Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci joins the ranks of Walter Isaacson’s other Great Men – Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Franklin – in this meaty 2017 biography of the eponymous Renaissance Man. Isaacson’s core thesis is that Leonardo’s ability to combine imagination and science is what galvanized his genius. Like most other people in the world, I’ve always been interested in Leonardo da Vinci for his artistic output but was drawn to read Isaacson’s work because of this central idea. While I obviously learned about Leonardo when I was in school for art history, I wanted to get beyond the Mona Lisa smile and whether or not he was gay.

Isaacson’s book was absolutely the right choice for getting to know the man, the myth, the legend. It’s dense, (and literally quite heavy thanks to the expensive glossy pages) yet manages to maintain an easy and engaging narrative. I started and stopped reading the book a few times, but was always able to jump right back in without massive amounts of re-reading. There’s so much to Leonardo that Isaacson explores, it would be hard to walk away from this book and not agree with his conclusion that Leonardo was, well and truly, a Genius.

Effusive praise and conspicuous silence on certain ethical issues weren’t enough to make me disregard the book, but they did give me pause. I kept the author’s bias in mind: Isaacson did not write this biography to ask hard-hitting questions about Leonardo. In particular, I thought Isaacson could have given space to a deeper discussion of Leonardo’s partnership with known tyrant and murderer Cesare Borgia and his sexual relationships with minors.

Effusive praise and conspicuous silence on certain ethical issues weren’t enough to make me disregard the book, but they did give me pause. I kept the author’s bias in mind: Isaacson did not write this biography to ask hard-hitting questions about Leonardo. In particular, I thought Isaacson could have given space to a deeper discussion of Leonardo’s partnership with known tyrant and murderer Cesare Borgia and his sexual relationships with minors.


The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, 1500, National Gallery London

Nevertheless, for those who want to learn more about Leonardo Da Vinci, this will be your most direct and efficient route to learning everything about him. I highly recommend the audiobook accompanied with the physical book (for the pictures!) as it’s read by Alfred Molina. Readers interested in the Renaissance and Renaissance Italy will also find a lot to love here, but if you’re just casually interested in art or history, it might be a little too dense.


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