Skip to:Content
|
Bottom
Cover image for Leonardo da Vinci
Title:
Leonardo da Vinci
Author:
Walter Isaacson
Subject:
Biography Autobiography Memoir
Science
History
Arts Entertainment
Description:
The #1 New York Times Bestseller "A powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life...a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it."-The New Yorker...
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster Audio
Digital Format:
Windows Media Audio

MP3
Language:
English

Summary

Summary

The #1 New York Times bestseller from Walter Isaacson brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography that is "a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it...Most important, it is a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life" ( The New Yorker ).

Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo da Vinci's astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson "deftly reveals an intimate Leonardo" ( San Francisco Chronicle ) in a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo's genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.

He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa . With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper . His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man , made him history's most creative genius.

In the "luminous" ( Daily Beast ) Leonardo da Vinci , Isaacson describes how Leonardo's delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. His life should remind us of the importance to be imaginative and, like talented rebels in any era, to think different. Here, da Vinci "comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson's ambitious new biography...a vigorous, insightful portrait" ( The Washington Post ).


Author Notes

Walter Isaacson was born on May 20, 1952 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He received a B. A. in history and literature from Harvard College. He then attended the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College and read philosophy, politics, and economics.

He began his career in journalism at The Sunday Times of London and then the New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item. He joined TIME in 1978 and served as a political correspondent, national editor and editor of new media before becoming the magazine's editor in 1996. He became Chairman and CEO of CNN in 2001, and then president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.

He has written numerous books including American Sketches, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Kissinger: A Biography, Steve Jobs, and The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. He is the co-author, with Evan Thomas, of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 7

Publisher's Weekly Review

Screen, television, and stage actor Molina (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Not Without My Daughter), elegantly narrates Isaacson's sweeping biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Molina effortlessly navigates Italian place names and surnames, and there is a sharp intelligence throughout his performance, as he joins Isaacson in peeling back the layers of a man whose surviving notebooks are crammed with fantastic designs but only contain tantalizing hints of a personal life. Isaacson manages to piece together chronologically the artist's life from his apprenticeship at age 14 in Florence under Andrea del Verrochio to his death in France in 1519, focusing primarily on his evolution as an artist. Isaacson reads the foreword and the conclusion, in which he ruminates on the legacy of an artist whose trail of unfinished projects vastly outnumbers his completed works. The only hiccup in this excellent audio production is that the nearly 150 illustrations mentioned throughout are available in PDF form but are not easily accessible for those listening on the go. Still, it's a great performance by Molina and a pleasure to listen to. A Simon & Schuster hardcover. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Isaacson's writings of late have been concerned with genius: biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. Now he takes on perhaps the ultimate genius, a man whose interest in art and science intertwined in spectacular ways. Putting together the life of Leonardo da Vinci (despite his own numerous entries in his famous notebooks) seems to have been a more complicated task for Isaacson than was presenting his previous subjects (and, of course, he had the advantage of numerous personal interviews with Jobs). On the surface, the book doesn't seem to reveal much more about the man personally illegitimate, gay, sometimes unfocused than does a solid encyclopedia entry. Ah, but when Isaacson discusses da Vinci's artistic and scientific endeavors, all manner of fascinating connections begin to emerge. With the strong advantage of having four-color images of Leonardo's work placed throughout his text, Isaacson can both show and tell, writing with assurance about the different influences on the artist's works, where his passions lay and overlapped. Leonardo's fascination with anatomical structure informed his paintings; his profound interest in math and the transformation of shapes influenced his inventions. His delight in staging theatricals led to dramas that offered interpretations of his allegorical art and drawings. Encompassing in its coverage, robust in its artistic explanations, yet written in a smart, conversational tone, this is both a solid introduction to the man and a sweeping saga of his genius.--Cooper, Ilene Copyright 2017 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

