He comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson’s ambitious new biography ... saacson’s approach, true to his background, is fundamentally journalistic. No intellectual peacocking for him, and though his writing is certainly graceful, it is never needlessly ornate. But make no mistake: He knows his stuff, crowdsourcing, with extreme diligence, an array of art, historical, medical and other experts to arrive at a vigorous, insightful portrait of the world’s most famous portraitist. Da Vinci groupies won’t find startling revelations here. Isaacson’s purpose is a thorough synthesis, which he achieves with flair.
There is a significant difference, though, between Leonardo da Vinci and Isaacson’s previous biographies. His other geniuses left behind bountiful source material about the lives they led. Leonardo did not ...what Leonardo’s notebooks lack — which Isaacson readily concedes — are 'intimate personal revelations' ... Isaacson does not seem to be that kind of writer. Absent the documentary material he’s accustomed to, he overcompensates with copious analyses of Leonardo’s works ... Isaacson is stronger when he’s on familiar turf, showing us Leonardo the scientist and innovator, the engineer and secret doctor ... The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable ... What endures after reading Leonardo da Vinci is just how indifferent to glory the man was.
Isaacson calls his subject Leonardo throughout the book, creating a tone of intimacy with a man who, despite the biographer’s best efforts, retains an air of enigma ... By necessity, significant parts of Leonardo da Vinci must be speculative. In lieu of strict chronology, Isaacson uses paintings and other works of Leonardo as windows into his heart and mind ... Isaacson’s roots as a journalist serve him well. He writes simply and clearly, and even though his principal character hails from antiquity, the narrative hums like a headline from the morning paper, alert to topical parallels between then and now ... Isaacson sometimes lapses into the homiletic. Not quite confident that readers can draw their own conclusions about Leonardo’s life, he ends Leonardo da Vinci with a small tutorial listing the lessons we should learn.