Good Reads

Leonardo da Vinci Comes to Life, Flaws and All

In his new biography of history's most famous Renaissance man, Walter Isaacson portrays a creative genius.

By Cindy Hirschfeld November 8, 2017

Leonardo da vinci 9781501139154 hr wr7aw6

When Walter Isaacson was writing his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, likely the last thing on his mind was who would play his subject in a movie version. As it turns out, even before the book’s release in mid-October, Paramount had won a heated bidding war for the rights to make a film based on Isaacson’s account, starring none other than Leonardo DiCaprio.

Did Isaacson foresee that one?

“The minute I heard, I said, ‘OK, that makes sense,”’ he says. “DiCaprio is a smart and deeply thoughtful actor, and he’s known to have a deep interest in Da Vinci.”

With the release of the new biography, many more people are apt to share a deep interest in the man Isaacson calls “the most creative genius in history.” As highlighted during a three-day symposium at the Aspen Institute last August, Da Vinci was an artist, yes, but also an inventor, a scientist, a military strategist, and much more. (Seeing the reproductions of his models for things like early helicopters and scuba gear was revelatory.)

Known for his deep dives into his biographical subjects, Isaacson—who recently stepped down after 14 years as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute—studied some 7,000 pages of Da Vinci’s notebooks, traveling to places like Florence, Milan, Paris, London, and Madrid for research. The result? A representation of Da Vinci that will intrigue even those who may think they already have the whole story. “My attempt was to not just portray Leonardo as an artist, but as somebody who made no distinction between science and art,” Isaacson says. “He tried to know everything that could be known about every subject. Being curious about everything is a mark of true genius.”

“The most interesting thing was how human he was,” Isaacson continues. “What at first disappointed me and then thrilled me was that Leonardo made mistakes, left things unfinished, engaged in fantasy, abandoned projects.” In other words, procrastinators, perfectionists, and those with short attention spans will find much to love in this archetypal Renaissance man.

As for whom Isaacson could see writing his own biography, he demurs: “Those of us who write about people should not fall prey to the conceit that we are also players in the arena.” Nonetheless, it’d sure be fun to speculate about who would play him in the movie. Shop locally at Explore Booksellers, 221 E. Main St., 970-925-5336,

Watch Walter Isaacson on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (November 4, 2017):

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