As an art historian, Isaacson falls prey to the excesses of the profession, adopting the oracular tone of a museum docent — “the landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined,” he writes of the Mona Lisa — and spending pages on questions of interest to a select few, like whether the original drawing of “Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” did or did not include the lamb.
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In these places, he’s not just missing the forest for the trees. He’s seeing only bark.
Isaacson is stronger when he’s on familiar turf, showing us Leonardo the scientist and innovator, the engineer and secret doctor . Between 1508 and 1513, Leonardo skinned at least 20 cadavers, some as they were decomposing in his hands, in order to study and draw muscle groups, organs, skeins of veins. His analysis of the human body was so thorough that he determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did. (“Of all the amazements that Leonardo left for the ages,” the surgeon Sherwin Nuland said, “this one would seem to be the most extraordinary.”)
I should mention here that Isaacson’s book includes dozens of color illustrations, all ravishing.
Isaacson is at his finest when he analyzes what made Leonardo human. He was an inveterate deadline misser, more beguiled by starting projects than finishing them. He abandoned a 23-foot equestrian statue intended for a prince; he gave up on paintings and murals intended for wealthy patrons; he sketched “flying machines that never flew, tanks that never rolled, a river that was never diverted.”
One of his most underrated achievements may have been his eloquent defense of procrastination. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he told one of his employers, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”
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Leonardo was an implacable perfectionist. (“He saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles,” wrote an early biographer.) He worked on the Mona Lisa for 16 years, and it was in his bedroom when he died.
Like many artists, Leonardo’s weaknesses were inseparable from his strengths. If he hadn’t been an easily distracted perfectionist, he would have left behind a larger official oeuvre but a less impressive one. Instead, he abandoned what he could not work out, which allowed him to “go down in history as an obsessed genius rather than merely a reliable master painter,” Isaacson writes.
One often associates perfectionism with a toxic variety of neurosis. Yet Leonardo seemed quite well-adjusted, particularly for an artist. Unlike Michelangelo, who was dour and self-denying, Leonardo was generous and convivial, partial to robes of purple and pink. He wasn’t especially competitive. He didn’t spend his days spoiling for a fight. (He was no Caravaggio.) He was comfortably open about being gay (Michelangelo was not), merrily indulging his longtime companion with enough shoes and jeweled stockings to keep even Imelda Marcos in clover.
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And he was strikingly devoid of ego, “more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it,” Isaacson writes. “He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history.”
In recent years, there’s been a glut of books about the so-called science of creativity, which in truth are TED lectures in waiting, motivational business books that instruct us on how to unleash our own inner Leonardos. The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable.
Yet in the conclusion of “Leonardo da Vinci,” Isaacson capitulates to the easy seductions of TED-ism, and boy is it disappointing. Under the subheading of “Learning From Leonardo,” he offers 20 italicized platitudes, including Retain a childlike sense of wonder and Let your reach exceed your grasp. Each gets its own elaboration. None is especially helpful. It’s all about as cloying as canned peaches. Though perhaps I’m just too old to Be open to mystery.
What endures after reading “Leonardo da Vinci” is just how indifferent to glory the man was. He lived in a world of his private obsessions. He often despaired over his failure to get anything done. (“Tell me if ever I did a thing,” he wrote in his notebooks.) What a gift that he did; what a gift that we know him at all.