SPECIALISTS ON LEONARDO DA VINCI have to work like detectives. They must draw information from the tiniest of clues. A few years ago, a German scholar spotted a marginal note that a Florentine had entered in 1503 in his copy of Cicero's letters. On a page on which Cicero remarked that the painter Apelles "finished the head and bust of his Venus with the most refined artistry, but left the rest of her body incomplete," the Florentine reader, Agostino Vespucci, connected past to present: "Leonardo da Vinci works this way in all his paintings, as in the head of Lisa del Giocondo and that of Anne, mother of the Virgin. We will see what he will do in the Hall of the Great Council." This little note confirmed that the subject of the infinitely mysterious "Mona Lisa" was Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. It showed that Leonardo's contemporaries recognized and discussed the special qualities of his art. And it gave a taste of the way in which Renaissance Italians creatively combined disciplines. Vespucci was a classical scholar, trained by the most brilliant philologist of the late 15 th century, Angelo Poliziano. He used his training not in the academy but in Florentine government, where he served as the assistant to another great innovator, Niccolö Machiavelli. Vespucci was reading Cicero's lessons about the ancient Roman republic to help him better serve the modern Florentine republic. In Renaissance Italy, cultural borders existed only to be crossed. Walter Isaacson follows dozens of clues to reanimate Leonardo da Vinci, one of the boldest of these bordercrossers. Though Leonardo wrote endlessly, he revealed little directly about his inner life. Without fuss and without Freud - though Dan Brown, unfortunately, makes an appearance - Isaacson uses his subject's contradictions to give him humanity and depth. A dandy, known for his bright pink clothing, Leonardo lived at times in rooms full of dissected bodies. A vegetarian who bought birds so that he could set them free, he designed killing machines. A connoisseur of grotesques, he painted glorious, glowing angels. As Isaacson follows Leonardo from one locale and occupation to another, his energy never fails and his curiosity never dims. Again and again he turns up a surprising and revelatory detail - the averted eyes that suggest Leonardo used mirrors to create a marvelous late self-portrait, human vertebrae drawn with precision and delicacy. Leonardo embodies the creativity of the "many-sided people" of the Renaissance" - the term that the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt coined for him and his contemporaries. He is most famous, today, as the painter of the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper." Yet when he offered his services to the ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, he promised to invent bridges, cannons and war machines. Only at the end of his letter did he mention that he could sculpt and paint. And Leonardo's dedication to STEM subjects was absolute. In his notebooks, he recorded the movements of everything from the water in rivers to the blood in the human aorta (the patterns of which he worked out centuries before anyone else). He designed machines to lift huge weights and enable men to fly. And he made apparent that because he could draw these anatomical and structural wonders, he saw more and more clearly than professional scholars and medical men. Isaacson toggles between Leonardo's works of art and his contemplation of nature, tracing the connections between them. As Leonardo studied sight, he found that shadows, not hard outlines, defined the shapes of objects. As he worked on the geometry of perspective, he learned how to manipulate the formal rules in order to compensate for the distortions inevitable when a spectator moved from place to place in front of a large painting on a wall. "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper," as Isaacson reads them, are not only paintings of infinite depth and complexity, but demonstrations of new methods and principles for studying nature. Isaacson does not offer a seamless story. Nothing is simple in Leonardo studies. Historians of science debate the meaning and importance of his manuscripts, while historians of art and curators wrangle over the authenticity and chronology of his works. Is the newly discovered "Salvator Mundi" (recently sold at auction for an eye-popping $450 million) a genuine Leonardo painting? Isaacson takes the reader through the story of its authentication, which involved both evaluation of its quality and technical analysis of its execution. Trade editors have been known to discourage authors from treating problems like this in detail. Leave the pedantry, they say, for the academics. Isaacson, however, puts on his professor's hat - he teaches history at flilane University - and lucidly describes the controversies. This brave decision gives his book the character of a mosaic, assembled piece by piece, rather than a smooth fresco - and makes it far more instructive than a simple narrative could ever have been. Isaacson shows that the work of great scholars like the Leonardo specialist Martin Kemp can be exciting in its own right. Isaacson could have pressed another sort of information from the words and drawings he read so carefully. Earlier engineers anticipated Leonardo's deep interest in the underwater world and diving apparatus. Leon Battista Alberti even hired divers in the hope of raising a sunken Roman barge from the bottom of Lake Nemi. Before Leonardo, earlier natural philosophers argued that thousands of years of flooding and erosion had shaped the surface of the earth. Connecting these dots - showing that Leonardo shared interests and ideas with many predecessors and contemporaries - would have made Isaacson's history even richer. Then again, the choice of a tight angle lens might have been deliberate. After all, Leonardo himself painted his portrait subjects against blurry, indistinct landscapes.


