Towards the end of last week, based solely upon its reviews in the Arts sections of the newspapers, I bought a copy of Walter Isaacson’s new book Leonardo Da Vinci – The Biography (525 pages not counting Cited Sources, Notes to Chapters, Illustration Credits, Index and About The Author, published by Simon & Schuster at a price of £30).
Being resolutely in the ‘fact not fiction’ camp when it comes to buying or reading books, just from so far only having stepped out only onto the nursery slopes of this considerable literary ‘mountain’ – two wit, the opening section ‘Introduction: I Can Also Paint’, a reference to the 30 year old Leonardo’s letter seeking a job from the ruler of Milan in which he listed eleven paragraphs of his already-manifold accomplishments (among them the designing of bridges, waterways, canons, armoured vehicles and public buildings) before adding ‘Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible’ – I am already aware that I am in for a treat.
From its size, the evident depth and breadth of the project, the care with which it has been prepared for publication, the evident ambition of the author to create something of lasting quality and scholarship, together with the sheer attention to detail, the reader who ever picks up this volume will soon become aware that he or she is in the presence of something special.
Even the illustrations, where they appear, do so in within the text of each chapter and not in blocks at intervals throughout the book.
It had only been nine pages long.
Like every other man and his dog I know the basic story of Leonardo – possibly one of the most talented minds that our species has ever thrown up – and yet, while reminding me of its basic staging posts, Mr Isaacson has also already caused me to reflect upon the meaning of life (mine and humanity’s), the very fact of existence and the universe itself at all and indeed just the mysteries of what is possible if only the individual has the grit and ambition to have a go.
If I ever doubted it – and to be honest I hadn’t even thought about this before opening its first pages – I now know that I am in for a challenging and very welcome experience. Partly because ever since Leonardo first came across my radar when I was small boy I felt an immediate and uncannily strong bond of empathy with him and his genius.
In his ‘Introduction’ Mr Isaacson testifies to the amazing diversity of Leonardo’s interests and insatiable curiosity about the world. He seemed upon a constant passionate quest to discover what it was, how it worked – why water produces eddies, what does the tongue of a woodpecker look like – anything and everything.
In the 7,200 surviving pages of his notebooks are lists of ‘things to do’, e.g. ‘draw Milan’, ‘observe a goose’s foot’, ‘Get the measurements of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman’, ‘Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width’ and umpteen others.
Mr Isaacson once asked Martin Clayton, curator of the Windsor Castle Leonardo ‘Deluge Drawings’, whether Leonardo had regarded them as works or art of science and received the answer that he would probably not have made a distinction.
Mr Isaacson recalls thinking that it was a dumb question even as he was in the act of asking it.
Elsewhere Mr Isaacson makes the point that Leonardo was also a sometimes difficult, tetchy, very fallible human being – not some sort of superman alien who had arrived on Earth in the middle of the 15th Century as a gift from God:
‘His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity. So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.’
‘A bit of a misfit … left-handed … easily distracted’ – I just knew I had plenty in common with Leonardo.
Is there such a thing as reincarnation? Could my intended destiny have been to be the Leonardo of the 20th Century?
Did something go wrong? Was my genius never recognised?
Mind you, we’re not long into the 21st Century – maybe there’s still time …
Maybe that’s why we on the editorial board came together to form the Rust all those years ago.