I got this book on the recommendation of none other than
Gates, who put it on his "5 books worth reading this summer".
finished it yesterday, just a few hours before the Autumnal Equinox.) It's
one of those rare occasions where the University Near Here library owns
it and it hadn't been checked out until April 2019 by some book-hoarding
(Don't get me started… oh, wait, I guess I did start. I'll stop
The book is by Walter Isaacson, previously the author of books on Steve
Jobs and Albert Einstein. Isaacson is a polished writer of popular
non-fiction, and this reads smoothly. Another factor was my near-total
ignorance of the details of Leonardo's life. ("He was… Italian, right?")
So just about everything was new and interesting to me. The book is
lavishly illustrated with color reproductions of a number of Leonardo's
paintings, drawings, and excerpts from his notebooks.
There's a lot of analysis and interpretation of Leonardo's works. (And,
since I'm totally ignorant about such things, they may even be
insightful and correct, what do I know?)
What struck me most was the confluence of factors that made Leonardo
into the figure we know today. Okay, fine, he was blessed with a high
raw intelligence. But other features of his personality played a vital
role as well: his curiosity was turned up to eleven; his powers of
patient observation were unmatched; he was an utter perfectionist.
(One of the things I didn't know: Mona Lisa is, technically,
an unfinished painting; Leonardo worked on it for years, and it was in his
possession when he died.)
Leonardo was also gay, people of his time were well aware. Also
illegitimate, and who knows what role these factors played in his life
Also vital were the time and place: Renaissance Italy. Full of
prosperous merchants and rulers who had nothing better to do with their
wealth than to patronize artistic and engineering genius. Portraits
needed painting, churches needed decorating, armies needed innovative
weaponry, … Outside of that environment, Leonardo would have become what? A
notary, like his dad?
Also interesting was Leonardo's interactions with other famous folk. He
had some dealings with Michaelangelo–they didn't get along. He spent
some time in the employ of the notorious Cesare Borgia, a very nasty
guy, but that didn't seem to scruple him much. While there, he hung
around with Machiavelli, too.
Bottom line: interesting and readable. Somewhat distracting was
Isaacson's occasional comparisons of Leonardo with Steve Jobs.
(Page 353: "Innovation requires a reality distortion field." Really? I
guess, maybe, I wouldn't know.)