In our November Nonfiction Top Pick, Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs, Einstein) reveals the life of one of history's greatest minds. We asked Isaacson about Leonardo's unique genius and wide-ranging interests (woodpecker tongues, anyone?).
Why did you choose to focus your new book on Leonardo da Vinci?
I've always felt that true creativity came from people who could stand at the intersection of the arts and sciences. That was the secret of Steve Jobs' innovation. Leonardo is history's ultimate example, and his drawing of the man in the circle and square (which I think is a self-portrait) is the icon of that. We can learn so much from Leonardo, especially the value of curiosity for its own sake. He wanted to know everything. So he dissected humans, built flying machines and made the world's two most amazing paintings, “The Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper."
What does Leonardo have in common with Steve Jobs?
Steve Jobs knew that beauty mattered. Unlike other tech Innovators, he was passionate about connecting art to his engineering. That's why he admired Leonardo.
How did Leonardo's scientific studies inform his art?
He dissected human faces, drew every muscle and nerve that moved the lip, and then began his sketches for the world's most memorable smile, that of the Mona Lisa. He also showed how light strikes the retina, how details are sharper when you stare at something directly, and he used that knowledge to make Mona Lisa's smile seem to flicker on and off. More broadly, his science helped him see the patterns of natures, such as how water swirls. That made his paintings into works of genius.
What was the weirdest of Leonardo's notebook scribbling that you read?
"Describe the tongue of the woodpecker." Who on earth would wake up one morning and jot that on their to-do list??? How would you even find out? Catch a woodpecker and pry open its beak? Yet there it is, and as you will see in the last two paragraphs of my book, it's actually rather interesting. And it shows Leonardo's pure and passionate and playful curiosity.
What do you think motivated Leonardo?
He wanted to know everything that could possibly be known about our world, including how we fit into it.
Which is your favorite painting by Leonardo and why?
"The Mona Lisa." As the river in the picture flows from the ancient landscapes and seems to unite with the body of Lisa, it is the culmination of his science and his art. I also love a lesser-known work: "Lady with an Ermine." Both the lady and the ermine have a vivid expression of inner emotion.
What do you think was Leonardo's greatest personal flaw?
He didn't finish many things.
Was there a silver lining to this flaw?
Yes. It made him a true genius rather than a mere master craftsman.
What kinds of books did Leonardo like to read?
He read everything, from math texts to collections of bawdy poetry. He was fortunate to be born in the same year, 1452, in which Gutenberg began to sell printed books.
What's something about Leonardo that might surprise someone only familiar with his paintings?
His anatomy drawings are masterful, from his fetus in the womb to the ones showing how an aortic valve closes. His ability to understand swirling water helped him to make a major discovery about heart valves.
What lessons does Leonardo offer the contemporary reader?
Leonardo offers us lessons for how to lead a meaningful and enriched life. He was not some genius like Einstein we could never hope to emulate. He was self-taught and willed his way to genius by being curious and observant. My book ends with twenty lessons, such as valuing curiosity and learning to love both art and science. But here is a little one: keep a notebook. It's a delight that we have more than 7000 pages of his notebooks to delight us today. I used them as the basis for my book.
(Author photo by The Aspen Institute.)