Choice Review

Who is not familiar with the versatile genius Leonardo da Vinci? He was an artist, scientist, innovator, and bold thinker, an icon on whom volumes have been written. But here comes a new biography by a biographer par excellence. Isaacson (Tulane Univ.) presents a wealth of fascinating material on the hero with superb clarity and erudition. We read about this unschooled scholar exploring optics and anatomy, fantasizing about technologies to be actualized centuries later, painting masterpieces; we consider his genius as a military engineer and architect. There is reference to the challenges Leonardo faced as a gay man (though in Florence's art world da Vinci was not alone). We read of his Vitruvian Man and that of Giacomo Andreas, about the range of the artist's attire, and much more of significant and trivial interest. There are thoughtful comments on the master's paintings and details on his stay with François I of France. The inclusion of many color reproductions adds considerably to the book's charm, besides making one feel that the price is a bargain. Leonardo's immense accomplishments jolt us to the recognition of what the human spirit is capable of. A must-read for all educated people and for those seeking to expand their education. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. --Varadaraja V. Raman, emeritus, Rochester Institute of Technology


Guardian Review

Flamboyant, illegitimate and self taught, he was unreliable and an unashamed self-publicist. He was also one of the most gifted and inventive men in history In 1501, desperate for Leonardo to paint her portrait, the immensely rich Isabella d¿Este employed a friar to act as go-between. The friar met Leonardo in Florence but found his lifestyle ¿irregular and uncertain¿ and couldn¿t pin him down. ¿Mathematical experiments have absorbed his thoughts so entirely that he cannot bear the sight of a paintbrush,¿ Isabella was told. With promises he¿d get round to it eventually, Leonardo kept her dangling for another three years. Pushy to the end, she changed tack and asked him for a painting of Jesus instead. Even then, he didn¿t come up with the goods. The story encapsulates contrasting versions of Leonardo that have been in play ever since Vasari extolled him in his Lives of the Artists. On the one hand, the lofty genius who wouldn¿t kowtow to affluent patrons; on the other, the feckless fantasist who failed to fulfil his commissions. On the one hand, the Renaissance Man to whom maths and science were as important as painting; on the other, the artist who ¿left posterity the poorer¿ (Kenneth Clark ¿s phrase) by pursuing hobbies ¿ engineering, architecture, pageantry, military strategy, cartography, etc ¿ on which his talents were wasted. He achieved so much. But did multitasking prevent him achieving more? Walter Isaacson has no doubt about the answer. The subjects of his previous books ¿ Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs, among others ¿ were all blue-sky thinkers, with the ability ¿to make connections across the disciplines¿ and ¿to marry observation and imagination¿. His life of Leonardo (rather cheekily subtitled ¿The Biography¿, as if there were no others) doesn¿t neglect the paintings. But it¿s more fascinated by the notebooks, with their 7,200 pages of sketches and ideas. Isaacson¿s premise is that Leonardo¿s scientific interests nourished his art ¿ that only through the work he put into dissecting corpses and studying muscles was he capable of painting the Mona Lisa¿s smile. Gay, vegetarian, flamboyant in dress (with a preference for pink), erratic in his work habits and astute when it came to self-promotion, Leonardo would have felt at home among the hipsters of today. Being illegitimate was no great stigma: it meant he grew up with two mothers (which Freud thought explained a lot). It also saved him from becoming a notary, a profession closed to sons born out of wedlock. His lack of a formal education was no handicap, either. Self-taught, he derided ¿puffed up¿ scholars who relied on received ideas: ¿He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.¿ Experience was what counted, he said ¿ that and a relentless curiosity. At 14, he was apprenticed to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, who was (so Vasari claimed) ¿astonished¿ by his talent and with whom he collaborated before producing at least two early masterpieces, The Annunciation and (his first non-religious effort, and one to rank with the Mona Lisa) Ginevra de¿ Benci. A charge of sodomy, involving a 17-year-old, might have halted his progress by landing him in prison or worse. But one of the four young men with whom he was accused had connections with the Medici family and the case was dropped. His attitude to sex was ambivalent: ¿Whoever does not curb lustful desires puts himself on the level of beasts,¿ he wrote, with conventional piety, but he also acknowledged that the penis ¿possesses a life and an intelligence separate from the man¿. His companion of many years ¿ servant, pupil and the subject of many