Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Who was Leonardo da Vinci? The guy who painted the Mona Lisa, right? Oh and he had some crazy ideas for some machines that never would have worked, right? If, like me, you never gave Leonardo da Vinci much more thought than that, Walter Isaacson’s book “Leonardo da Vinci” will be an interesting read, and will hopefully leave you with some challenging food for thought.

Isaacson presents a history of the man, and his artwork, somewhat in parallel. Drawing a great deal from da Vinci’s own notebooks, and the work of some of his early biographers, we go through a journey, learning about Leonardo, what he was learning about, and how we see that reflected in his paintings. From his early work as an apprentice in Verrocchio’s workshop, through his periods of studying everything from optics, to anatomy to hydrology, we get to see how Leonardo’s art drove his scientific inquiry, which in turn drove his art.

What I never new about da Vinci was that he was well ahead of the curve in many fields of science. For example, his countless dissections of humans, and more than a few animals, coupled with his prodigious spatial intelligence, and ability to draw, meant he produced a treatise on anatomy that was at least 200 years ahead of its time. If he had published his work, who knows what a boost to medical science that would have been. That’s the other thing I learned about Leonardo: he was interested in learning for its own sake, so things like publishing didn’t really feature high on his priority list; once he knew a thing, he was happy.

The thought that I’ve been chewing on since I started reading this book is this: “What can we learn from Leonardo’s inquisitive nature, and the accomplishments it lead to? And how can we apply that to how we educate ourselves, and our children? For da Vinci, learning was a lifestyle, and a passion. It was a thing to be done for its own sake. It enriched his life by allowing him to do all the things he did for his patrons, but those were just by-products.

Leonardo da Vinci had no formal education. He taught himself pretty much everything he knew. If we were to model this today, I would think of it in terms of an education culture, not an education system, and I think Leonardo would agree.

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