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‘Leonardo da Vinci’ review: Walter Isaacson’s bio of the Renaissance man is colorful and exuberant

A reproduction of the red-chalk self-portrait (circa 1516)

A reproduction of the red-chalk self-portrait (circa 1516) of Leonardo da Vinci. Credit: From the book Del Cenacolo di Leonardo da Vinci by Giuseppe Bossi

LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, 674 pp., $35.

Leonardo da Vinci was “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical,” according to an exuberant, lushly illustrated new biography.

No more than 15 paintings exist now fully or mainly attributable to him. (A rediscovered painting, estimated at $100 million, will be auctioned at Christie’s in November.) He abandoned projects, bungled commissions and struggled to distinguish himself. At age 30, he found himself writing a letter to Milan listing the reasons he should be given a job.

Now, 535 years later, his “Mona Lisa” beams from the cover of The Atlantic magazine; he enjoys a lavish spread in The Wall Street Journal; and he eyes the reader from a tight, oil-painted detail of his golden-hued face on the cover of “Leonardo da Vinci.” The source of all these words is Walter Isaacson, who, like his subject, made friends in high places.

Paramount Pictures won the film rights, acquired for seven figures as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. The self-taught Italian who drew the “Vitruvian Man,” pioneered dentistry, made the first study on the origins of wall fissures, designed a glider and invented a new way to draw maps would have been captivated by both DiCaprio and motion pictures. Thanks to the verve and color in Isaacson’s supple biography, we can imagine it.

For five generations Leonardo’s ancestors were notaries, but his out-of-wedlock birth blocked that professional path. Still, he had what Isaacson calls “an instinct for keeping records,” and walked the streets with a notebook dangling from his belt. More than 7,200 pages have survived, about a quarter of what he actually wrote, a windfall nonetheless.

Isaacson wisely turns Leonardo’s notebooks into the spine of his biography, tracing a restless, protean mind. Paper was expensive, and the artist crammed the pages with “sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, siphons, plant stems, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles, and studies for paintings.”

Isaacson, 65, a former Rhodes Scholar who ran CNN and Time Magazine, is president of the Aspen Institute. His books profile Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs; this last work broke international sales records for biography. He clearly feels the pull of the “great man” approach to history.

The author notes that the quarter of Leonardo’s notebook pages to survive across five centuries is better than “the percentage of Steve Jobs’ emails and digital documents from the 1990s that he and I were able to retrieve.” Isaacson is not shy about inserting himself; weighing in on authentication disputes and littering his pages with the first-person singular. Isaacson — neither an art historian nor a Leonardo scholar — has both done his homework and seems fondly comfortable with his own powers of discernment.

Readers who submit to this combo will luxuriate in a richly illustrated ride through the artist’s life. “Leonardo’s hand was deft with both pen and scalpel,” and he improvised a way to dissect an eyeball by tucking the whole eye into an egg white, boiling them to a solid and cutting transversely so he could examine the mid-portion of a once gelatinous eye.

In dissecting the body of a 100-year-old man, Leonardo documented the gradual buildup of plaque-like grunge in the arteries of his withered body. Using his skills in analogy, Leonardo wrote, “The network of vessels behaves in man as in oranges, in which the peel becomes tougher and the pulp diminishes the older they become.” Cardiologist and medical historian Kenneth Keele called Leonardo’s analysis “the first description of arteriosclerosis as a function of time.”

A principal pleasure of “Leonardo da Vinci” is Isaacson’s gift for assembling a bracing dinner table of scholarly comment. This sampling arrives just often enough to let some welcome air into the embrace of biographer and his subject.

The writer is keen; his book’s second paragraph declares Leonardo responsible for “the two most famous paintings in history, ‘The Last Supper’ and the ‘Mona Lisa.’” That bold assertion would be more plausible if Isaacson had thought to qualify “in Western history.”

Perhaps such close reading is out of step with the sweep of Isaacson’s enthusiasms, which pair nicely in chronicling Leonardo’s own. On one to-do list, the artist directed himself to “describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” As a lovely coda, Isaacson does just that. It becomes a fascinating, bonbon-size tribute to the man who thought to ask.


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