Walter Isaacson is the CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has been the chairman of the CNN and managing editor of Time Magazine. Furthermore, he has written quite a number of large books, including a biography of Steve Jobs, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Kissinger. Mind you, we are dealing here with a man of great importance!
His latest book is a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, aptly titled “The Biography” as to say that is the definitive one? Or the latest one? OK, never mind. I bought it because when dealing with Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi recently sold at Christie’s at a record price, Isaacson had created waves around the world somewhat describing the crystal orb in the hand of the Christ-like figure represented there as being “not-leonardian” since there were no distortions created by the light passing through the perfectly painted ball. It was a timely observation, which put this book into the spotlight in all magazines and newspapers, at the right time. Out of curiosity, I ordered his book, which arrived two days ago. On dealing with Caterina, Leonardo’s mother, the author mentioned, in a note, my book – he even seems to have read it or at least having flipped through it – and because of this I am grateful.
Isaacson mentions the finding, published recently by Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti, about the theory of Caterina being an orphaned girl of Vinci, a theory already discarded in the 70s by Renzo Cianchi. It is unsupported by documents, as historian Elisabetta Ulivi has demonstrated during a presentation she gave in Florence last week (https://beyondthirtynine.com/caterina-di-cambio-was-she-the-mysterious-mother-of-leonardo-da-vinci-elisabetta-ulivis-latest-discovery/).
After going through it I found several wrong details and fantasy creations, which one would expect by a busy man like Isaacson. An example. There is a picture of the town of Vinci, facing the first chapter, in Tuscany, showing the Church of Santa Croce, where the author says Leonardo was baptized. Well it may have been but there is no record of it. Then, he ignores the fact that his mother and stepfather lived near the San Pantaleo Church, about two kilometers from the center of Vinci, which now lays in ruins.
I thought: just wrong beginning, but on the facing page there is Chapter I about Leonardo’s childhood in Vinci and Isaacson says that: “Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes incorrectly called ‘da Vinci.’ as if that were his last name rather than a descriptor meaning ‘from Vinci.” That’s wrong. The Da Vinci’s family went back to the XIII century, if he would have seen the light in London, would we be dealing today with Leonardo da Londra?
Finally, getting over small imprecisions, I must admit that this is a well written and well researched book, containing all the recent findings about Leonardo, all included and discussed. It is worth buying and reading it.