He comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson’s ambitious new biography ... Isaacson’s approach, true to his background, is fundamentally journalistic. No intellectual peacocking for him, and though his writing is certainly graceful, it is never needlessly ornate. But make no mistake: He knows his stuff, crowdsourcing, with extreme diligence, an array of art, historical, medical and other experts to arrive at a vigorous, insightful portrait of the world’s most famous portraitist. Da Vinci groupies won’t find startling revelations here. Isaacson’s purpose is a thorough synthesis, which he achieves with flair.
Walter Isaacson follows dozens of clues to reanimate Leonardo da Vinci, one of the boldest of these border-crossers. Though Leonardo wrote endlessly, he revealed little directly about his inner life. Without fuss and without Freud — though Dan Brown, unfortunately, makes an appearance — Isaacson uses his subject’s contradictions to give him humanity and depth ... As Isaacson follows Leonardo from one locale and occupation to another, his energy never fails and his curiosity never dims. Again and again he turns up a surprising and revelatory detail ... Isaacson shows that the work of great scholars like the Leonardo specialist Martin Kemp can be exciting in its own right ... Connecting these dots — showing that Leonardo shared interests and ideas with many predecessors and contemporaries — would have made Isaacson’s history even richer. Then again, the choice of a tight angle lens might have been deliberate. After all, Leonardo himself painted his portrait subjects against blurry, indistinct landscapes.
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 ...what Leonardo’s notebooks lack — which Isaacson readily concedes — are 'intimate personal revelations' ... 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 ... Isaacson is stronger when he’s on familiar turf, showing us Leonardo the scientist and innovator, the engineer and secret doctor ... 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 ... What endures after reading Leonardo da Vinci is just how indifferent to glory the man was.
For all the unfamiliar challenges this book presents, in terms of history and culture, Isaacson is working a familiar theme. As always, he writes with a strongly synthesizing intelligence across a tremendous range; the result is a valuable introduction to a complex subject ... The most up-to-date if occasionally dismaying aspect of the book is its framing as a self-help guide, along the lines of 'How Leonardo Can Change Your Life' ... Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life, which is rewarding even if it doesn’t set you on the path to enlightenment.
Isaacson calls his subject Leonardo throughout the book, creating a tone of intimacy with a man who, despite the biographer’s best efforts, retains an air of enigma ... By necessity, significant parts of Leonardo da Vinci must be speculative. In lieu of strict chronology, Isaacson uses paintings and other works of Leonardo as windows into his heart and mind ... Isaacson’s roots as a journalist serve him well. He writes simply and clearly, and even though his principal character hails from antiquity, the narrative hums like a headline from the morning paper, alert to topical parallels between then and now ... Isaacson sometimes lapses into the homiletic. Not quite confident that readers can draw their own conclusions about Leonardo’s life, he ends Leonardo da Vinci with a small tutorial listing the lessons we should learn.
Mr. Isaacson is most insightful about the connections between Leonardo’s art and his scientific research ... With Mr. Isaacson, opinions are presented as facts, and conjecture masquerades as knowledge. He tells us that the 'Mona Lisa' is 'the greatest psychological portrait in history' and that the 'two most famous paintings in history' are 'The Last Supper' and the 'Mona Lisa.' Well, OK, but merely saying something doesn’t make it so ... Mr. Isaacson’s book feels cobbled together, as if written on deadline.
There are also many, many biographies, ranging from the intensely scholarly to those aimed at everyday readers. Yet Walter Isaacson, the celebrated biographer of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, has shown with a slight shift in emphasis and sheer writerly talent that another life is indeed welcome ... If we are to view Leonardo strictly as a painter, then his tangents and diversions indeed kept him from his work. But if we view him instead as a humanist, as Isaacson does, each woodpecker’s tongue only brightens the kaleidoscope. But Isaacson does not neglect Leonardo’s paintings. The book is generous in color reproductions of Leonardo’s masterworks and provides thoughtful discussions of each.
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 ... 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.
Via painstaking thoroughness with primary and secondary sources, consulting experts in myriad fields, and firsthand accounts of visiting paintings, churches and towns, Isaacson deftly reveals an intimate Leonardo well beyond the tired trope of the Great Man of some remote golden age who shall ne’er come our way again. Isaacson does present a Leonardo who is the very prototype of the Renaissance man excelling in the arts of painting, architecture and sculpture, as well as anatomy, geology, weapon design, hydrology and much more. But he is a man who also feels very much of our time: a gay, left-handed, vegetarian, dandy bastard. We get Leonardo, and it’s lovely ... One of the marvels of Isaacson’s expansive tale is that it feels compact. Even at just under 600 pages, it’s a masterpiece of concision considering the far-flung terrain he travels.
