyhedrons as wooden structures. These were Leonardo’s only published drawings in his lifetime.

Leonardo enjoyed the company of his architect friends, particularly Donato Bramante and Francesco di Giorgio, who he met when working on the dome for the Milan Cathedral. They talked extensively about Vitruvius, a Roman engineer who wrote a treatise on architecture and believed the universe could be understood by examining the proportions of the human body. This inspired Leonardo’s following fascination with anatomy and by 1490, he finished Vitruvian Man, the famed ink drawing of a human man in two superimposed positions inside a circle and square.

Over the next few years in Milan, he produced some of his most stunning portraits and sculptures.

Leonardo’s first period in Milan was between 1482 and 1499. The Duke commissioned him to produce two portraits, one being Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a 16-year-old mistress of Ludovico. In the painting, the girl is painted with a tender hand placed on an ermine, a short-tailed weasel, with a contemplative look in her eyes. It was clear through this painting the sort of precious relationship she had with the Duke. In lab tests far in the future, it was revealed that Leonardo used extremely thin layers of glaze to preserve the brilliance of the painting’s colors.

Leonardo undertook a project of creating a massive bronze statue of a horse for the Duke. To the Duke’s chagrin, Leonardo took his time on the horse, obsessively dissecting the anatomy of a horse’s figure to reproduce its exact musculature. A clay model for the statue was a towering 23 feet high. Unfortunately, he was forced to abandon the project when the French invaded in the late 1490s so the Duke could use the bronze for military weaponry. When the French seized Milan in 1499, the clay statue was shot to pieces by French arrows.

The Last Supper demonstrated his unique skill for observation and optics.

Da Vinci’s most famous work in Milan was The Last Supper, the depiction of Jesus’ declaration that one of his disciples would betray him, commissioned for a small church.

Leonardo took his time with the painting, working to create a three-dimensional quality to every person at the table so that observers could appreciate the painting from any angle. With each of the 12 disciples, he wanted to depict what had already happened and what would come next and tried to capture the psychology of each one through the expressions on their face.

Because traditional fresco painting required quick work, but Leonardo worked slowly and painting over and over his brushstrokes, the painting started to deteriorate as soon as it was completed. Today, it has been restored multiple times but has never appeared exactly as it was originally.

Da Vinci finally became a military engineer for Cesare Borgia.

Around 1502, Leonardo left Milan after the French invasion and returned to Florence. He found himself speaking with Cesare Borgia, an ally of the French king who was interested in conquering more Italian territories. Leonardo offered his services, and Borgia allowed him to tour Italy and suggest military improvements.

He looked at fortress designs and dreamed up ways to improve them, like including curved walls instead of flat walls, so cannonballs couldn’t hit them directly. But Leonardo’s real talent was in creating great maps for Borgia. These maps were meticulously hand-drawn, colored, and to scale, and easily readable for military use.

In his time with Borgia, Leonardo met Niccolo Machiavelli, the diplomat, political philosopher, and writer best known for The Prince. The two men made plans to divert the Arno river to cut off the city of Pisa, but the project was never adopted by Borgia.

After eight months, Leonardo decided to leave Borgia, feeling troubled by the horrible violence that inflicted his army. He found Borgia himself to be a ruthless and murderous military leader. Of course, the man was rumored to be the inspiration behind Machiavelli’s villainous protagonist in The Prince.

When Da Vinci returned to Milan, he turned his interests to scientific studies and anatomy.

In 1506, Leonardo decided to return to Milan, taken in by King Louis of France. There, Leonardo continued his work with theater and court entertainments and adopted a fourteen-year-old boy named Francesco Melzi.

Upon his return, he felt the need to study more scientific pursuits like air, water, and geology alongside his interests and observations of birds, fish, and flying machines.

In Milan, Leonardo took a renewed interest in human anatomy, performing close examinations of the human body and its proportions. As an artist, it was important for him to know the distinct shapes of the body, but his interest was also scientific, fascinated with the way human bodies functioned.

