This is one of the most engaging and important books you’re likely to come across in quite a while. Printed on thick glossy stock, with a simulated linen-feel cover — and studded throughout, including the inside covers, with gorgeous reproductions, most in color, “Leonardo da Vinci,” Walter Isaacson’s latest tome, continues to exemplify his reputation for meticulous research and work that celebrates humanity and the intellect.
“I like looking at people who span different disciplines, especially people who combine the arts and the sciences or the humanities with technology,” he has said.
“To me, that means if you work across disciplines, you tend to feel the patterns of nature, you understand crosscurrents, and it allows you to make certain creative leaps,” says Isaacson. “Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate example of that, and his drawing of the Vitruvian Man [it may be a self-portrait] standing in the circle of the Earth and the square of the cosmos is a symbol of that.” It’s a “brilliant work of science and a breathtaking work of beauty.”
This theme of creativity coming from thinking across disciplines, never partisan or didactic, informs everything Isaacson has written, and it is to the credit of the American reading public — despite its apparent appetite for less challenging genres — that his books have made their way onto the best seller lists. They include “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers,” “Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” (2014), “Steve Jobs” (2011), “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (2007) and “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” (2003).
Isaacson has also been a frequent guest and host on various television programs and at media events, an affable, smiling presence who wears his erudition with ease and grace. His style, which includes personal interjections — clarifying comments, philosophical musing — creates a sense that he is having a conversation with the reader, just as the reader feels that Isaacson may have been having one with his subject (sources and notes are referenced at the end). Such a style is often called “readable” or “accessible,” but in Isaacson’s case the operative word is “invitational.”
Only an accomplished and confident writer would end da Vinci with a “coda” that quotes from the online Notebook of the artist, where da Vinci describes of the tongue of a woodpecker. There’s no reason anyone needs to know this fact, Isaacson admits. “It has no utility for us any more than it had for Leonardo.” But the Notebook entry epitomizes Leonardo’s “relentless” curiosity, and so, maybe after reading about the tongue of a woodpecker, Isaacson surmises, readers might value the description for the very same reason — pure curiosity, a quality Isaacson identifies as sine qua non in the geniuses who have attracted his attention over the years. Even so, for Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci was different, a visionary genius above all others.
A polymath who intensely observed and thought deeply about everything, real and imaginary, experimental and theoretical, micro and macro, the human body and the body of the universe, da Vinci, way before Copernicus, declared. “The sun does not move.” “He cared how water swirled around a rock, why the sky was blue, how birds flew,” says Isaacson. He was “the person with the widest and most exuberant curiosity of any other creative genius in history. . . I waited to do him as a culmination of all the books I’ve written about people who stood at the intersection of the arts and sciences and other disciplines.”
But there was also Leonardo’s character, a key to Isaacson’s interest in the various geniuses who have claimed his heart and head.
Leonardo (1452-1519) was attractive, gregarious, skeptical, a bit of a “misfit” Isaacson suggests, because he was illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed and easily distracted. But these qualities served him well. An innovator and inventor 23 years older than his competitor Michelangelo (di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni), who was also gay but uneasy about it, Leonardo (di ser Piero da Vinci) openly acknowledged his young male lovers and felt secure in his person and professions. Like most artists of his time, by the way, da Vinci never signed his work or kept a record of his output. He was also, however, a “master” of the unfinished, says Issacson. He loved to revise, touch up, consider what he did work in progress. He carried around the Mona Lisa for years and never gave it over to Francesco del Giocondo who had commissioned it. It was in his studio when he died.
But what would prompt Isaacson who knows the rich store of writings on da Vinci to lend his own name to the list? The answer would seem to be twofold — new facts and timely significance. Recent advances in technology have affected identification, analysis and interpretation of both da Vinci’s writings and drawings, paintings and sculpture. Now add new translations, especially of the Notebooks, over 7,000 pages of remarkable doodles and scribbles, manuscript ideas sketched out about whatever caught da Vinci’s fancy — “the greatest record of curiosity ever created,” says Isaacson. Gorgeously rendered here in sepia, they, are, arguably, the most compelling illustrations in the book.
Paramount bought the film rights to “Leonardo” for Leonardo DiCaprio. Is Isaacson worried about diminution of his theme? He’s not. He notes that DiCaprio is an environmentalist who cares a lot about the earth and about performance art and painting.” Isaacson’s also “optimistic about the written word.” “Kids are still reading,” he says, though he hopes college students are reading books “at the intersection of the arts and sciences.” Such books would carry the legacy of da Vinci: be curious, care about the relationship between the humanities and technology, think across the disciplines.
“I think sometimes we tend to categorize ourselves or think in silos,” specializing early and exclusively in certain subject matter, he notes. As for those concerned with careers, he points out what Steve Jobs well knew: innovation comes from interdisciplinary thinking, not expertise in coding. Yes, it’s important to instill rigorous thinking in our children, but “we should also remember to carve out the right to indulge in fantasies and daydreams because that’s what the most creative thinkers did.” It’s this broader theme that will be the main subject of Walter Isaacson’s talk.
Isaacson, 66, a longtime career journalist and scholar, is University Professor of History at Tulane, in New Orleans, advisory partner at Perella Weinberg, a financial services firm based in New York City, past CEO of the Aspen Institute, where he is now a Distinguished Fellow , former chairman of CNN, and former Managing Editor of Time Magazine.
He’s also no stranger to the East End, having started to come out regularly to Sag Harbor in the 1980s to visit with Time Magazine friends and literary lights, among them John Leo, Ken Auletta, Amanda Urban, Wilfred Sheed. As usual, he will be participating in the East Hampton Artists and Writers Charity Softball game on August 18. “it’s fun,” says Issacson. Easy to say for someone who’s already hit so many home runs.
Walter Isaacson will speak about his book, “Leonardo da Vinci,” at the Friday at Five Series on August 17 at The Hampton Library, 2478 Main Street, in Bridgehampton, beginning at 5 p.m. For more information, visit hamptonlibrary.com.