The Leading Light of the Renaissance

Book Notes

“Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since among the first recollections of my infancy, it seemed to me that, as I was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.”
This was the only recorded memory of Leonardo da Vinci’s childhood left in his own words. Real or imagined, the image of a bird in flight typified the mechanical, beautiful aspects of nature that would fascinate the master all his life.
The synergy of these two worlds, artistic and functional, and their seamless mixture in Leonardo’s life is the central thesis of Walter Isaacson’s newest biography: Leonardo da Vinci.
Isaacson is left with a challenging task. Leonardo da Vinci is the Renaissance painter even the everyman with no interest in art has heard of. He has been the subject of thousands of books and died nearly half a millennium ago, but he remains a continuing subject of fascination whose life has more to reveal.
Born in the small Tuscan village of Vinci in 1452, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero, who was frequently employed by the Medici ruler of Florence Lorenzo the Magnificent. His mother, Caterina, was an orphaned peasant whose surname was unknown until earlier this year when it was discovered to be Lippi.
As one of the most prominent men of the area and already contracted to be married (this was not a time for engagements of love), Piero quickly pawned Caterina off to a local kiln worker and took his son into his own house.
In this sense, Leonardo’s era was like our own time. While bastardry was not a status to welcome, it was not viewed as a significant impediment to social advancement.
It also allowed Leonardo to avoid his father’s legal career, and instead he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, who taught him the basics of painting and sculpture. However, Leonardo was a prodigy and soon began to develop his own theories on perspective and the use of new media in painting.
Florence at this time was one of the leading powers of Europe and in the middle of a period of growth whose results still make it the most pleasant city of Italy to visit.
With a government long dominated by guilds, the Florentines had an appreciation for the arts rarely matched by any other era. This allowed Leonardo’s natural curiosity to flourish as he studied the other leading lights of the Renaissance.
He also began to develop some of the habits he would carry all his life. The first was his constant habit of drawing and writing his ideas in notebooks.
While nearly seventy-five percent are lost to the destruction of time, what remains totals over seven thousand pages.
Mostly drawn on paper with a faded red hue (blue paper for engineering did not become common until the last quarter of the quattrocento), Isaacson believes they are the key to understanding Leonardo’s mind. With images of flying machines, hillsides, anatomical details of couples copulating, geometric prisms, and rough drafts of potential paintings, it seems nothing escaped his interest.
The second habit was his inability to finish anything. Over the course of five hundred pages, Isaacson describes one project after another, from Ludovico Sforza’s proposed horse monument that was perennially delayed until his patron took the allotted bronze and used it for cannons, to the Mona Lisa for which he continually added touches of paint, to countless other projects, that was left unfinished.
Finally, Leonardo began to develop a habit of personal reticence born from near catastrophe.
In 1476, Leonardo da Vinci and friends were accused twice in quick succession of engaging in sodomy with a local goldsmith.
Although the accusers never came forward, Leonardo was likely jailed for a brief period and only escaped severe punishment because of the political connections of his father and the relatives of another of the accused.
Isaacson makes a compelling case that Leonardo’s sexual inclinations were predominantly homosexual, but considering the time in which he lived and his early experience, he was guarded about revealing too much of his personal life.
His notebooks, however, show the great romantic attachment of his life began in 1490 with a young boy nicknamed Salai. Roughly translated as “Little Devil,” Salai earned his moniker; he was a glutton, talentless, and frequently stole from Leonardo and others. Despite this, Leonardo indulged the boy and even towards the end of his life gave Salai a substantial estate.
No life story would be complete without a good rivalry and perhaps the most interesting chapter is Leonardo da Vinci’s rivalry with Michelangelo Buonarroti.
It was hate at first sight. After bouncing around the peninsula for a few years, Leonardo returned to Florence and was commissioned in 1503 to paint The Battle of Anghiari in the government’s great hall.
Like many of Leonardo’s other paintings, Isaacson includes multiple pictures of the preparatory cartoons. They show heavily muscled soldiers charging into battle and blind with fury, their horses frothing at mouth and biting at each other in the chaos.
It would have been a masterpiece, but Leonardo again moved slowly. Michelangelo soon thereafter received a commission to complete another battle painting on the opposite wall.
Twenty years younger than Leonardo, Michelangelo had little patience for the man admired by all and made his distaste clear. One famous story has it that when Leonardo was asked by a crowd to interpret a passage of Dante, he deferred to the passing Michelangelo, who instead used the opportunity to mock one of Leonardo’s failed projects.
It was going to be a de facto competition, but for various reasons, neither party finished their assignment and all that remains are copies by others. I must confess, I personally came away liking Michelangelo better.
With his mutilated nose, rudeness, and monkish lifestyle, he had none of Leonardo’s advantages and far surpassed his rival in output. I was in awe of the Sistine Chapel, but the Mona Lisa and John the Baptist left me disappointed.
Leonardo eventually settled in France under the patronage of King Francis I. By now he had grown tired and his efforts were largely devoted to study and organizing ephemeral pageants for the monarch.
When Leonardo died, the story goes that King Francis held him in his arms to receive the master’s last breath, but Isaacson casts doubt on the story. Leonardo died at sixty-seven.
He was old for the time, but nowhere near the maximum span for even the Renaissance. Even in scenes of his youth, however, I imagine him as a man of ninety and wiser still.
In the past month, a newly identified portrait of Christ, Salvator Mundi, set a world record for the most expensive painting ever purchased. With long, curly hair and a hint of a beard, the Lord holds a sphere of the cosmos in his hand.
At first glance, one might mistake it for the artist. The timing could not have been better for the author. This biography offers little that is new about Leonardo da Vinci, but Isaacson succeeds in consulting the most up-to-date scholarly sources and reworking them into a clear narrative.
He also maintains a chronological storyline while working particular sections around subjects that interested Leonardo. One unusual feature of the volume is the printing.
Aside from unusually glossy pages, Isaacson regularly includes photos in the middle of his text to illustrate a passage. For other subjects, it would be a distraction, but it is a welcome change for a biography of an artist. On the whole, this is perhaps the best biography Walter Isaacson has yet published.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]

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