Sunday, January 7, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci: Getting to Know the Real Renaissance Man

I find it amazing that biographer Walter Isaacson could write a 1100-page book (at least it's that long as an eBook) that tells me so much about an artist I think I knew. What I knew already barely scratched the surface of this true Renaissance Man.

Isaacson did extensive research of the previous biographies of Leonardo, but some of the best details come from the abundance resource of the notebooks left behind. While he followed the great man's life chronologically, from his birthplace to Florence, then Milan, then back to Florence before eventually moving to France, he filled out the story not only with what Leonardo was doing or creating, but what he was thinking.

Perhaps the biggest charm of the notebooks is the randomness, the seeming lack of connection between items on the page. Yet, right there on the page where he explored the many muscles controlling the mouth, we find an early glimpse of what may be Mona Lisa's smile.

Thanks to popular culture (and Dan Brown), many of us know about Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Virgin on the Rocks. What we may not know about are all unfinished works of his career. He turned down what would have been lucrative commissions and left other potential masterpieces unfinished.

Even more amazing, I learned, he made discoveries that remained on his pages, waiting for others to discover them, sometimes centuries later. He was one of the first to understand the way the aortic valve closed, for instance.

And while we know about his Vetruvian Man and his drawing of flying machines, we know less about his wide range of interest is diverting water or studying the flight of the dragonfly.

In the final chapter, Isaacson relates the life lessons we can all take from da Vinci. Some of my favorites:
Be curious, relentlessly curious.
Seek knowledge for its own sake.
Start with the details.
Go down rabbit holes.
Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Avoid silos.
Let your reach exceed your grasp.
Take notes, on paper.

Then in the coda, he brings readers back to one of Leonardo's notes to himself: Describe the tongue of the woodpecker. In two paragraphs, Isaacson shares the result of the description. It was worth waiting for.

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