drawings ¿ was the rascally Salai, who came to him at the age of 10. At some point they probably became lovers. Later, in his mid-50s, Leonardo adopted another young man, Francesco Melzi, whom he loved as a son. Not surprisingly, his depictions of men are more erotic than those of women. He described the act of coitus as ¿repulsive¿; only the beauty of human faces redeemed the ugliness of genitalia. His lack of desire for women is perhaps what makes his paintings of them so tender and attentive: by objectifying less (and leaving their clothes on), he sees more. Some of his men look feminine, too. The angel in Virgin of the Rocks ¿ intended to be Gabriel or Uriel ¿ is often mistaken for a woman. A later drawing of an angel, either by Leonardo or by someone in his studio, showed a figure with breasts and an erect penis. Androgyny appealed to him. His men lack the muscularity of Michelangelo¿s nudes, which he dismissed as looking like ¿a sack of walnuts rather than a human figure¿. The rise of Michelangelo (20-odd years his junior) may have been a factor in his preference for Milan: having spent much of his 30s and 40s there, he returned in his mid-50s. It was a bigger city than Florence and was well stocked with intellectuals and scientists (less so with artists). Later he moved to Rome and later still, leaving Italy for the first time, to France. But it was Milan that encouraged the odd mixture of the practical and the fantastical that went into his inventions ¿ his schemes for flying machines, giant crossbows, scythed chariots, needle grinders, screw jacks and so on. As Isaacson sees it, his inventions and ideas occupy an important place in the history of science and technology, anticipating the discoveries of Galileo and Newton. He contributed to medical knowledge too: by dissecting the body of a 100-year-old man, he came up with the first description of arteriosclerosis as an outcome of the ageing process. Even his wackiest ideas (such as the plan to protect Venice with a team of underwater divers wearing breathing apparatus) had potential, though it was several more centuries before scuba gear came along. Anatomy was his abiding specialism. Other artists might aspire to get the measure of man but he went about it literally, computing the right proportions (¿from the top of the ear to the top of the head is equal to the distance from the bottom of the chin to the duct of the eye¿, etc). This kind of perfectionism underlaid his reluctance to complete his paintings, notably The Last Supper, to which he¿d sometimes add just a couple of brush strokes before knocking off for the day (serious artists occasionally ¿accomplish most when they work least¿, he told the impatient duke who¿d commissioned it), and the Mona Lisa, with which he fiddled on and off for 15 years and which was still in his studio when he died. He described the act of coitus as ¿repulsive¿; only the beauty of human faces redeemed the ugliness of genitalia Like almost everyone who has written about it, Isaacson is reverential towards the Mona Lisa, though not as much as Walter Pater (¿hers is the head upon which all the ends of the world are come¿) and not without using it to underline one of his main themes ¿ Leonardo¿s sfumato technique, whereby lines are blurred and boundaries (like those between art and science) disappear. More illuminating is his account of the recent controversies over two other paintings attributed to Leonardo, La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi : through carbon dating and digital magnification, experts have assessed the key evidence (palm prints, left-handed brush strokes, stitching holes), but whether they¿re the genuine article remains a matter of dispute. Five hundred years on, you¿d have thought that everything it¿s possible to know about Leonardo would now be known, but authentication of his work remains an issue and surprises still keep turning up ¿ a lost drawing of Saint Sebastian in 2016 and new details about the identity of his mother Caterina only this year. Isaacson doesn¿t claim to make any fresh discoveries, but his book is intelligently organised, simply written and beautifully illustrated, and it ends with a kind of mental gymnastics programme that suggests how we can learn from Leonardo (Be curious, Think visually, Go down rabbit holes, Indulge fantasy, Respect facts, etc). Leonardo¿s notebooks are full of similar exhortations: ¿Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock ¿ Observe the goose¿s foot ¿ Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.¿ In his thirst for knowledge, he was like a small child endlessly asking ¿Why?¿ His last drawings were turbulent images of water and wind. You can read them as metaphors for apocalypse and death (he¿d had a stroke by then). Or as the culmination of a lifelong drive to find connections between natural phenomena ¿ to link the curve of waves to a curl of human hair. Either way, Isaacson¿s claim that no other figure in history ¿was as creative in so many different fields¿ doesn¿t seem far-fetched. - Blake Morrison.


