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.