Leonardo da Vinci | Walter Isaacson

Summary of: Leonardo da Vinci
By: Walter Isaacson

Introduction

Delve into the captivating story of Renaissance legend Leonardo da Vinci as unraveled by Walter Isaacson in his insightful biography. Through meticulously researched passages, Isaacson sheds light on the extraordinary essence of Leonardo, illustrating how his insatiable curiosity and unparalleled artistic and scientific skills shaped the world. This book summary delves into Leonardo’s early life, his growth and development as an artist, his time in Milan and Florence, as well as his groundbreaking anatomical studies. Acquaint yourself with eye-opening perspectives on Leonardo’s life, his unyielding quest for knowledge, and the masterpieces that immortalized him in history.

The Illegitimate Genius

Leonardo da Vinci’s exclusion from his father’s notary guild gave him the opportunity to flourish as an artist. Born on April 15, 1452, to Piero da Vinci and Caterina Lippi, an unmarried peasant girl, Leonardo was not compelled to join Piero’s respectable business. Although traditionally, Leonardo would have become a notary like his father, the guild barred him because he was born out of wedlock. However, Leonardo’s illegitimacy was not a hindrance. In fact, being an illegitimate child was not unusual for prominent people during the Renaissance period. Leonardo’s exclusion from his father’s guild allowed him to pursue his passion for art. Piero could have legalized Leonardo’s status at a later time, but it was clear from an early age that Leonardo was destined for a life as an artist. Leonardo’s illegitimacy did not hold him back but rather gave him the opportunity to showcase his genius.

Leonardo’s Journey in Art

Piero and Young Leonardo move to Florence, where he begins his apprenticeship at Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, learning the art of painting, much like other artisanal jobs. At Verrocchio’s, he had the opportunity of perfecting his skills in geometry, perspective, and the play of light, which culminated in surpassing Verrocchio’s talents at only 20 years of age. An example of his superior skills can be seen in The Baptism of Christ painting, where his angel has a lively face and eyes and a soft transition of sharp lines, thanks to sfumato.

Leonardo’s Revolutionary Portraiture and the Unfamiliar Artistic Horizons He Set

Leonardo da Vinci was a renaissance man in the truest sense of the term. During the 1470s, Leonardo worked in Verrocchio’s studio as a master painter, creating a whole new style of portraiture. He painted Ginevra de Benci in a three-quarter pose, whereas most portraits in that style tended to be side profiles. He also tried to capture her mysterious inner-self in the painting, which became a hallmark of his style. Leonardo was accused of engaging in sodomy twice, but he continued to work on many unfinished projects and established his own studio in 1477. One of these unfinished projects was “The Adoration of the Magi,” where he made Mary and Jesus the center of attention in a scene depicting awe-inspiring spiritual energy. He left both the city of Florence and the painting unfinished, but his artistic horizons and his revolutionary portraiture opened up many new possibilities for future artists.

Leonardo’s Multifaceted Talents

Leonardo da Vinci’s move from Florence to Milan proved to be a pivotal moment in his life where he not only sought a patron for his artistic aspirations but also explored his interest in architecture, engineering, and theater. Despite offering Ludovico Sforza his abilities in military engineering, he found his niche in entertaining at court, where his pageants, plays, and scientific demonstrations were a huge hit. During his time in Milan, Leonardo explored the relationship between nature, humans, and engineering, offering ahead-of-its-time ideas like redesigning the city’s waterways. His multifaceted talents proved to be fruitful, as he achieved more fame as an entertainer than a painter.

Leonardo da Vinci, the Social Networker

Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant artist with exceptional social skills that he used to establish connections and opportunities. His love for discussions with architects and mathematicians led him to discover Vitruvius’ idea of designing structures based on the human body. This concept deeply fascinated him, and he went ahead to create the world-famous Vitruvian Man artwork.

Leonardo da Vinci was not only an artist but also a social networker. He had an outgoing personality that earned him a reputation as a radiant, handsome, graceful, and gifted storyteller. His social skills helped him create opportunities for himself, where he could connect with fellow artists, mathematicians, and architects. For instance, he learned geometry from Luca Pacioli, a mathematician with whom he collaborated to develop his arithmetic skills. His notebooks contain to-do-lists where he aimed to learn the multiplication of roots from Luca.

Leonardo was obsessed with Vitruvius’ ideas that structures should follow the principles of the human body. He spent time discussing this idea with architects, and it led him to create his most famous artwork, Vitruvian Man. In this piece, Leonardo set a man proportionally in the middle of both a circle and a square to highlight the body’s symmetry. This masterpiece still fascinates people to date and sets Leonardo da Vinci apart as a brilliant artist and intellectual with exceptional social skills.

Leonardo’s Observational Genius

Leonardo’s skilled use of observation is highlighted through his art, particularly in The Last Supper fresco for Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery. He spent years studying horses and using creative approaches to optics and perspective to capture the moment when Christ revealed that Judas had betrayed him. Through clever techniques, Leonardo portrayed the emotions of each apostle, creating a sense of depth that draws the viewer’s attention to Christ himself. Leonardo’s use of rules of perspective demonstrated his application of math and science to his art.

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