There’s no reason to fret about how much is original hereby Philip Ball / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Is there anything new to be said about Leonardo da Vinci? Walter Isaacson’s massive new biography inevitably prompts that question, although he takes in the recent (persuasive) claim by art historian Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti to have identified Leonardo’s mother as a poor rural orphan.
But there’s no reason to fret about how much is original here. Isaacson’s book is an excellent one-stop shop: engagingly written, well researched and full of illuminating observations about the art. The Last Supper shows how Leonardo bent the rules of perspective to improve the view from all distances and angles; Lady with an Ermine displays his unearthly command of light, shadow and reflection, as well as his compositional innovation. I’m no fan of the Mona Lisa, but it exemplifies Leonardo’s concern to replicate what is actually seen—not just what the laws of optics and perspective demand.
On Leonardo’s technological inventions, Isaacson injects some welcome caution, suggesting that famous sketches such as the flying devices might have been intended more as theatrical spectacles for the Italian courts than as practical machines. Isaacson is careful not to turn, anachronistically, Leonardo into a scientist, while doing justice to his empirical approach of combining observation with theory: reasoning backwards from “experiment” to cause, rather than starting (like Aristotle) with axiomatic principles.
It’s impossible not to find mystery in Leonardo. He came out of nowhere, an illegitimate first son of a family of 17; a generous-hearted man who devised instruments of war; an artist capable of extraordinarily astute devotional sensitivity, whose studio also produced pictures of hermaphrodite angels with erections; applying preternatural visual perception yet apt to procrastinate and leave jobs unfinished; possessing a scientist’s eye for precision, and an artist’s readiness to sacrifice it for the right effect. If he is the archetypal Renaissance man, it’s because he best exemplifies an era of new possibilities, questions and ideas.