Leonardo da Vinci was a genius. But not a genius in the sense that he was a Master Artist, which he was, but in the sense that he was an engineer far more than an artist.

Leonardo viewed science as his foundation and the rest followed. He saw his scientific exploits as something that nourished his art.

According to him, without his thirst for science, his art would not be prominent.

He didn’t see himself as an artist.

Despite his remarkable artistic talent, Leonardo barely thought of himself as a painter. When he was about 30 years old, he applied for a job with the ruler of Milan. After listing interests from military engineering to science to designing sets for plays, he included almost as an afterthought, “I can also paint.”

Leonardo was an outlier, in many ways: illegitimate, vegetarian, flamboyant in dress [with a preference for pink], erratic in his work habits, astute self-promotor, self taught, no formal education, left-handed, gay, easily distracted, hardly finished his works, if he did finish them, he hardly published nor delivered his works.

Writing a biography of someone who lived in the 1400s with such clarity and detail has to be a very difficult, an almost impossible job, but Walter Isaacson, biographer of Steve Job, Albert Einstein, does an amazing job of writing about life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.

How do you write a clear and detailed biography about a man who live centuries ago?

Go to his notes, and journals. Leonardo help notebooks, with about 7,200 pages of sketches and ideas.

Walter Isaacson says  over 7,500 pages of LeonardoDaVinci’s notebooks survived [about 25% of what he wrote]. Higher percentage after 500 years than he and Steve Jobs could retrieve of Jobs’ emails and digital documents from the 1990s. [p106]

Isaacson’s premise is that Leonardo’s scientific interests nourished his art, that only through the work he put into dissecting corpses and studying muscles was he capable of painting the Mona Lisa’s smile.

Isaacson does not claim to make any fresh discoveries, but his book is intelligently organised, simply written and beautifully illustrated, and it ends with a kind of mental gymnastics programme that suggests how we can learn from Leonardo [Be curious, Think visually, Go down rabbit holes, Indulge fantasy, Respect facts, etc].

So what Walter Isaacson does in this book is to go through his 7200 pages of sketches and ideas and painting by panting narrates the story behind each of Leornardo’s paintings, projects, his thinking, struggles, hopes and dreams.

It’s a fascinating story, it was even helpful that Leornado kept a journal everywhere he went, writing, sketching and doodling what he saw, observed and felt.

So you get to read about most of his paintings to stories behind The Last Super, Salvator Mundi, Vitruvian Man, Adoration of the Mangi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, Portrait of Musician, and the popular Mona Lisa.

I loved the chapter about Michelangelo. In this chapter Walter Isaacson writes about the turbulent relationship Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo [who was 20 odd years his junior], another master artist, had. Michelangelo didn’t like Leonardo da Vinci, and there was such competition between, mainly instigated by Michael Angelo, to an extent that it may have contributed to Leonardo deciding to leave Florence and stay in Milan.

A chapter on the Mona Lisa is another amazing chapter.

Walter shows how Leonardo’s genius is in the details. “He became fascinated about how a smile begins to form and instructed himself to analyze every possible movement of each part of the face and determine the origin of every nerve that controls each facial muscle,” he writes. “Tracing which of those nerves are cranial and which are spinal may not have been necessary for painting a smile, but Leonardo needed to know.”

Leonardo was also human. He had his flaws. He struggled with focusing on tasks and seeing them completion, he was a huge procrastinator, he missed deadlines, he lost interest when he struggled with something, he never completed the statue, and he never published the treatise on horses he started.

He did not publish most of his works, he did not finish some of his amazing works. Why? Because he viewed his work as work-in-progress and therefore hardly them signed off as complete.

He didn’t deliver The Mosa Lisa, he kept it with him until he died. There is speculation that had he lived another 20 years, he would have gone back to Mona Lisa and worked on it some more.

Leonard’s life was complex, he was an enigma, he was mysterious, he left a lot of questions, why didn’t he deliver his works, why didn’t he publish some of his treaties.

True to Leonardo’s fashion, at the end of his life, he answered all these questions and mysteries about his life with the famous painting of an equally famous and mysterious smile.



Easily one of the best books I have read so far.

This book provides an in-depth analysis of Da Vinci’s life and works. I have always been interested in the Master, though my interests revolved around his magnificent painting. Thanks to this book I have learnt a lot about everything he was interested in.

The book is well-written and the language rather easy to follow, some general knowledge regarding science required at times, though.

The thing with Walter Isaacson’s book is that they are daunting when you look at them, they are huge. This biography is looooong, like very looooong, like 600 pages long, but once you get started, you wish it did not end. I found myself so immersed in this book that I wished it didn’t end.

This is an amazing book, I thoroughly loved it. Leonardo Da Vinci’s life was something else, but Isaacson’s research and writing style is equally something else.

I highly recommend this book to entrepreneurs and innovators. If you want to be creative, innovative and come up with remarkable ideas, reading about the life of Leonardo da Vinci will be valuable.

Favourite quotes:

  • “Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.”
  • “Leonardo went from seeking knowledge that could be of practical use and began seeking knowledge for its own sake, out of pure curiosity and joy”
  • “Vision without execution is hallucination. .. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo [da Vinci] knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.”
  • “Nothing should be so greatly feared as empty fame.”
  • ”’Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,’ wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. ‘Genius hits a target no one else can see.’”
  • “At times Leonardo was troubled by his lack of achievement. As a young man he appears to have developed a reputation for melancholia. “Leonardo,” wrote a friend, “why so troubled?” A sad refrain runs through his notebooks: “Tell me if anything was ever done,” he often sighs. Or in another place: “Tell me if ever I did a thing.”
  • “”As you go about town,” he wrote in one of them [notebooks], “constantly observe, note and consider the circumstances and behavior of men as they talk and quarrel, or laugh, or come to blows.”
  • “For once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
  • “Although generally considered by his contemporaries to be friendly and gentle, Leonardo was at times dark and troubled. His notebooks and drawings are a window into his fevered, imaginative, manic, and sometimes elated mind. Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder. One need not subscribe to the artist-as-troubled-genius trope to believe we are fortunate that Leonardo was left to his own devices to slay his demons while conjuring up his dragons.”
  • “The brutality of war didn’t repulse him as much as it seemed to mesmerize him, and the goriness he described would be reflected in the drawings he made for his battle mural”
  • “He never finished any of the works he began because, so sublime was his idea of art, he saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles.”

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