BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, November 2017
Walter Isaacson, who recently authored the door-stopping, New York Times bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, turns his attention to Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci in his latest book. Careful scouring of Leonardo’s notebooks, located variously in the United States, France, England and Italy, enabled Isaacson to write a work of breathtaking scope and intimacy. Leonardo, the bastard son of a notary, had what Isaacson calls “an instinct for keeping records.” He filled notebooks with observations, sketches, lists and questions about the world.
The many pleasures within Isaacson’s thick tome include gorgeous illustrations, beautiful and precise writing, surprising glimpses into Leonardo’s thinking and, perhaps most satisfyingly, a stunning survey of the artist’s best-known works. Isaacson closely observes the paintings, guiding readers to consider their complexity, implied movement and brilliant interplay of shadow and light. Isaacson also elaborates on Leonardo’s innovative approaches to painting, such as sfumato, the shading of edges through shadow rather than lines.
Leonardo’s life led him to the courts of Milan, Florence, various Italian cities and finally to France. Isaacson explores not only the artistic masterpieces that Leonardo left behind, but also the many remarkable treatises on anatomy, engineering and geography, and the projects that were left unfinished, including a gigantic bronze sculpture of a horse (his rival Michelangelo never let him forget that). Leonardo was a singular man, interested in a range of topics from flying machines and fetal development to the properties of water and the deadliest weapons on the battlefield. Rather than viewing Leonardo’s broad interests as distractions from his artistry, Isaacson helps readers see how the vigorous curiosity that animated these investigations enriched both Leonardo’s life and his art.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Walter Isaacson about Leonardo da Vinci.