Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

‘Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.’

Walter Isaacson writes, in his introduction to this biography:

‘I have embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination and genius.’

He then, over the next 500+ pages, demonstrates how Leonardo made these connections. I found this book fascinating. Drawing on Leonardo’s notebooks, Walter Isaacson gives the reader a sense of what interested and motivated Leonardo. Leonardo’s curiosity leads him to add ‘Describe the tongue of a woodpecker’ on his to-do list. But this omnivorous curiosity also leads him to miss deadlines, to never finish some commissions, and to work on others for years. He made an art of procrastination.

I’ve seen photographs of both ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Mona Lisa’. While I admire the skill demonstrated in those paintings and their beauty, I’m more interested in Leonardo’s explorations of anatomy, and his flying machines. And as I read about Leonardo’s exploration of light, his dissection of cadavers to work out muscle attachment and movement, I began to really appreciate how science informed his art.

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci machines in a regional art gallery in Tasmania. This exhibition was created by the Artisans of Florence in collaboration with the Niccolai Group and the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. I spent hours looking at the 75 exhibits, including many machines constructed from Leonard’s manuscripts and drawings. While some exhibits were static, others invited interaction. At this exhibition, for the first time, I came to appreciate the breadth of Leonardo’s achievements.

But back to Walter Isaacson’s book. It is sadly true that Leonardo’s anatomical work was not published at the time. This meant that others had to rediscover what Leonardo found, which served to lessen his impact on the history of science. The picture I form of Leonardo is of a man capable of great focus, able to observe and document what he saw. He seems to have combined obsessive perfectionism and innovation. What made him so? I think it was a combination of innate ability coupled with an unbounded curiosity.

‘The best way to approach his life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith