“Leonardo …” -Zip Reads

Leonardo da Vinci -Summary of Isaacson

  • DougInNC book report
  • “More than a Review”

Full book title: Summary & Analysis of Leonardo da Vinci
– A Guide to the Book by Walter Isaacson

Let’s get this point straight: Leonardo da Vinci is “Leonardo.” I learned this important distinction, and took further interest, when traveling to Rome in 2019, arriving for a six-night stay on precisely the 500th anniversary of his May 2, 1519 passing.

I elicited a dark stare by telling a local guide that I was interested in learning about “da Vinci.” A sad, despondent, “Let me explain” shake of the head preceded the reply that I likely meant “Leonardo,” not “da Vinci.”

For why would I express a desire to hear of a small distant town? Surely I wanted to hear about a man, not a place, and his name is “Leonardo,” of (“da”) the place named “Vinci.” The inquiry continues:

“Maybe,” the guide mused, “You should like to see his greatest piece of art, the Mona Lisa.”

“That would be splendid,” I said.

“That would be unlikely,” said the guide for Rome, “For it is in the Louvre, and that museum is in Paris.”

“Oh, yes,” I recalled, “I visited the Louvre a year earlier, in 2018.”

“Then you saw the Mona Lisa?”

“Not on that visit.” But I recalled seeing it long ago.

“Interested in Leonardo ‘da Vinci(!)’ but did not see the Mona Lisa?”

“This year seems like the right time, being 500 years since his passing,” I offered.

“The last 499 years would have served just as well.”

Silence. Ever. Shrinking. Silence.


The guide was crisp, not curt, in clarifying “Leonardo,” neither condescending nor critical. I cringed, but only in a minor manner.

I was in the ‘right place’ after being put in ‘my place’ because there were exhibits in Rome for the quincentennial. In particular, the technical side of my brain drew me to an exhibit of models of his machinery. (Photos below)

The Vatican Museum displayed Leonardo’s paintings. Other visited museums in Rome had token works. A small exhibit toured at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2015 had focused on his writings. I expect that the works of the artist and inventor will migrate across the world after being assembled for this 500-year anniversary.

After reading Marcus Aurelius (click for my report), my appetite was whetted for another Italian icon investigation. Which brings us to today’s purpose, a book review.

I settled on the Zip Reads “Summary & Analysis of Leonardo da Vinci – A Guide to the Book by Walter Isaacson.”

This was my first experience with the ‘Zip Reads’ brand. I think it is akin to the old ‘Cliffs Notes’ of my day, now apparently known as ‘CliffsNotes,’ but often erroneously called by the name ‘Cliff Notes’ (I can attest to using that nomenclature) and now possibly superseded by SparkNotes. Perhaps the constructs differ for Zip Reads, CliffsNotes, and SparkNotes, but that is not my subject to explore.

I found the Zip Reads delivery to be quite dry.
Cue Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

How dry? The book was allowed to languish for months, half-finished despite being just forty-eight pages. I wanted the facts (born 1452, died 1519), so the condensing was indeed useful. But I also enjoy the flourish from full authorship that would be expected in Mr. Isaacson’s 600 pages.

I learned the nuts and bolts about the inventor whose notebooks include designs for screw-cutting machines. The first devices of that kind did not arrive until 1568.

This Zip Reads edition provides some appreciation for the life and times of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was an era of nobility, wars, art, and discovery.

It was the Renaissance in its early days. While explorers like Columbus sailed to new lands, Leonardo’s discoveries were within his grasp; i.e. he was hands-on across a plethora of fields:

  • “… ‘he filled pages with outlines and passages for treatises on topics such as flight, water, anatomy, art, horses, mechanics, and geology’ (Isaacson, Ch. 5)”
  • “As an engineer, he honed his technical skills by drawing mechanisms he encountered or imagined. As an artist, he sketched ideas and made preparatory drawings. As a court impresario, he jotted down designs for costumes, contrivances for moving scenery and stages, fables to be enacted, and witty lines to be performed.”
  • “In science, he pioneered the empirical research method.”
  • “In anatomical studies, he pioneered the detailed representation of each body part from three different angles …”
  • “… his complete depiction of dentistry — including the roots — [was] the first known account of it in history.”
  • He pioneered techniques in painting I’m not qualified to address.

I can relate to his characteristics though not blessed with his talents:

  • “… he was easily distracted and drawn to obsessive behavior.”
  • “It seems he indeed preferred the conception to the execution.”
  • He was left-handed.
  • “… his place in history as inspirational genius, rather than simply a master craftsman.” (better said would be: “far beyond the label ‘master craftsman'”)
  • Exceptional person, but the cryptic book could be better with edits.

The world gained a great deal from Leonardo, but much was waylaid for future generations to rediscover:

  • “His discoveries were immense, enough to fill hundreds of notebooks, but never collated, organized or published for others to benefit from his knowledge.”
  • “It took 450 years for anatomists to realize that Leonardo was correct [regarding the properties of heart valves and blood flow].”

Read the Zip Reads “Summary & Analysis of Leonardo da Vinci – A Guide to the Book by Walter Isaacson” to learn the facts, but not to be thrilled with the ride an author likely provides when read in their entirety.

The Last Supper

Art of Leonardo, The Last Supper, a print in Rome, May 2019.
I witnessed this personally in Milan, IT, 1980

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slide show: Models of machinery of Leonardo on display in Rome, May 2019. Wide range of Flying Machines, Functional Machines, and War Machines. Early parachute. Early Ball Bearings (from wood). First battlefield tank.

Paddlewheel Canoe

Model of Leonardo Paddlewheel Canoe, May 2019

Immense Crossbow

Model of Leonardo’s Immense (very cross!) Crossbow, May 2019

One thought on ““Leonardo …” -Zip Reads”

  1. Leonardo might have painted some amazing pictures but he is definitely not the best Renaissance artist. He was lazy and hardly ever finished a commission. And the Mona Lisa, in my opinion a second rate portrait, even for da Vinci. Cheers my friend, an interesting narrative and thought provoking. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are welcome and encouraged!!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.