Leonardo da Vinci
By Michael G. Harris, ODSo you think you know everything there is to know
about Leonardo da Vinci? Well, you won’t until you read Walter Isaacson's
recent biography, Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson is the acclaimed historian and
author who penned previous bestsellers on Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein,
and Steve Jobs, the first book I reviewed for this column over five years ago. Da Vinci is
a worthy successor and deserves your full attention. That said, it's so jam-packed
with little known facts and tidbits that it’s a labor of love to read through
all 599 pages.
Painter, architect, engineer, inventor,
cartographer, anatomist, optical scientist, hydrologist, aeronautical engineer,
military strategist, author, political consultant, historian, mathematician,
musician, botanist, geologist, ornithologist, astronomer, sculptor, set designer,
urban planner, visionary, and more are on the list of fortes for Leonardo, the
original Renaissance man.
There are people who are considered geniuses for
their accomplishments in one of these fields. Leonardo was so brilliant and multi-talented
that he was a genius in all of them and more. What's so amazing is how he used his
genius in one field to make him even better in another. For example, his skill
as an anatomist made him a better painter and sculptor than his contemporaries.
His genius allowed him to do “thought experiments” that would not be duplicated
for centuries. Even though he didn't invent flying machines, he foresaw them
and described them in some of the over 7,200 pages of his notebooks that have
survived over 500 years.
Isaacson does a masterful job of describing how Leonardo’s
mind worked as illustrated in his notebooks. "Leonardo's notebooks are
nothing less than an astonishing windfall that provides the documentary record
of applied creativity." On one page is a drawing of Vitruvian Man, with all the
proportions of a man fitted perfectly within a circle within a square. Since
paper was so costly, he filled each page with notes, drawings, and doodles from
corner to corner and edge to edge.
Born the illegitimate son of a notary, Leonardo
made his own destiny. If his father had acknowledged him as his son, Leonardo
would have followed in his father's footsteps and become a notary himself. We
are so lucky that that did not happen for we would have missed out on his many masterpieces,
Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo's use of his many talents is seen in The Last Supper,
where he combined his genius in anatomy and architecture with his
brilliance as an artist to get just the right proportions and perspective in
this masterpiece. I knew this showed Jesus at a Passover Seder and that it led
to the superstition regarding “13,” the number of apostles pictured. I didn't
know it also led to the superstition about spilled salt being unlucky.
Isaacson also sheds light on the mystery behind
the Mona Lisa
and her enigmatic smile. He also dispels a number of rumors about the
painting. I've seen the Mona Lisa in person and appreciate it even more
after reading Isaacson’s book.
But it was da Vinci's insatiable curiosity that
made him a true genius. Take for example his painstaking description of the
tongue of a woodpecker. "There is no reason you actually need to know
this." But da Vinci wanted to do it "just out of curiosity. Pure
curiosity." What a genius!
If you're curious about more recent inventions
and what the future holds, I recommend Tom Hartford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern
Economy and Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll
Improve and/or Ruin Everything. Both are thought provoking and worth