Leonardo Da Vinci by Paul Isaacson:


This is a biography of the most celebrated creative genius in the western world. Leonardo was a bastard son born out of wedlock and was also a homosexual. Yet, these anomalies which could have been serious problems during the European dark ages mattered very little since he was fortunate to be born during an era of liberal thought and freedom. He noted in his diary that "a child born thru an act of love is much more likely to have happy, positive qualities than one born of routine, loveless sex."


Leonardo was as meticulous and studious as he was creative. He carried a notebook all the time in which he noted his thoughts, ideas, and observations. He was an astute observer and performed the most painstaking observations once his curiosity was tickled. It won't be incorrect to say that scholars even today are still trying to decipher and absorb the huge body of wisdom he recorded in his notebooks: 7000 pages of his notebooks survive today. Unfortunately, most of his ideas and projects whose theory and implementation have both been described in utmost detail in his notebooks remained on paper partly due to lack of resources and opportunities and partly because he was easily distracted in different directions due to his insatiable curiosity. He pursued the mysteries of Nature in every possible way, and his curiosity was borne purely in the joy of learning. Leonardo was a man of science and logic and did not give credence to astrology or even religion. He did not attribute events to divine intervention but understood them to be part of Nature's cycle of creation and destruction. He proposed and practiced the "scientific method" before such a term was formally defined by later scientists. He was an inveterate experimenter and constantly experimented in every field that he fancied and never accepted established ideas blindly.


Leonardo fused science with art and reality with imagination. For him art and science were not two incompatible or even distinct pursuits, but were as closely related as beauty and truth. He believed in balance: of analysis with intuition, of seriousness with play, of planning with improvisation. He saw universal principles at work in machines and men, in Nature and in his mind. He realized that Nature's mysteries were infinite and there was no "sharpness" in its manifestations: not in the outlines of objects, not in the boundaries between reality and fantasy, not in the distinctions between man and Nature. In fact he saw universality universal laws at work everywhere.


He instilled motion, emotion, and 3-dimensionality in his paintings with a masterful understanding of light. He was an accomplished architect and conceptualized numerous structures including an entire city. He was an accomplished musician and designed several new types of instruments including a violin that could be played by pressing piano-like keys. He was a sculptor and writer he wrote several short stories, puns, and riddles. He theorized widely and presciently in chemistry and physics including the laws of gravity and motion 200 years before Galileo. He invented the scuba gear and discovered that the New Moon was visible because it received and reflected light from Earth. He made meticulous measurements and detailed drawings of the human body, including the musculature, the nervous system, and probably the first full chart of the dental system. He studied fossils and connected them to geology. In short, Leonardo's curiosity was infinite and childlike, and his touch was golden.


Leonardo saw sensory perceptions as the primary gateway to Nature's mysteries and beauty. "The five senses are the ministers of the soul", he wrote. He held vision to be the king of all senses and hence painting the supreme art form. Leonardo continually refined all his senses once again through endless experimentation to become probably the most perspicacious man of all times. Leonardo's life clearly serves as an admonishment to the modern man to open his eyes to the magic of light and color, to discern music from noise, to welcome the wonders of scents and aromas, to enjoy refined foods, and to use the power of touch to feel texture as well as emotion.


Leonardo was a self-taught man. He got very little formal education, and instead learnt through actual experience, from his own observations and curiosity, from his friends and colleagues, and later in life by reading the ancient wisdom of the Greeks and Romans which had just become easily accessible thanks to Guttenberg's invention of the printing press.


Leonardo was very handsome and well-built and was said to have an impressive and noble personality that could cheer up even a depressed individual. He was endowed with a splendid physique which probably influenced his interest in human anatomy. His notebooks contain detailed notes on exercise and the importance of maintaining a good health both physical and emotional. Unlike many other geniuses of history Leonardo was a very social individual and always enjoyed the company of scholars, artists, friends, and common people. Leonardo hated confrontations and one reason he left Florence the second time might have been the bitterness between him and Michelangelo.


Leonardo lived mostly in Florence, Milan, Rome and finally in France. Due to his inability to stay focused or rather due to his proclivity towards getting distracted, his obsessive pursuit of knowledge for the sake of understanding and joy rather than its utility, and his pursuit of perfection (his intuition that Nature's infinite mysteries meant that his work and understanding could never be complete), Leonardo ended up being one of history's creative geniuses who left very few completed pieces of work. But, fortunately, his voluminous notes which he never bothered to publish and which largely survive today leave no doubt about his mastery of numerous fields, his prolific creativity, his ideas that were far ahead of his time, his terrific ability to express and visualize concepts using sketches and diagrams, and his ability to think across multiple dimensions and fields.


Leonardo was a genius who unlike many other geniuses that inspire awe and appear godlike and inaccessible, inspires us to emulate his wonderful qualities. He died at the age of 67 in 1519.


See the Wikipedia page on Leonardo Da Vinci to appreciate his amazing life and accomplishments and also the universal admiration he continues to enjoy through the centuries.



Written by: Abhay B. Joshi (abjoshi@yahoo.com)

Last updated: 5 July 2019