Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson’s ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’
October 13, 2017
As he was choosing his latest subject, the biographer and outgoing Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson looked for a pattern in his previous books.
He decided to write about Leonardo da Vinci after realizing that the figures he was interested in most — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Ada Lovelace — are those who brought together the humanities and the sciences, whose creativity crossed disciplines.
"I said, 'Who is the exemplar of that?'" Isaacson recalled this summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Of course, Leonardo Da Vinci was the obvious answer. A self-taught polymath, Leonardo found greatness and touched genius in painting, engineering and the sciences.
"Leonardo's greatest skill — the one connected to his curiosity — was his acute ability to observe things," Isaacson said. "He willed his way to genius."
Isaacson spent five years on his new book, "Leonardo da Vinci," which is due out on Tuesday and has become one of the most hotly anticipated nonfiction titles of the year. (In August, Paramount won a bidding war for the movie rights to the book and attached the other Leonardo — DiCaprio — to star as da Vinci.)
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The backbone of the books is Leonardo's more than 7,000 pages of notebooks, which gave Isaacson an intimate look at the artist's mind and which he calls the "the greatest record of curiosity ever created." Leonardo always kept one tied around his waist and in them recorded his thinking process in minute detail. (Isaacson noted that, ironically, there is far more archival material on a 15th-century figure like Leonardo than Information Age subjects like Steve Jobs because so much of digital correspondence and writing is lost to history.)
Aspenites got a hands-on preview of the book in August, when Isaacson convened the world's foremost experts on Da Vinci for a four-day conference at the Institute. It culminated in a free, public exhibition of replicas of Da Vinci inventions and paintings, an immersive multimedia experience and a lecture by Isaacson that drew a standing room only crowd to the Doerr-Hosier Center.
In Isaacson's keynote, he called on the crowd to "be more like Leonardo."
To study Leonardo, Isaacson said, is to be edified and inspired by him. The self-taught artist achieved greatness not through intellect or natural talent, the author said, but through something every person on earth has access to: curiosity.
"Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do each day," he said.
The summer exhibition at the Institute was a monument to that curiosity, which led Leonardo into deep study of everything from the tongue of woodpeckers to the light of the moon. Nearly every corner of the Doerr-Hosier center and its leafy environs were covered with models of Leonardo's inventions: catapults and a spring-powered car, military tanks and a "robot" of external armor, a scuba diving suit and air-filled "water walking skis," a mobile bridge and a mechanical drum and so on. His gliders and flying machines hung from the ceiling.
In his research, Isaacson said, he found a surprisingly human, relatable Leonardo that belies his mythical image in the popular imagination. Isaacson found a misfit, a kid whose father harped on him to apply himself and finish what he started. Isaacson also discovered that many of Leonardo's inventions came from his time working in theater production, staging pageants for the Duke of Milan.
"He was Joseph Papp — he did spectacular productions," Isaacson said.
His flying machines and helicopters were born out of stage props that allowed angels to descend from above.
"Being Leonardo, he said, 'Well now that we've done that, let's see if we can make a new one that we can really fly,'" Isaacson explained.
Born in Vinci in 1452, Leonardo had "the good luck of being born out of wedlock," according Isaacson. The circumstances of his birth precluded him from taking over his family notary business and freed him to blaze his own path. He also, by good fortune, found himself in a time and place when his sexuality wasn't an issue.
"He is gay at an interesting time, because he is in Florence and suddenly Florence is the most tolerant place on earth up until that time," Isaacson explained at Ideas Fest.
Obsessed with human anatomy, Leonardo began dissecting human bodies after he felt he couldn't get the neck muscles quite right in "St. Jerome in the Wilderness." That process, bringing his biological study into his art, Isaacson found, is what gave the world the Mona Lisa smile. The mystery and magic and optical illusions of the Mona Lisa resulted from Leonardo's years of studying facial muscles and opening cadavers looking for the way the lips connect to nerves and how smiles physiologically take shape. Isaacson pored over 22 pages of Leonardo's detailed notes about the anatomy of the Mona Lisa smile. Leonardo's sfumato-syled fine shading and blurred lines, meanwhile, came after immersing himself in optics and the workings of the human eye — in which he found "there is no line in nature."
The biggest question for historians about Leonardo is why so much of his work was unfinished, from his "Treatises" to paintings like "Adoration of the Magi" and countless engineering inventions that he never brought to fruition. One answer, Isaacson found, is that Leonardo was a supreme perfectionist — working on the minutest details of paintings for years at a time. He tinkered with the Mona Lisa for 15 years and died with it at his bedside in 1519. He often reached beyond the possible.
"The downside of Leonardo is that you get disappointed there's too much fantasy there," Isaacson said. "He always blurred the line between reality and fantasy."
As for why the Mona Lisa remains the most famous painting in the history of the world, Isaacson offered a simple answer: it's the best.
"It is, by orders of magnitude, the greatest painting ever painted," he said. "It is the most beautiful ever painted, the most emotional ever painted. Pick any element of it."
Isaacson also credits Leonardo with writing "the best job application in history." At 31, Leonardo wrote to the Duke of Milan pitching himself as an engineer. After 11 paragraphs explaining his prowess in mechanics and engineering he writes, "I can also paint and sculpt as well as any man." Leonardo, it turns out, was far prouder of his feats in the hard sciences than in the fine arts.
"He always had the fantasy that he was more of an engineer than an artist," Isaacson said. "Being an artist was not a high-class position — it was like a cobbler. It was a craftsman's job. He wanted to be elevated."
At Ideas Fest Isaacson also joked that Leonardo would be his ideal replacement running the Institute, which Isaacson will leave at the end of the year.
"If he was alive today, he'd be at the top of the list to run the Aspen Institute," Isaacson said. "Whenever he goes to the court of Milan, he gathers the smartest people. Yes, artists and sculptors, but also playwrights and mathematicians. … Every night they would put on a sort of Ideas Festival."
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