Master Biographer Walter Isaacson Explores Genius at Four Arts

Leonardo Da Vinci, the latest acclaimed and best-selling book from virtuoso biographer Walter Isaacson, spans 624 pages—another exhaustive, impeccably researched tome illuminating a complicated life.

Yesterday, at Society of the Four Arts’ first lecture of 2019, Isaacson shared some of the book’s highlights and insights to a rapt, sold-out audience. Speaking seemingly extemporaneously in the manner of a TED talk, and aided by an indispensable PowerPoint presentation of Da Vinci’s achievements, Isaacson explored how this Florentine iconoclast of the Middle Ages—a gay, left-handed, “somewhat heretical” vegetarian—became a self-taught artist of unparalleled mastery.

The audience at yesterday’s lecture. Photo by Capehart Photography

By deconstructing Da Vinci’s work, Isaacson played the role of art critic as much as biographer and historian. He examined the minutiae of Da Vinci’s formative early work, his obsessions with the spiral form, with painting the perfect heart valve and facial structure, and with “squaring the circle”—his lifelong quest for geometric harmony that he finally realized with “Vitruvian Man,” his iconic self-portrait.

Isaacson reached many of his conclusions by traveling the world to view original Da Vincis, and by devouring the master’s notebooks, all 7,000 pages of them. This yields some fascinating trivia about Da Vinci’s endless curiosities, from his work on theatrical productions and architectural wonders to his formula for hair dye (Isaacson suggests the artist may have been vain about going grey a little too early).

But if there was a central takeaway from Isaacson’s presentation, it’s that Da Vinci arrived at his genius by blurring distinctions between science and the humanities. This joy of creative cross-pollination, where engineering and art coexist on the same plane, connects many of Isaacson’s diverse book subjects—among them Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. And as explained to the Four Arts audience, this coexistence often upended his own expectations of these great men. Here are some of the highlights from Isaacson’s lecture.

“All of the people I’ve written about in my career, in terms of creativity, leadership and innovation, share one quality, and it’s not that they’re smart—although they were all very smart. But those of you in this room have known, in your careers and lives, a whole lot of smart people, and at a certain point, you realize that smart people generally don’t amount to much. They’re a dime a dozen. What matters is creative people. And that’s why it’s so important to connect the four arts to our society, to our science, to our engineering, and to all the humanities. Because it’s the people who stand at the intersection of the arts and the sciences, of beauty and technology—those are the ones who turn out to be the most innovative and bring people together rather than pull them apart.

“When I first started doing Ben Franklin, I mainly thought of him like you and I do, as a humanist, writer and statesman. To the extent we think of him as a scientist, we think of him as a doddering old dude flying a kite in the rain, saying ‘a penny saved is a penny earned.’ But I discovered that those scientific experiments, of lightning and electricity, were the most important science experiments of his age, and even more interesting to me is that they were connected to everything he did. In helping to write the Declaration and the Constitution, that notion of Newtonian balance, of checks and balances, positives and negatives, coming together in scientific and enlightened ways, is what they were trying to create as a nation.

“As for Einstein, I thought, he’s just a scientist. But then I realized that when he was having trouble getting the equations right for general relativity—and trust me, that was a difficult task—he would pull out his violin and play Mozart, and say that by playing Mozart, it connected him to the harmonies of the spirits.

As for Steve Jobs, he was somebody that studied calligraphy, dance, music and poetry at his liberal arts college, not science and engineering. But that’s why he created the iPod, something of unbelievable beauty that morphs into the iPhone, an absolute mark of beauty and design, whereas the somewhat smarter, more educated in coding engineer, Bill Gates, created the Zune. I see maybe three or four people here who remember what the Zune was. It was Microsoft’s music player that looked like it has been designed in Uzbekistan in a basement. Steve believed in something simple, which is that beauty matters.

“The ultimate person in this chain, who tried to connect all of the arts and the sciences and the humanities, who was curious about every endeavor from anthropology to art to math to zoology, was of course Leonardo Da Vinci. He was the person in human history who tried to know the most about everything that was available.

“I used to think that he was a great artist who dabbled in science. After a while, I realized that his science and his art were connected. And then finally I realized that he didn’t make that much of a distinction between art and science, between engineering and humanities. He believed that every brush stroke that the good lord created in nature, whether it was a mathematical equation or a scientific fact or a piece of art or a sunset or the way the light refracts to make the blue sky, he believed that all of those were things of beauty, and that they were all related.

“So my theme with Leonardo Da Vinci, which culminates in the theme of all the books I’ve written, is that the ability to see patterns across nature, to be fascinated by the beauty of everything, is what can make us truly creative.”