Worth Reading: A biography that revels in the details of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius


BACK BAY — “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

This is one of the many curiosities Leonardo da Vinci noted to himself, which captures the wonder and mystery of his approach to the world.

Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson’s 2017 biography of the Renaissance polymath, takes us through his life starting with his illegitimate birth in Vinci, near Florence in the Tuscany region of Italy in 1452 and ending in 1519 with his death in the Loire Valley. There, he had lived the last three years of his life under the comfortable patronage of King Francis I of France. 

We are introduced to Leonardo via a job seeking letter he wrote around age 30 seeking work in Milan. The letter detailed his talents as a civil and military engineer and, only at the end, mentioned that he was also an artist. This foreshadowing suggests there will be much to describe in this life that is unrelated to the painting for which he is most often remembered. His combination of scientific expertise and creativity are stunningly detailed throughout. 

From around age 14 to 24, Leonardo was happily apprenticed to Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo was immersed in stagecraft, staging elaborate pageants first in Florence and later in Milan that included fantastical designs of flying machines and mechanical devices. 

His vivid imagination conjured helicopters and scuba gear centuries before these devices were realized. Readers are introduced to his skull drawings, which were the first is a series of anatomy studies Leonardo pursued throughout his life. The precision of the drawings is remarkable, with their three-dimensional shading and novel perspective.

He also is the first person known to have fully described teeth, including a stunning sketch of molars and their accurately rendered roots. Leonardo enriched his paintings through the knowledge of anatomy gleaned through countless nights dissecting cadavers.

All of this fantasy and science combine in the glorious culmination of his great paintings, including “Virgin of the Rocks,” “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa.”

Chapters are dedicated to these works and delve into fascinating detail about each. But the real joy of this biography is found in the minutiae – the diversions and procrastinations – that inspired Leonardo to pursue the unknown. 

Doucette is a senior marketing manager for a technology company.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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