Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Tom's Two Cents: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The publication of a new and substantive biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson has coincided with the sale at Christie's Auction House this week of the only Leonardo still in a private collection for $450 million--yes, that's $450 million--the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction.  The painting is "Salvator Mundi," (Fig. 83 in the book), a painting of Christ as Savior of the World.  Its authenticity has been questioned by some experts, but the fact is that, as far as we know, there are only fifteen known Leonardo paintings in the world and this is the only one not in a museum.  So it's not so much a question of Leonardo being the greatest painter of all time as it is the rarity of his artistic work.  Leonardo was a universal genius, so far ahead of his time that painting was, for him, almost an incidental skill.

Isaacson's biography, therefore, concentrates not just on Leonardo's art, but on the complexity of his mind and the fields of endeavor that he explored, especially in science and anatomy. In fact, in virtually all his biographies (he is a professor of history at Tulane University) Isaacson's principal area of interest is the nature of genius--hence his books on such widely diverse men as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs.  Although his subject matter is heavy, Isaacson's approach to his subject is essentially light--a kind of populist biography, if you will.  I'm not suggesting that it reads like a novel, yet it certainly is true that Leonardo's life and times were anything but dull, and so Isaacson presents them.

This is one heavy book, and I mean that quite literally.  At 524 pages with high quality paper and superb illustrations, it will not rest comfortably in your lap or be held in your hands--so look for something stable to rest it on.  There are 33 chapters, many complete in themselves, and even if you choose not to read the text, flip through the book and look at the illustrations.  They are indeed a wonder.  Not for everybody, but surely not for those only interested in art, either!

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