Review: Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson

Rating: 3 out of 5

Leonardo was, no doubt, a genius. Mr Isaacson, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. While a solid biography, this volume suffers in two crucial aspects: it is not chronological and the author prefers to engage in hyperbole instead of being supported by evidence. Overall, however, Leonardo’s thrilling life is brought closer to the reader.

For some reason, the order chosen to describe everything follows a near-chronological setup, and yet deviates from it every now and then by a decade or two. In this way, some of the more famous paintings of the author are described in full along with the biographical details of the author which are relevant for it, and then a few chapters later all of this is described again. In this way, some facts, such as “describing the tongue of a woodpecker” are described five or six times.

At the same time, Mr Isaacson occasionally relishes in not having been given evidence for some topics he wants to consider. In his mind, this means that he can “imagine” instead of relying on the evidence. I don’t think this attitude is apposite for a historian; it’s one thing to write a narrative history of Leonardo and another to make up a some in between cross of a narrative history and historical fiction. These statements made me think the author wanted to go for the latter.

Besides these qualms, however, this is an insightful story on Leonardo. A Florentine genius, inventor and painter, the most noteworthy results of his mind’s work are the ones which were never realized. I would have liked to hear more about the engineering solutions—not just the projects—but the overall coverage of Leonardo’s projects is fairly good.

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