The Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci is remembered variously for his mechanical marvels, engineering feats like the designs for flying machines, anatomical research and sketches, the narrative tableau of ‘The Last Supper,’ and, of course, the bewitching beauty in the painting that has come to symbolize art itself, ‘Mona Lisa.’
The enduring mystery of her elusive smile, however, is not only the pinnacle of da Vinci’s artistic achievement, but also the summation of all his other interest in engineering, physics, anatomy and drama, writer Walter Isaacson explained in a lecture this week supporting his new biography. If you’ve ever wondered why ‘Mona Lisa’ holds such an exalted place in the world’s artistic canon, treat yourself three minutes to listen to Isaacson’s explanation of exactly how da Vinci combined all his curiosity and passions into the expression on her face.
Isaacson — a native of New Orleans and graduate of the Isidore Newman School — has led major news organizations CNN and Time Magazine and now presides over the Aspen Institute and teaches history at Tulane University. He has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin and others, and released a new book last month chronicling the life of da Vinci.
His lecture on the da Vinci book on Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center filled more than 300 seats and had more people lining the walls. Leonardo da Vinci, Isaacson explained, was a different kind of genius — perhaps without the sheer mental processing power of Einstein, but with an insatiable need to understand every facet of the world around him and man’s place in it.
“Why I love Leonardo so much is that he makes a lot of math mistakes in his notebooks. He doesn’t finish some paintings. He has weapons that never shot and rivers that were never diverted. He’s very human,” Isaacson said. “What makes him so great is not some unfathomable, touched-by-lightning kind of mind. It’s his curiosity.”
As a child, da Vinci studied the swirling patterns created by water as it moved past obstacles in a stream, Isaacson said, and those swirling patterns preoccupied him throughout his life. He was also obsessed with mathematical questions — such as the geometric paradox of “squaring a circle,” the impossible effort to draw a square with the exact area as a given circle — and his notebooks are filled with investigations of those questions from the beginning of his life to the end.
Leonardo da Vinci also labored toward perfection, only completing 15 paintings in his lifetime. But when da Vinci stepped away from a work, Isaacson explained, it was not to abandon it — it was with the notion that he could always return to his studies, his exploration of the human body and the natural world, and return to the painting perhaps years later with a better understanding of how to approach his problem.
“That’s a type of curiosity that any of us can have, and that all of us do have — until we get it beaten out of us when they tell us to quit asking questions and study for the SAT or something,” Isaacson said. “He kept asking those questions throughout his life.”
“… Each us can try to just be as curious, absolutely curious, about everything that possibly crosses your path each day as Leonardo, and pause — not even for a whole lot of time, but a second or two — and sort of look at each thing.”