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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Review: Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci is Walter Issacson's biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. It covers his life in great detail, covering his entire life.

What's interesting to you about Da Vinci might or might not be interesting to me, and we all pick and choose what we like. But the nice thing about this book is an explanation of how or why Da Vinci's important works were interesting and important. I enjoyed Issacson's explanation of why his portraits were so long sought after: Da Vinci would layer his paintings, adding a brush stroke here and there, year after year to create a translucent effect on the portraits. For "the last supper", he constructed the painting so that the perspective would look correct from various parts of the room, which was innovative both in the use of perspective as well as integration into the area where the room was.

Much has been made of Da Vinci's inventions. Issacson points out that many of the drawings that are used to illustrate these might actually have been drawings meant to prepare costumes or props for pageants and stage plays or big events, rather than meant to be used for actual military or architectural purpose. This information would have caused me to view the various Da Vinci exhibits I saw in France several years ago.

Da Vinci was the ultimate (and probably most famous) renaissance man. He was curious about everything, drawing tons of illustrations and investigated science before Newton. That curiosity did not translate, however, into advancement of human understanding for his time, because he didn't care about publishing. Despite his notebooks having a wealth of detail, what happened was that after his death his notebooks were sold and scattered, and no one actually went back and condensed all that detail into books that could be reproduced and learned from. As a result, a lot of the knowledge was independently rediscovered much later (including his insight as to how the heart valves' fluid dynamics worked). All this happened despite the fact that he had two proteges that he was close to.

One thing that was revealed in this book is that Da Vinci was a master procrastinator. Either that, or you could call him a perfectionist. He would take 14 years to work on the Mona Lisa, never delivering it to the person who commissioned it (though it seemed like once he took a liking to the work he never intended to deliver), but just adding a brush stroke here and there over the years. So he died with the Mona Lisa near him. This habit of procrastination was so famous that the city of Florence tried over and over again to write contracts to ensure that he would deliver, in one case even goading him a long, by commissioning a painting from him, and then also commissioning one from Michaelangelo for a wall right next door to the one he was supposed to paint. (This particular story backfired: neither artist finished his painting) According to Issacson, this made Da Vinci an artist, instead of just a master painter.

There are lots of other stories about Da Vinci that stood out in this book, and many lamentations of "what-if", mostly related to Da Vinci's lack of concern about publication. His one publication that made a big contribution to mathematics happened when he teamed up with a mathematician who was writing a text book. A similar collaboration almost happened with a physician, but that physician died of a plague (ironically) before anything came to fruition. Da Vinci was like the archetypal professor with tenure: he could essentially explore whatever he liked, without concern about delivering sufficient commercial success to make a living.

I wished I'd read this book before visiting the Louvre or visiting any of the Da Vinci exhibits, so I would recommend this book to anyone who was about to visit any of those.

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