Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography review – portrait of an easily distracted genius

Walter Isaacson’s illuminating study explains why the original Renaissance man left so many paintings unfinished…

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci left his homeland of Tuscany and moved to Milan. He had written to Ludovico Sforza, the city’s ruler, listing his impressive qualifications, hoping to be offered employment. He could design bridges, make new types of cannons, dig “secret winding passages”, create waterways and plan cities. To these accomplishments the 30-year-old Leonardo added: “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.”

Thus the creator of The Mona Lisa only mentioned his artistic abilities as an afterthought. “What he mainly pitched was a pretence of military engineering expertise,” states Isaacson in this lavish, loving biography of the great Renaissance polymath. “These boasts were aspirational. He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described.”

In the end, Leonardo gained an entree to Ludovico’s court, where he quickly made a name for himself – as a designer of pageants. He created sets, costumes, scenery and stage mechanisms to delight his audiences (and employers) at various court celebrations. All we have today are a few reports that recall the fleeting splendours of these occasions, a source of frustration for art historians who would have preferred less ephemeral outputs for his genius. Nevertheless, Leonardo would make good use of his experience as an impresario, as Isaacson subsequently makes clear.

cecilia gallerani or lady with an ermine by leonardo da vinci
Stunning clarity: Leonardo’s Cecilia Gallerani or Lady With an Ermine. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

In any case, Leonardo was clearly happy in Milan. “He was a man of outstanding beauty and infinite grace,” wrote a contemporary. He was also an excellent musician, dressed lavishly, was popular at court and had relationships with a series of young men, a particular favourite being Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who joined Leonardo as a 10-year-old servant in 1490. “Leonardo was at ease with being a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted and at times heretical,” says Isaacson.

Around this time, Leonardo started to fill notebooks with a dizzying array of ideas and investigations into subjects that ranged from light theory to designs for flying machines and from the study of friction to human anatomy. Then, seven years after his arrival in Milan, Leonardo got his first painting commission. The resulting portrait – made in oil on a walnut panel – is of Ludovico’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani, though we know it today as Lady With an Ermine. The painting is a masterpiece that transcends anything Leonardo had painted before then. Cecilia has the same enigmatic smile as the Mona Lisa, while the ermine she holds is rendered with stunning three-dimensional clarity. It is a lustrous, haunting image. “Her emotions seem to be revealed or at least hinted at, by the look in her eyes, the enigma of her smile and the erotic way she clutches and caresses the ermine,” states Isaacson.

Ludovico was certainly impressed. He was, by now, the Duke of Milan and wanted to create a mausoleum for himself. He chose Milan’s church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and commissioned Leonardo to paint a Last Supper on its refectory wall. The painting has become one of Europe’s most cherished works of Renaissance art. However, what is often forgotten is Leonardo’s careful manipulation of the painting’s perspective to create a sense of depth while being viewed by admirers who are obliged to stand close to the painting. The dining room slopes down sharply, and the apostles’ table is depicted as being unnaturally narrow while the floor is raked forward like a stage. All were tricks Leonardo would have employed in designing sets and scenery for his old court theatrical entertainments. “It is an example of why his work on plays and pageants was not time squandered,” says Isaacson.

On other occasions his “time-sucking diversions” – outlined in the 7,200 pages of notes that survive him – resulted in many major works being left unfinished while he contemplated how to build a giant crossbow or a self-propelled flying machine. As a result, there are – at most – 15 paintings fully or mainly attributable to Leonardo da Vinci, a painfully small body of work for an artist of his genius.

On the other hand, he pioneered ideas in engineering, anatomy and the study of light, as Isaacson makes clear in this sumptuous, elegantly written and diligently produced offering that perfectly catches the contradictions of the man: an easily distracted obsessive who created stunning art and then – all too often – abandoned it when it was near completion. The book has reproductions of all these works, finished and unfinished, with careful descriptions of their creation as well as details of his notebooks and plans. For good measure, a four-page illustrated timeline is added to ease the reader through Leonardo’s labyrinthine life. Irritatingly, the book’s original American spelling has been kept for its UK edition but this is a minor flaw in an otherwise splendid work that provides an illuminating guide to the output of one of the last millennium’s greatest minds.

• Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson is published by Simon & Schuster (£30). To order a copy for £25.50 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss review – portrait of the painter as a mystic
The Swedish abstract artist who conversed with the dead is described as a woman years ahead of her time in this scholarly, sympathetic study

Madoc Cairns

06, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Natural Light by Julian Bell review – the forgotten German artist who inspired Rembrandt and Rubens
This engrossing history explains why the extraordinary – and tiny – paintings of Adam Elsheimer, who died in poverty in 1610 aged only 32, were revolutionary

John Banville

02, May, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King – review
A fine analysis of the Last Supper invites us to look afresh at Leonardo's faded masterpiece, writes Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

01, Sep, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman review – an intimate tale of a life in art
This fabulously detailed biography is a fitting testament to the great collector’s cunning, determination and impeccable taste

Tim Adams

23, May, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Peter Conrad’s best art books of 2017
A quest for the real Leonardo da Vinci, a memorial to Leonora Carrington and the art in Proust fascinate and illuminate

Peter Conrad

03, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare review – his greatest work yet
The gifted writer summons the eclectic travels of Albrecht Dürer with passion, poignancy, pure wonder and a personal twist

Laura Cumming

28, Feb, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee review – from shared vision to slashed canvas
Picasso and Matisse, Bacon and Freud… this study of great painters’ rivalries buzzes with gossip but little real insight

Rachel Cooke

16, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson review – unparalleled creative genius
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

Blake Morrison

16, Dec, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Mirror and the Palette by Jennifer Higgie review – five centuries of the female gaze
A sprawling history of women’s self-portraits rattles along without ever really getting under the skin of the artists in question

Rachel Cooke

14, Mar, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011 by William Feaver – review
The second volume of Feaver’s compelling biography reveals the ruthlessness behind the artist’s brilliance

Rachel Cooke

07, Sep, 2020 @6:00 AM