A GOOD READ
He was an innovator, a philosopher, an engineer and botanist, a man who saw no boundaries between arts and sciences, and he painted a little bit too. Leonardo da Vinci is investigated and celebrated in a new eponymous biography by Walter Isaacson, biographer of Einstein, Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs whose fascination with the Renaissance artist prompted Isaacson's own. The focus here is not The Last Supper or Mona Lisa, but the man himself (illegitimate, vegetarian, gay, with a penchant for buying caged birds from the markets in Florence and setting them free) and the content of his notebooks.
Da Vinci is popular with the giants of the technology – one of his most important collections of notes is owned by Bill Gates – and it's easy to see why. This was a man whose ideas overtook the knowledge of his age, whose limitless imagination was matched by an urge for forensics, a need to understand the mechanics of things.
Some 7000 or 12000 pages of notes survive depending on who you listen to: pages covered in profound thoughts ('the boundaries of bodies are the least of all things), questions (why is the sky blue? what is happening when we yawn?), sketches, anatomical and geological studies, and inventions for an alarming number of efficient military machines from chariots with scything blades to missile launchers for the Borgias. His body of work is best described as a broad church.
In everything though, nature was his resource. Human ingenuity, he writes, "will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than nature can, because in nature's inventions nothing is lacking, nothing is superfluous."
Flight obsessed him – the flight of imagination, an analysis of aerodynamics and the mechanics of bird wings, designs for flying machines. "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,” he wrote. The quest for flight is a poignant metaphor for a curious mind fixed on unsolvable challenges - the motor for human evolution.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (published by Simon and Schuster). If you don't want to read the book, you can wait for the film: the rights have been bought by Leonardo DiCaprio's production company and the star will take the lead.