Kirkus Review

A majestic biography of "history's most creative genius."With many exceptional popular history books under his belt, Isaacson (History/Tulane Univ.; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, 2014, etc.) is close to assuming the mantle currently held by David McCullough. Here, Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. The author believes the term "genius" is too easily bandied about, but Leonardo (1452-1519), from the tiny village of Vinci, near Florence, was "one of the few people in history who indisputably deservedor, to be more precise, earnedthat appellation." He was self-taught and "willed his way to his genius." With joyous zest, Isaacson crafts a marvelously told story "of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical." Like a child in a candy store, Isaacson often stops to exclaim; he shares his enthusiasm, and it's contagious. For the author, the starting point are da Vinci's notebooks, all 7,200 pages, the "greatest record of curiosity ever created." Da Vinci's groundbreaking, detailed drawings charted the inner worlds of the skull, heart, muscles, brain, birds' wings, and a working odometer, along with doodles and numerous to-do lists. In his iconic Vitruvian Man, completed when he was 38 and struggling to learn Latin, "Leonardo peers at himself with furrowed brow and tries to grasp the secrets of his own nature." Isaacson is equally insightful with the paintings, of which there are few. The Last Supper is a "mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy." Regarding the uncompleted Mona Lisa, he writes "never in a painting have motion and emotion, the paired touchstones of Leonardo's art, been so intertwined." As Isaacson wisely puts it, we can all learn from Leonardo. Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

