Portrait of a true Renaissance man

  • Jennifer Senior
  • © 2017 New York Times
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 Living
“Leonardo da Vinci”

Because Walter Isaacson has made a cottage industry of writing about Renaissance men, it’s no surprise, really, that he’s finally landed on a subject from the actual Renaissance. Like the other idols in Isaacson’s gallery of polymaths and visionaries — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs — Leonardo da Vinci was born with extra bundles of receptors, attuned to frequencies his peers could not hear and capable of making connections no one else could see, especially between the sciences and the humanities.

There is a significant difference, though, between “Leonardo da Vinci” and Isaacson’s previous biographies. His other geniuses left behind bountiful source material about the lives they led. Leonardo did not. There are, famously, 7,200 pages of his glorious notebooks to work from, and yes, they are rich in maps, doodles, anatomical drawings, schema for new machines, models for new weapons, proposals for city redesigns, geometric patterns, portraits, eddies, swirls, curls, pensées, scientific observations of uncanny prescience. (Among the most staggering: He intuited the first and third laws of motion, 200 years ahead of Newton.)

But what Leonardo’s notebooks lack — which Isaacson readily concedes — are “intimate personal revelations.” Some biographers are perfectly comfortable composing a full-body portrait based solely on a few faint footprints. (Consider the legions who have tackled Shakespeare.) Isaacson does not seem to be that kind of writer. Absent the documentary material he’s accustomed to, he overcompensates with copious analyses of Leonardo’s works.

I’m not sure the role of art critic suits him. Isaacson’s enthusiasm is admirable, but he hails many of Leonardo’s creations in the same breathless tone with which a teenager might greet a new Apple product. The words “brilliant,” “wondrous” and “ingenious” come up a lot. It is not atypical to find a sentence like this one, describing Leonardo’s notebooks: “They allow us to marvel at the beauty of a universal mind as it wanders exuberantly in free-range fashion over the arts and sciences and, by doing so, senses the connections in our cosmos.”

As an art historian, Isaacson falls prey to the excesses of the profession, adopting the oracular tone of a museum docent — “the landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined,” he writes of the Mona Lisa — and spending pages on questions of interest to a select few, like whether the original drawing of “Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” did or did not include the lamb.

In these places, he’s not just missing the forest for the trees. He’s seeing only bark.

Isaacson is stronger when he’s on familiar turf, showing us Leonardo the scientist and innovator, the engineer and secret doctor. Between 1508 and 1513, Leonardo skinned at least 20 cadavers, some as they were decomposing in his hands, in order to study and draw muscle groups, organs, skeins of veins. His analysis of the human body was so thorough that he determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did. (“Of all the amazements that Leonardo left for the ages,” surgeon Sherwin Nuland said, “this one would seem to be the most extraordinary.”)

I should mention here that Isaacson’s book includes dozens of color illustrations, all ravishing.

Isaacson is at his finest when he analyzes what made Leonardo human. He was an inveterate deadline misser, more beguiled by starting projects than finishing them. He abandoned a 23-foot equestrian statue intended for a prince; he gave up on paintings and murals intended for wealthy patrons; he sketched “flying machines that never flew, tanks that never rolled, a river that was never diverted.”

One of his most underrated achievements may have been his eloquent defense of procrastination. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he told one of his employers, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”

Leonardo was an implacable perfectionist. (“He saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles,” wrote an early biographer.) He worked on the Mona Lisa for 16 years, and it was in his bedroom when he died.

Like many artists, Leonardo’s weaknesses were inseparable from his strengths. If he hadn’t been an easily distracted perfectionist, he would have left behind a larger official oeuvre but a less impressive one. Instead, he abandoned what he could not work out, which allowed him to “go down in history as an obsessed genius rather than merely a reliable master painter,” Isaacson writes.

One often associates perfectionism with a toxic variety of neurosis. Yet Leonardo seemed quite well-adjusted, particularly for an artist. Unlike Michelangelo, who was dour and self-denying, Leonardo was generous and convivial, partial to robes of purple and pink. He wasn’t especially competitive. He didn’t spend his days spoiling for a fight. (He was no Caravaggio.) He was comfortably open about being gay (Michelangelo was not), merrily indulging his longtime companion with enough shoes and jeweled stockings to keep even Imelda Marcos in clover.

And he was strikingly devoid of ego, “more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it,” Isaacson writes. “He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history.”

In recent years, there’s been a glut of books about the so-called science of creativity, which in truth are TED lectures in waiting, motivational business books that instruct us on how to unleash our own inner Leonardos. The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable.

Yet in the conclusion of “Leonardo da Vinci,” Isaacson capitulates to the easy seductions of TED-ism, and boy is it disappointing. Under the subheading of “Learning From Leonardo,” he offers 20 italicized platitudes, including Retain a childlike sense of wonder and Let your reach exceed your grasp. Each gets its own elaboration. None is especially helpful. It’s all about as cloying as canned peaches. Though perhaps I’m just too old to Be open to mystery.

What endures after reading “Leonardo da Vinci” is just how indifferent to glory the man was. He lived in a world of his private obsessions. He often despaired over his failure to get anything done. (“Tell me if ever I did a thing,” he wrote in his notebooks.) What a gift that he did; what a gift that we know him at all.

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