He became friends with an anatomy professor at the University of Pavia who provided him with around 20 corpses for Leonardo’s dissection. Leonardo used these corpses as models, carefully drawing every single muscle, bone, and organ in his notebooks.

He wrote more than 10,000 words alongside the drawings about his observations of the body’s functions. He wrote about his thoughts on the most important organs like the heart and the brain, and even the human fetus.

Leonardo was about 450 years ahead of his time in these drawings and they would have been massively influential had they been published. He noticed things like, for example, descriptions of the effect of arteriosclerosis and the specific duties of the heart. At the time, people associated blood with the liver, but it was Leonardo who recognized that blood was cycled through the heart instead. He even came to understand how the aortic valves worked thanks to his study of fluid dynamics. To better study the heart, he filled a bull’s hear with wax to create a glass mold so he could watch the fluid movements inside. Only centuries later would modern science catch up to his hypotheses. These sketches were intended to accompany a book, but when his collaborator died of the plague, the drawings were shelved and never published in his lifetime.

The Mona Lisa, Da Vinci’s greatest masterpiece, exhibits his ability to paint human mysteries even at the end of his life. Even as his body deteriorated, he found himself at the height of his power.

At age 64, he decided to travel outside of the country to pursue his studies and found himself meeting his most important patron yet— King Francis I of France. The king wanted him to become his official artist and engineer, and given the proper salary, Leonardo felt he couldn’t pass this up. Ultimately, he never returned to Italy.

King Francis felt Leonardo was the “most eminent painter of our time”, and he was given a chance to design a new royal village in the country of France (which unfortunately was never built).

In 1517, Leonardo was visited by the Cardinal Luigi of Aragon, a meeting that was well documented by his secretary. Leonardo admitted that he recently had a stroke, impairing the use of his right hand, and he felt he may never paint again. But during this meeting, he showed his guests three paintings that were close to completion. Each painting was an impending masterpiece.

The first two were Saint John the Baptist and Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. In the former, a figure appears from the shadows and points a hand towards the heavens, a cryptic smile on his face. In the latter, the faces seem warm and soft, the bodies of the women and child entangled.

The third was a painting Leonardo had been carried around for years. It would become one of the most famous paintings in all of history.

The Mona Lisa was Leonardo doing what he did best— capturing the subtle unknowable inner-knowledge behind every person’s expression. Mona Lisa was the young wife of a silk merchant that Leonardo was commissioned to paint, but he took the opportunity to turn it into a study of human mystery. In the painting, Mona Lisa seems to smile, but upon closer inspection, the mouth itself is not upturned.

In the image, Leonardo paid close attention to the optics of the background, blurring the landscape to bring the woman into focus. This was different from the standard of the day, which was to keep all of the canvas in focus. The river in the background seems to flow into Mona, the landscape blending into her hair, connecting her to nature behind her. Looking at the Mona Lisa, you may notice a shimmer that seems to come from within the painting, which Leonardo achieved by layering a white undercoat under the highlighted areas, to create the illusion of light and reflection.

He had worked on the Mona Lisa for years, starting in 1503 in Florence and would keep her for the rest of his life. He died days after his 67th birthday on April 23, 1519. By then, he was already widely regarded as one of the most impressive geniuses in history.

The Main Take-away

Leonardo Da Vinci had a rough start to his life, but developed an identity as an outsider and felt free to pursue his own interests. He spent years observing the world in his notebooks, designing different engineering marvels, and breaking down what he saw in nature, from animal anatomy to fluid dynamics and the psychological insights expressed by bodies. He also studied under a master, learning how geometry and optics could be applied to paintings. In his following career, he was diverted from his talents as a painter and engineer by royal patrons but found a way to excel anyway. Towards the end of his life, he ended up completing indisputable masterpieces which took him years to perfect.

About the Author

Walter Isaacson is an analyst, author, historian, journalist, and professor. He was president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a policy think tank in Washington DC, and was the managing editor of Time. He’s written multiple biographical works, notably Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Kissinger: A Biography. He served as a professor at Tulane University and in various governmental positions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *