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Feb 12, 2018 04:02PM ● By Michael Harris

Leonardo da Vinci

By Michael G. Harris, OD

So 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, including The 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 reading.


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