Image Credit: Simon and Schuster

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography

By Walter Isaacson, Simon and Schuster, 624 pages, $35

In 1501, desperate for Leonardo to paint her portrait, the immensely rich Isabella d’Este employed a friar to act as go-between. The friar met Leonardo in Florence but found his lifestyle “irregular and uncertain” and couldn’t pin him down. “Mathematical experiments have absorbed his thoughts so entirely that he cannot bear the sight of a paintbrush,” Isabella was told. With promises he’d get round to it eventually, Leonardo kept her dangling for another three years. Pushy to the end, she changed tack and asked him for a painting of Jesus instead. Even then, he didn’t come up with the goods.

The story encapsulates contrasting versions of Leonardo that have been inplay ever since Vasari extolled him in his Lives of the Artists. On the one hand, the lofty genius who wouldn’t kowtow to affluent patrons; on the other, the feckless fantasist who failed to fulfil his commissions. On the one hand, the Renaissance Man to whom maths and science were as important as painting; on the other, the artist who “left posterity the poorer” (Kenneth Clark’s phrase) by pursuing hobbies — engineering, architecture, pageantry, military strategy, cartography, etc — on which his talents were wasted. He achieved so much. But did multitasking prevent him achieving more?

Walter Isaacson has no doubt about the answer. The subjects of his previous books — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs, among others — were all blue-sky thinkers, with the ability “to make connections across the disciplines” and “to marry observation and imagination”. His life of Leonardo (rather cheekily subtitled “The Biography”, as if there were no others) doesn’t neglect the paintings. But it’s more fascinated by the notebooks, with their 7,200 pages of sketches and ideas. Isaacson’s premise is that Leonardo’s scientific interests nourished his art — that only through the work he put into dissecting corpses and studying muscles was he capable of painting the Mona Lisa’s smile.

Gay, vegetarian, flamboyant in dress (with a preference for pink), erratic in his work habits and astute when it came to self-promotion, Leonardo would have felt at home among the hipsters of today. Being illegitimate was no great stigma: it meant he grew up with two mothers (which Freud thought explained a lot). It also saved him from becoming a notary, a profession closed to sons born out of wedlock. His lack of a formal education was no handicap, either. Self-taught, he derided “puffed up” scholars who relied on received ideas: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Experience was what counted, he said — that and a relentless curiosity.

At 14, he was apprenticed to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, who was (so Vasari claimed) “astonished” by his talent and with whom he collaborated before producing at least two early masterpieces, The Annunciation and (his first non-religious effort, and one to rank with the Mona Lisa) Ginevra de’ Benci. A charge of sodomy, involving a 17-year-old, might have halted his progress by landing him in prison or worse. But one of the four young men with whom he was accused had connections with the Medici family and the case was dropped.

His companion of many years — servant, pupil and the subject of many drawings — was the rascally Salai, who came to him at the age of 10. At some point they probably became lovers. Later, in his mid-50s, Leonardo adopted another young man, Francesco Melzi, whom he loved as a son.

Not surprisingly, his depictions of men are more erotic than those of women. His lack of desire for women is perhaps what makes his paintings of them so tender and attentive: by objectifying less (and leaving their clothes on), he sees more. Some of his men look feminine, too. The angel in Virgin of the Rocks is often mistaken for a woman. Androgyny appealed to him. His men lack the muscularity of Michelangelo’s nudes, which he dismissed as looking like “a sack of walnuts rather than a human figure”.

The rise of Michelangelo (20-odd years his junior) may have been a factor in his preference for Milan: having spent much of his 30s and 40s there, he returned in his mid-50s. It was a bigger city than Florence and was well stocked with intellectuals and scientists (less so with artists). Later he moved to Rome and later still, leaving Italy for the first time, to France. But it was Milan that encouraged the odd mixture of the practical and the fantastical that went into his inventions — his schemes for flying machines, giant crossbows, scythed chariots, needle grinders, screw jacks and so on.

As Isaacson sees it, his inventions and ideas occupy an important place in the history of science and technology, anticipating the discoveries of Galileo and Newton. He contributed to medical knowledge too: by dissecting the body of a 100-year-old man, he came up with the first description of arteriosclerosis as an outcome of the ageing process. Even his wackiest ideas (such as the plan to protect Venice with a team of underwater divers wearing breathing apparatus) had potential, though it was several more centuries before scuba gear came along.

Anatomy was his abiding specialism. Other artists might aspire to get the measure of man but he went about it literally, computing the right proportions (“from the top of the ear to the top of the head is equal to the distance from the bottom of the chin to the duct of the eye”, etc). This kind of perfectionism underlaid his reluctance to complete his paintings, notably The Last Supper, to which he’d sometimes add just a couple of brush strokes before knocking off for the day (serious artists occasionally “accomplish most when they work least”, he told the impatient duke who’d commissioned it), and the Mona Lisa, with which he fiddled on and off for 15 years and which was still in his studio when he died.

Like almost everyone who has written about it, Isaacson is reverential towards the Mona Lisa, though not as much as Walter Pater (“hers is the head upon which all the ends of the world are come”) and not without using it to underline one of his main themes — Leonardo’s sfumato technique, whereby lines are blurred and boundaries (like those between art and science) disappear. More illuminating is his account of the recent controversies over two other paintings attributed to Leonardo, La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi: through carbon dating and digital magnification, experts have assessed the key evidence (palm prints, left-handed brush strokes, stitching holes), but whether they’re the genuine article remains a matter of dispute.

Five hundred years on, you’d have thought that everything it’s possible to know about Leonardo would now be known, but authentication of his work remains an issue and surprises still keep turning up — a lost drawing of Saint Sebastian in 2016 and new details about the identity of his mother Caterina only this year.

Isaacson doesn’t claim to make any fresh discoveries, but his book is intelligently organised, simply written and beautifully illustrated, and it ends with a kind of mental gymnastics programme that suggests how we can learn from Leonardo (Be curious, Think visually, Go down rabbit holes, Indulge fantasy, Respect facts, etc).

Leonardo’s notebooks are full of similar exhortations: “Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock ... Observe the goose’s foot ... Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” In his thirst for knowledge, he was like a small child endlessly asking “Why?”

His last drawings were turbulent images of water and wind. You can read them as metaphors for apocalypse and death (he’d had a stroke by then). Or as the culmination of a lifelong drive to find connections between natural phenomena — to link the curve of waves to a curl of human hair. Either way, Isaacson’s claim that no other figure in history “was as creative in so many different fields” doesn’t seem far-fetched.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

Blake Morrison is a writer and journalist. His non-fiction books include And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), which won the J. R. Ackerley Prize.