Leonardo da Vinci's Life of Invention

Image of Leonardo da Vinci's Life of Invention
Release Date: 
May 23, 2023
Pavilion Books
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"The best pages in this book focus on these strange, improbable ideas, many linked to flight."

This nonfiction book provides a basic introduction to the famous Renaissance painter. For those who know nothing about him or the Italian Renaissance, it lays out some fundamental facts, but there is very little in insightful history or art history between these pages. There is no back matter, no bibliography, so it's not clear what research the author did. References are made to sketchbook pages, but there are no citations from these sketchbooks, nor from contemporary writings. The reader is left to wonder about some statements, for example, that Leonardo explored animals' thoughts and feelings:

"Leonardo's interest in animals went beyond just anatomy. He was also fascinated by the different moods and emotions of animals, such as cats and dogs."

Here a quote for the sketchbook proving this would be most welcome. Without, one is left a bit skeptical of its truth since it certainly wasn't a common view of the period.

The author goes back and forth between Leonardo's accomplishments and placing him in particular places, from his hometown of Vinci to Paris. Within all these moves, his art is briefly described, but there is no real sense of his career as a painter, the patrons he worked for, the growth of his reputation. Perhaps these aspects were considered unimportant. Instead there is more focus on Leonardo's varied skills, which are each given a section in the book.

"Leonardo's various interests often came together. Drawing inspiration from nature helped him to come up with many of his inventions, and his painting and drawing ability helped when studying and documenting the human body. Da Vinci's work is evidence of how different interests and skills can work together to create unique and unexpected outcomes."

Given that statement, one would expect to see an example of such a combination—none follow. In fact, there are several surprising absences from this purportedly thorough outline. One is the lack of the mention of water. The many, many sketches Leonardo did of water and its power, trying to figure out ways to harness that energy, are beautiful examples of art and science together on the page. Another striking absence is any mention of The Last Supper. Because Leonardo played with inventing a new kind of paint to adhere to the wall, a new fresco technique, the painting started to disintegrate almost as soon as he finished it. This seems like a prime example of science and art, success and failure, two ostensible themes of the book.

The enormous bronze horse that the Duke of Milan commissioned Leonardo to make is included, but the difficult science of successfully casting such a big bronze isn't part of the description. Instead we're told:

"Studying horse anatomy helped da Vinci to understand how humans and animals worked on the inside and some of the similarities between them. For example, horses' hooves are made out of keratin, which is the same material as your fingernails and toenails."

Did Leonardo know what keratin was? Probably not. Nor was he studying horses to understand humans. That's a leap the author makes without any writing from Leonardo to back it up. Couldn't Leonard want to study horses to paint and sculpt them well? Wasn't that reason enough?

Historians may be troubled by the capsule descriptions of the Medieval period: "a time when knights in gleaming suits of armour were a common sight" and the Renaissance: "Changes in society meant that people became more educated and life started to become more like the way we live it today."

The pages on Leonardo's inventions are more successful. The best pages in this book focus on these strange, improbable ideas, many linked to flight. The pages on art are sometimes simply inaccurate. Describing the landscape in the background of the Mona Lisa, the author praises it as completely invented, proving Leonardo's "immense creativity" in being able to "create a completely fictional landscape." Supposedly "most historical artists would draw something this vast and detailed from life to help them achieve a realistic scene." In fact, most medieval and Renaissance painters worked in the exact same way as Leonardo, inventing the backgrounds in their scenes.

Sadly, the book doesn't include a single illustration of Leonardo's own art, not even a page from a sketchbook. The licensing fees for such an inclusion were probably too costly, but then the art in the book itself could have been more similar to Leonardo's drawings, precise and cross-hatched. Instead, the blocky, modern art feels heavy and out of context. Any child old enough to be intrigued by Leonardo's multi-faceted creativity would be better served by National Geographic's World History Biography on Leonardo, which includes the master's own art and better allows his genius to shine through.