For this biography, Isaacson (Steve Jobs) used his subject's notebooks for his research since they helped to understand Leonardo as a person. Born illegitimate and middle class in the city of Vinci outside of Florence, Italy, Leonardo had a fascination with both science and art. This melding of both subjects was a main component of Renaissance life. The audiobook examines Leonardo's birth, early adulthood, his homosexuality, his works (e.g., The Last Supper; Mona Lisa), his contemporaries, including Michelangelo and Cesare Borgia (upon whom Machiavelli's The Prince was based), and his lasting impact. Alfred Molina does a wonderful job of telling this story. His accent and pronunciation make for a vivid listening experience. Isaacson narrates the introduction and conclusion, providing a more personal presentation of the material. The first CD contains a 111-page PDF with a time line, images from Leonardo's notebooks, his paintings and sculptures, and photographs of buildings and rooms where he lived. VERDICT A phenomenal title for fans of Isaacson's previous biographies, Renaissance life in Florence, and da Vinci himself. ["A must-read biography": LJ 10/15/17 starred review of the S. & S. hc.]-Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Leonardo da Vinci CHAPTER 1 Childhood Vinci, 1452-1464 DA VINCI Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations. His family roots can be traced to the early 1300s, when his great-great-great-grandfather, Michele, practiced as a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, about seventeen miles west of Florence. I With the rise of Italy's mercantile economy, notaries played an important role drawing up commercial contracts, land sales, wills, and other legal documents in Latin, often garnishing them with historical references and literary flourishes. Because Michele was a notary, he was entitled to the honorific "Ser" and thus became known as Ser Michele da Vinci. His son and grandson were even more successful notaries, the latter becoming a chancellor of Florence. The next in line, Antonio, was an anomaly. He used the honorific Ser and married the daughter of a notary, but he seems to have lacked the da Vinci ambition. He mostly spent his life living off the proceeds from family lands, tilled by sharecroppers, that produced a modest amount of wine, olive oil, and wheat. Antonio's son Piero made up for the lassitude by ambitiously pursuing success in Pistoia and Pisa, and then by about 1451, when he was twenty-five, establishing himself in Florence. A contract he notarized that year gave his work address as "at the Palazzo del Podestà," the magistrates' building (now the Bargello Museum) facing the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government. He became a notary for many of the city's monasteries and religious orders, the town's Jewish community, and on at least one occasion the Medici family. 1 On one of his visits back to Vinci, Piero had a relationship with an unmarried local peasant girl, and in the spring of 1452 they had a son. Exercising his little-used notarial handwriting, the boy's grandfather Antonio recorded the birth on the bottom of the last page of a notebook that had belonged to his own grandfather. "1452: There was born to me a grandson, the son of Ser Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, at the third hour of the night [about 10 p.m.]. He bears the name Leonardo." 2 Leonardo's mother was not considered worth mentioning in Antonio's birth notation nor in any other birth or baptism record. From a tax document five years later, we learn only her first name, Caterina. Her identity was long a mystery to modern scholars. She was thought to be in her mid-twenties, and some researchers speculated that she was an Arab slave, or perhaps a Chinese slave. 3 In fact, she was an orphaned and impoverished sixteen-year-old from the Vinci area named Caterina Lippi. Proving that there are still things to be rediscovered about Leonardo, the art historian Martin Kemp of Oxford and the archival researcher Giuseppe Pallanti of Florence produced evidence in 2017 documenting her background. 4 Born in 1436 to a poor farmer, Caterina was orphaned when she was fourteen. She and her infant brother moved in with their grandmother, who died a year later, in 1451. Left to fend for herself and her brother, Caterina had a relationship in July of that year with Piero da Vinci, then twenty-four, who was prominent and prosperous. There was little likelihood they would marry. Although described by one earlier biographer as "of good blood," 5 Caterina was of a different social class, and Piero was probably already betrothed to his future wife, an appropriate match: a sixteen-year-old named Albiera who was the daughter of a prominent Florentine shoemaker. He and Albiera were wed within eight months of Leonardo's birth. The marriage, socially and professionally advantageous to both sides, had likely been arranged, and the dowry contracted, before Leonardo was born. Keeping things tidy and convenient, shortly after Leonardo was born Piero helped to set up a marriage for Caterina to a local farmer and kiln worker who had ties to the da Vinci family. Named Antonio di Piero del Vacca, he was called Accattabriga, which means "Troublemaker," though fortunately he does not seem to have been one. Leonardo's paternal grandparents and his father had a family house with a small garden right next to the walls of the castle in the heart of the village of Vinci. That is where Leonardo may have been born, though there are reasons to think not. It might not have been convenient or appropriate to have a pregnant and then breast-feeding peasant woman living in the crowded da Vinci family home, especially as Ser Piero was negotiating a dowry from the prominent family whose daughter he was planning to marry. Instead, according to legend and the local tourist industry, Leonardo's birthplace may have been a gray stone tenant cottage next to a farmhouse two miles up the road from Vinci in the adjacent hamlet of Anchiano, which is now the site of a small Leonardo museum. Some of this property had been owned since 1412 by the family of Piero di Malvolto, a close friend of the da Vincis. He was the godfather of Piero da Vinci and, in 1452, would be a godfather of Piero's newborn son, Leonardo--which would have made sense if Leonardo had been born on his property. The families were very close. Leonardo's grandfather Antonio had served as a witness to a contract involving some parts of Piero di Malvolto's property. The notes describing the exchange say that Antonio was at a nearby house playing backgammon when he was asked to come over for that task. Piero da Vinci would buy some of the property in the 1480s. At the time of Leonardo's birth, Piero di Malvolto's seventy-year-old widowed mother lived on the property. So here in the hamlet of Anchiano, an easy two-mile walk from the village of Vinci, living alone in a farmhouse that had a run-down cottage next door, was a widow who was a trusted friend to at least two generations of the da Vinci family. Her dilapidated cottage (for tax purposes the family claimed it as uninhabitable) may have been the ideal place to shelter Caterina while she was pregnant, as per local lore. 6 Leonardo was born on a Saturday, and the following day he was baptized by the local priest at the parish church of Vinci. The baptismal font is still there. Despite the circumstances of his birth, it was a large and public event. There were ten godparents giving witness, including Piero di Malvolto, far more than the average at the church, and the guests included prominent local gentry. A week later, Piero da Vinci left Caterina and their infant son behind and returned to Florence, where that Monday he was in his office notarizing papers for clients. 