Review – Leonardo da Vinci The Biography by Walter Isaacson


This first thing that struck me about this book was simply what a feat it must have been to write. Walter Isaacson had access to the 7,200 extant pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, and his biography explores every area of the polymath’s life, from his paintings, sketches, stage sets for pageantries and  architectural drawings to his scientific endeavours in anatomy, geometry and engineering. It’s a book which really does give you a sense of the true extent of Leonardo’s genius while at the same moment bringing home just what a normal, fallible human being he was. The artist apparently found it difficult to keep his attention from wandering, often starting a new project before he’d finished earlier ones.  This led to a lot of his work never being completed at all. Isaacson also reads between the lines of Leonardo’s notebooks to find evidence that he suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life.

On top of that, you get a sense of what a modern figure Leonardo was: comfortable in his sexuality, and unashamedly unorthodox in his views on religion and science. Isaacson, however, also emphasises the collaborative nature of Leonardo’s efforts. That genius, he suggests, was not fostered in a vacuum, but germinated precisely because of the hothouse atmosphere of Italian city states like Milan and Florence where exchange of knowledge and ideas had reached fever pitch.

This is a truly beautiful book. I nearly made the mistake of just downloading it on my kindle, but am so glad that I didn’t, as almost every page contains coloured illustrations of Leonardo’s work. It’s also insanely fascinating. I must have driven my partner mad while I was reading it because every page brings a new surprise worth shouting about – “Oh my God, he invented a diving suit!” “Now he’s made groundbreaking discoveries in anatomy!” “No way – he redesigned a city!” It’s a book which gets you thinking about the nature of genius and about human potential in the  most positive way. Strongly recommended.

Review – Sue Perkins ‘Spectacles’

An ex of mine once claimed that it should be possible to claim the equivalent of nectar points for converting girls to the worthy cause of lesbianism. These could be cashed in for microwaves, TVs, fridges etc. Ever since, I’ve found myself wondering whether Sue Perkins might not be up to her ears in white goods.

OK that was an aside – never a good place to start a review. But on the other hand, that’s one of the very qualities which makes Perkin’s memoirs ‘Spectacles’ so appealing – wild tangential leaps, narratives which spiral manically from their starting point, a lateral, grasshopper style which links apparently disconnected events in her life, making for a read which hovers on the fringes between laugh-out-loud hilarious and sobering – even at times disturbing.

What I particularly loved about this biography is the way she gives just enough of herself away, without dredging too deep: without this turning into some kind of introspective naval gazing. This is achieved through the same acute, self-deprecating wit which makes her such an attractive, charismatic TV host and presenter. There were times when I laughed so hard I worried for the safety of my internal organs, and times when she addressed some incredibly painful moments head on, saccharine free and with a courageous level of honesty.

If you like her work – and I must admit I’m a big fan – you’ll love this book.