I love Walter Isaacsons biographies, they are always engaging, never dry, and I learn so much while being thoroughly entertained because it reads more like a novel many times rather than a dry non-fiction feel to it.
Leonardo is obviously one of the most world renown artists ever born, but there’s so much I didn’t know about him.
What I loved most was learning about his personality, which I knew nothing about. Sometimes when learning about one of histories greats you sort of cringe because they were actually assholes or power hungry or just unpalatable in some way.
Leonardo was apparently charming to be around, a warm funny person that most people found engaging and entertaining. He often times impressed the courts or nobles with his antics, drawing things in front of a live audience, using his drawings to tell tales or make points.
He was a big animal advocate and was vegetarian for most of his adult life. Sometimes he would go to gatherings or parties and speak poetically about a mother who’s lost her daughter, only to have her throat slit and then eaten. It sounded like a barbarian raided a town, but at the end he would reveal the poem was about a goat or a sheep. He was one of the first to surmise that animals experience pain too, there was a widely held myth that animals didn’t have the same sense of pain that humans do. But, Leonardo theorized correctly that anything that moves would be able to sense pain, in case that movement caused damage.
The biography follows Leonardo from birth to death and everything in between. He was born a bastard to a well to do notary which actually wasn’t as big of a deal as you may think. In Florence during his lifetime bastards weren’t uncommon, and they weren’t necessarily shunned out of existence either and were often times embraced and legitimized.
Leonardo had no intention of becoming a notary, but his experience growing up as the son of a notary was influential throughout his life – he took fastidious notes on basically everything he observed from bird flight to the size and shapes of rocks to facial expressions. He had volumes and volumes of notebooks and sketches, many of which have been preserved through time and give us amazing glimpses into his thought processes.
Leonardo had a really bad habit of not finishing his work, there are thousands of half finished essays, paintings, and designs. He had amazing ideas but often lacked the follow through to make them presentable or functional. But, when he did finish something they almost always became masterpieces.
He once worked as a military engineer trying to design weapons of war, and many of them were truly monstrous. Luckily for humanity, his weapons never came to fruition and weren’t used in war.
Unfortunately, his design for a perfectly laid out city complete with sewage removal was ignored as well, and had the powers that be paid attention and used his designs, many instances of plague and disease could have been avoided.
I did not know going into this that Leonardo was gay and openly gay at that. He was charged twice with sodomy, but thankfully nothing came of that. He wrote many pieces on how he found the idea of copulating with a woman to be abhorrent and had many sketches of his male lovers. One of which caught his eye and held his attention for many years, Salai. Salai showed up as a model for many, many paintings and sketches, and his likeness was used countless times.
Overall, this was an amazing biography and I can’t wait to see what Isaacson does next.