7 Leonardo left us no comment on the circumstances of his birth, but there is one tantalizing allusion in his notebooks to the favors that nature bestows upon a love child. "The man who has intercourse aggressively and uneasily will produce children who are irritable and untrustworthy," he wrote, "but if the intercourse is done with great love and desire on both sides, the child will be of great intellect, witty, lively, and lovable." 8 One assumes, or at least hopes, that he considered himself in the latter category. He split his childhood between two homes. Caterina and Accattabriga settled on a small farm on the outskirts of Vinci, and they remained friendly with Piero da Vinci. Twenty years later, Accattabriga was working in a kiln that was rented by Piero, and they served as witnesses for each other on a few contracts and deeds over the years. In the years following Leonardo's birth, Caterina and Accattabriga had four girls and a boy. Piero and Albiera, however, remained childless. In fact, until Leonardo was twenty-four, his father had no other children. (Piero would make up for it during his third and fourth marriages, having at least eleven children.) With his father living mainly in Florence and his mother nurturing a growing family of her own, Leonardo by age five was primarily living in the da Vinci family home with his leisure-loving grandfather Antonio and his wife. In the 1457 tax census, Antonio listed the dependents residing with him, including his grandson: "Leonardo, son of the said Ser Piero, non legittimo, born of him and of Caterina, who is now the woman of Achattabriga." Also living in the household was Piero's youngest brother, Francesco, who was only fifteen years older than his nephew Leonardo. Francesco inherited a love of country leisure and was described in a tax document by his own father, in a pot-calling-the-kettle way, as "one who hangs around the villa and does nothing." 9 He became Leonardo's beloved uncle and at times surrogate father. In the first edition of his biography, Vasari makes the telling mistake, later corrected, of identifying Piero as Leonardo's uncle. "A GOLDEN AGE FOR BASTARDS" As Leonardo's well-attended baptism attests, being born out of wedlock was not a cause for public shame. The nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt went so far as to label Renaissance Italy "a golden age for bastards." 10 Especially among the ruling and aristocratic classes, being illegitimate was no hindrance. Pius II, who was the pope when Leonardo was born, wrote about visiting Ferrara, where his welcoming party included seven princes from the ruling Este family, among them the reigning duke, all born out of wedlock. "It is an extraordinary thing about that family," Pius wrote, "that no legitimate heir has ever inherited the principate; the sons of their mistresses have been so much more fortunate than those of their wives." 11 (Pius himself fathered at least two illegitimate children.) Pope Alexander VI, also during Leonardo's lifetime, had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children, one of whom was Cesare Borgia, who became a cardinal, commander of the papal armies, an employer of Leonardo, and the subject of Machiavelli's The Prince. For members of the middle classes, however, illegitimacy was not as readily accepted. Protective of their new status, merchants and professionals formed guilds that enforced moral strictures. Although some of the guilds accepted the illegitimate sons of their members, that was not the case with the Arte dei Giuduci e Notai, the venerable (founded in 1197) guild of judges and notaries to which Leonardo's father belonged. "The notary was a certified witness and scribe," Thomas Kuehn wrote in Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. "His trustworthiness had to be above reproach. He had to be someone fully in the mainstream of society." 12 These strictures had an upside. Illegitimacy freed some imaginative and free-spirited young men to be creative at a time when creativity was increasingly rewarded. Among the poets, artists, and artisans born out of wedlock were Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, his son Filippino, Leon Battista Alberti, and of course Leonardo. Being born out of wedlock was more complex than merely being an outsider. It created an ambiguity of status. "The problem with bastards was that they were part of the family, but not totally," wrote Kuehn. That helped some be, or forced them to be, more adventurous and improvisational. Leonardo was a member of a middle-class family but separate from it. Like so many writers and artists, he grew up feeling a part of the world but also detached. This limbo extended to inheritance: a combination of conflicting laws and contradictory court precedents left it unclear whether a son born out of wedlock could be an heir, as Leonardo was to find out in legal battles with his half-brothers many years later. "Management of such ambiguities was one of the hallmarks of life in a Renaissance city-state," explained Kuehn. "It was related to the more celebrated creativity of a city like Florence in the arts and humanism." 13 Because Florence's guild of notaries barred those who were non legittimo, Leonardo was able to benefit from the note-taking instincts that were ingrained in his family heritage while being free to pursue his own creative passions. This was fortunate. He would have made a poor notary: he got bored and distracted too easily, especially when a project became routine rather than creative. 14 DISCIPLE OF EXPERIENCE Another upside for Leonardo of being born out of wedlock was that he was not sent to one of the "Latin schools" that taught the classics and humanities to well-groomed aspiring professionals and merchants of the early Renaissance. 15 Other than a little training in commercial math at what was known as an "abacus school," Leonardo was mainly self-taught. He often seemed defensive about being an "unlettered man," as he dubbed himself with some irony. But he also took pride that his lack of formal schooling led him to be a disciple of experience and experiment. "Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia," 16 he once signed himself. This freethinking attitude saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking. In his notebooks he unleashed a blast at what he called the pompous fools who would disparage him for this: I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! . . . They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others. . . . They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe--but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others. 