...[a] sumptuous, elegantly written and diligently produced offering that perfectly catches the contradictions of the man: an easily distracted obsessive who created stunning art and then – all too often – abandoned it when it was near completion. The book has reproductions of all these works, finished and unfinished, with careful descriptions of their creation as well as details of his notebooks and plans. For good measure, a four-page illustrated timeline is added to ease the reader through Leonardo’s labyrinthine life ... [a] splendid work that provides an illuminating guide to the output of one of the last millennium’s greatest minds.
His life of Leonardo (rather cheekily subtitled ‘The Biography’, as if there were no others) doesn’t neglect the paintings. But it’s more fascinated by the notebooks, with their 7,200 pages of sketches and ideas. Isaacson’s premise is that Leonardo’s scientific interests nourished his art – that only through the work he put into dissecting corpses and studying muscles was he capable of painting the Mona Lisa’s smile … Isaacson doesn’t claim to make any fresh discoveries, but his book is intelligently organised, simply written and beautifully illustrated, and it ends with a kind of mental gymnastics programme that suggests how we can learn from Leonardo.
The outstanding biography...dissects the life of the complicated Renaissance artist with exquisite detail … Isaacson explains how loving science and applying the scientific method to observing the world was really what made da Vinci a great artist and, Isaacson argues, a genius … This wonderful book is a reminder, in a time of increasingly narrow specialization and focus, that the methods of Renaissance men like da Vinci are as relevant as ever.
...an exuberant, lushly illustrated new biography ... Isaacson wisely turns Leonardo’s notebooks into the spine of his biography, tracing a restless, protean mind ... Isaacson is not shy about inserting himself; weighing in on authentication disputes and littering his pages with the first-person singular. Isaacson — neither an art historian nor a Leonardo scholar — has both done his homework and seems fondly comfortable with his own powers of discernment. Readers who submit to this combo will luxuriate in a richly illustrated ride through the artist’s life.
The author engages in a certain amount of speculation as to the personal life of the artist, as there are few examples in the notebooks of emotional or inter-personal expression ... This may stretch the limits of pure biography, but the author makes it clear that these are his own projections, fleshing out the dry bones of mere fact. As to the art itself, Isaacson’s treatment is both exhaustive and brilliant. With over 140 illustrations of da Vinci’s works, contemporary paintings and scenes of the time, this biography might well serve as an art-appreciation primer as well as an important addition to the art history literature. Isaacson takes the time to analyze and compare selected works, pointing out often overlooked details, subtleties, weaknesses and strengths. It is a revelation, and one goes back to the illustrations with new eyes ... Perhaps Isaacson’s greatest strengths (purists might say weaknesses) as a biographer are his own imaginative constructs and analytics, derived from data in evidence and brought to instinctive logical conclusions. After all, what can we really know about the actual persona of a man who lived six centuries ago? But the author, combining conversational style and deep scholarship, personalizes Leonardo and his genius in the same way that Leonardo recorded himself - an accumulation of detail to a sort of pointillist image, still mysterious, still elusive - but the best we can do through the veiled lens of time.
This sumptuously produced book comes to us from one of America’s foremost and most readable professional biographers … Isaacson mines the artifacts of Leonardo Da Vinci’s life to support a resonant central theme: That he was a hands-on, intuitive genius; in the author’s view, perhaps the greatest of all time … The anatomical material in the notebooks showcases Leonardo’s brilliant draftsmanship, which also found outlet in his extant paintings, which number fewer than 20. Isaacson covers the bases in his discussions of Leonardo’s painterly style.
Monumental is barely adequate to describe journalist Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the world’s greatest Renaissance Man ... Among the strengths of Isaacson’s exhaustive examination of da Vinci’s extraordinary life is the balance he strikes between chronicling the public genius and the private man. At times, these two dimensions intersect — and nowhere more dramatically than in his conflicted relationship with the other great artistic genius of the era, Michelangelo, who was twenty-two years Leonardo’s junior and insanely jealous of him ... Leonardo led an astonishingly interesting eventful life. And Isaacson brilliantly captures its essence.
On the surface, the book doesn’t seem to reveal much more about the man personally—illegitimate, gay, sometimes unfocused—than does a solid encyclopedia entry. Ah, but when Isaacson discusses da Vinci’s artistic and scientific endeavors, all manner of fascinating connections begin to emerge ... Encompassing in its coverage, robust in its artistic explanations, yet written in a smart, conversational tone, this is both a solid introduction to the man and a sweeping saga of his genius.
Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize ... Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.
Isaacson’s scholarship is impressive—he cites not only primary sources but secondary materials by art critics, essayists, and da Vinci’s other biographers. This is a monumental tribute to a titanic figure.