Leonardo— the Vintage of Vinci Part One

Leonardo— the Vintage of Vinci Part One September 21, 2018

Walter Isaacson is a very skilled writer of historical biography. We have dealt already with his bio of Ben Franklin on this blog, and now we turn to his most recent effort— a comprehensive biography of Leonardo, born in the little town of Vinci in Italy. Like the Franklin bio this shows all the signs of copious research and skillful writing in its almost 600 pages. Published in 2017 it has been on various bestseller lists, and rightly so. Among other things, it reveals Isaacson’s on skill not only in historical analysis but also in art criticism as well. There is not quite the literary flair in this biography as there was in the one written about Franklin, but there are still some nice turns of phrase like Leonardo “enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion”m (p. 518). How very true that is when one realizes that Leonardo left more paintings and practical projects unfinished than ones that he finished. Yet he was not a mere dreamer. Like Franklin he was polymath. In the case of Franklin that meant he had diplomatic, political, and practical skills and was an inventor with endless curiosity about nature and human nature. For Leonardo that meant great skill in painting, but also in conceiving all sorts of inventions and practical solutions to problems. At one moment he could paint the Mona Lisa, at the next he could invent a new military weapon. He was a genuine combination of scientist and artist and his skills in both fields often cross-fertilized and informed it all.

I agree with Isaacson that the word genius should not be loosely bandied about. But in the case of Leonardo it was well deserved. When I was last in Rome, I went to a special exhibit of models of Leonardo’s various inventions, including his flying machines and tanks and famous hydraulic devices! It was a wonder to behold, especially when one things that some of his conceptions, insights, and inventions were centuries ahead of their time. He was a man out of due season in human history, and much of what we find in his famous notebooks had to be rediscovered or reinvented much later because his notebooks were not generally available or widely read. In all of this, like Franklin, Leonardo to the day he died showed an insatiable curiosity and desire to not merely know the unknown, but to observe keenly how nature and human nature works. He had a conviction that humankind was a microcosm of the larger world, and he attempted to relate the one to the other. In our next post, we will say some things about Leonardo’s interesting but sad life.

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