17 Thus was Leonardo spared from being trained to accept dusty Scholasticism or the medieval dogmas that had accumulated in the centuries since the decline of classical science and original thinking. His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we've outgrown our wonder years. To that was added an intense desire and ability to observe the wonders of nature. He pushed himself to perceive shapes and shadows with wondrous precision. He was particularly good at apprehending movement, from the motions of a flapping wing to the emotions flickering across a face. On this foundation he built experiments, some conducted in his mind, others with drawings, and a few with physical objects. "First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further," he announced, "because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way." 18 It was a good time for a child with such ambitions and talents to be born. In 1452 Johannes Gutenberg had just opened his publishing house, and soon others were using his moveable-type press to print books that would empower unschooled but brilliant people like Leonardo. Italy was beginning a rare forty-year period during which it was not wracked by wars among its city-states. Literacy, numeracy, and income were rising dramatically as power shifted from titled landowners to urban merchants and bankers, who benefited from advances in law, accounting, credit, and insurance. The Ottoman Turks were about to capture Constantinople, unleashing on Italy a migration of fleeing scholars with bundles of manuscripts containing the ancient wisdom of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, and Aristotle. Born within about a year of Leonardo were Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who would lead an era of exploration. And Florence, with its booming merchant class of status-seeking patrons, had become the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism. CHILDHOOD MEMORIES The most vivid memory Leonardo had of his infancy was one he recorded fifty years later, when he was studying the flight of birds. He was writing about a hawk-like bird called a kite, which has a forked tail and elegant long wings that allow it to soar and glide. Observing it with his typical acuity, Leonardo perceived precisely how it opened its wings and then spread and lowered its tail when it landed. 19 This aroused a memory from when he was a baby: "Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since among the first recollections of my infancy, it seemed to me that, as I was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips." 20 Like much of what came from Leonardo's mind, there was probably some fantasy and fabulism in the brew. It is hard to imagine a bird actually landing in a cradle and prying open a baby's mouth with its tail, and Leonardo appears to acknowledge this by using the phrase "it seemed to me," as if it were perhaps partly a dream. All of this--a childhood with two mothers, an often absent father, and a dreamlike oral encounter with a flapping tail--would provide great fodder for a Freudian analyst. And it did--from Freud himself. In 1910 Freud used the kite tale as the foundation for a short book, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. 21 Freud got off to a stumbling start by using a poor German translation of Leonardo's note that mistakenly called the bird a vulture rather than a kite. This sent him into a long tangential explanation about the symbolism of vultures in ancient Egypt and the etymological relationship of the words for vulture and mother, all of which was irrelevant and, Freud later admitted, embarrassing. 22 Leaving aside the bird mix-up, the main thrust of Freud's analysis was that the word for tail in many languages, including Italian (coda), is slang for "penis" and that Leonardo's memory was related to his homosexuality. "The situation contained in the fantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio," Freud wrote. Leonardo's repressed desires, he speculated, were channeled into his feverish creativity, but he left many works unfinished because he was inhibited. These interpretations have prompted some devastating critiques, most famously by art historian Meyer Schapiro, 23 and they seem, at least to me, to reveal more about Freud than about Leonardo. Biographers should be cautious about psychoanalyzing someone who lived five centuries earlier. Leonardo's dreamlike memory may have simply reflected his lifelong interest in the flight of birds, which is how he framed it. And it does not take a Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. "Intellectual passion drives out sensuality," he wrote in one of his notebooks. 24 A better source for insight into Leonardo's formative character and motivations is another personal memory he recorded, this one about hiking near Florence. The recollection involved chancing upon a dark cave and pondering whether he should enter. "Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished," he recalled. "Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire--fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within." 25 Desire won. His unstoppable curiosity triumphed, and Leonardo went into the cave. There he discovered, embedded in the wall, a fossil whale. "Oh mighty and once-living instrument of nature," he wrote, "your vast strength was to no avail." 26 Some scholars have assumed that he was describing a fantasy hike or riffing on some verses by Seneca. But his notebook page and those surrounding it are filled with descriptions of layers of fossil shells, and many fossilized whale bones have in fact been discovered in Tuscany. 27 The whale fossil triggered a dark vision of what would be, throughout his life, one of his deepest forebodings, that of an apocalyptic deluge. On the next side of the sheet he described at length the furious power once held by the long-dead whale: "You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships." Then he turned philosophical. "Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kings, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished." By this point Leonardo's fears were about a realm far different from whatever dangers might be lurking inside the cave. Instead they were driven by an existential dread in the face of the destructive powers of nature. He began scribbling rapidly, using a silverpoint on a red-tinted page, describing an apocalypse that begins with water and ends with fire. "The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die," he wrote. "In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature." 28 The dark cave that Leonardo's curiosity compelled him to enter offered up both scientific discoveries and imaginative fantasies, strands that would be interwoven throughout his life. He would weather storms, literally and psychologically, and he would encounter dark recesses of the earth and soul. But his curiosity about nature would always impel him to explore more. Both his fascinations and his forebodings would be expressed in his art, beginning with his depiction of Saint Jerome agonizing near the mouth of a cave and culminating in his drawings and writings about an apocalyptic deluge. I . Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes incorrectly called "da Vinci," as if that were his last name rather than a descriptor meaning "from Vinci." However, the usage is not as egregious as some purists proclaim. During Leonardo's lifetime, Italians increasingly began to regularize and register the use of hereditary surnames, and many of these, such as Genovese and DiCaprio, derived from family hometowns. Both Leonardo and his father, Piero, frequently appended "da Vinci" to their names. When Leonardo moved to Milan, his friend the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni referred to him in writing as "Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine." Excerpted from Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Go to:Top of Page