The big picture of the Renaissance Man

“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most brilliant people that have ever lived. He was a complex person, with a complex mind, who produced complex inventions, and lived in a complex time. So, fittingly this book needs 600 pages to dissect what this person is all about.

The author, Walter Isaacson, hugely base this biography from Leonardo’s legendary notebooks. Isaacson then travelled around the places that Leonardo visited, look up where he looked, eat what he ate, and breathe what he breathed, in order to step into his metaphorical shoes. Isaacson also read every available books, research materials, and, most unusually, the many dissertations on Leonardo. As a result, this massive book can paint the whole essence of this magnificent man’s life, up to a point that his complete life story will make Leonardo, the polymath, to make perfect sense.

The book gives the impression that Leonardo da Vinci is first and foremost a painter, which is what the majority (in which it feels like 60-70%) of the book is about, complete with all the pictures of the paintings and their enigmatic backstories. Everything else that he created or learned or experimented with, were seemingly done to fully understand the mechanism and nature of everything, so that he can paint them better. Everything such as studying the science of optics, light, sky, and soil, even studying the anatomy of human smile, which then perfected Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile in the painting.

Indeed, for the untrained eyes for art (such as myself), Leonardo’s paintings would look normal. Beautiful, but normal. But as the book shows the range of techniques that Leonardo use (and often invented) are nothing short of a genius. This is why Leonardo’s masterpieces are so highly regarded in the art community.

But of course, this is not only what Leonardo is all about, that would be oversimplifying it. In his quest of learning about the human anatomy, for example, he was among the first to fully discovered that the heart, and not the liver, to be the center of the blood system. His engineering experiments were also immensely fascinating, with him often credited for inventing as diverse as the parachute, portable bridges, the first prototype of helicopter, the diving suit, and the first machine gun, to name a few out of so many. And this is not to mention the many more unfinished projects and ideas that he simultaneously did on the side, as a testament to his incredible curiosity.

Moreover, perhaps most interestingly the book also addresses Leonardo’s personal life, to see the man behind the fame and glory. From being a child out of wedlock in the “golden age of bastards” in Florence, to the education that he received and the freedom away from formal schooling for legitimate children. It shows Leonardo’s difficult relationship with his father, his big family’s dynamics, the environmental context of where and when he lived – from the flourishing Florence under the rule of the Medici family, to Milan, Amboise, France, and of course Vinci at the very beginning – as well as the politics that he got involved with.

The book also shows the many great people who influenced him, and his many rivalries, including his bitter one with Michelangelo. And it shows the many human sides of him, such as how he earn money through patronage to live day by day, his homosexuality, the dark twisted sides of him, and also the inner demons that haunt him all his life.

All in all, while his genius is unparalleled, we can see throughout the book that his natural traits and the techniques that he has developed to create order out his chaos were, well, human. And most importantly they are all trainable, even for you and I. And that’s what Isaacson did, where at the very last chapter of the book he neatly analysed and elaborate on 20 of these traits, making it the concluding cherry on top of an already excellent cake.