Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein

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Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A complex and large output gets the appreciation it deserves, in a history of the science in and around the life of da Vinci.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: #304 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Da Capo
ISBN: 9780306818257

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This excellent combination of science history and biography starts with the most populist and some of the most awkwardly scientific. Basically it throws modern-day science at the Mona Lisa, which you might think is a little unfair – can she cope with being analysed, and the neuroscience we now know used in interpreting her? Of course she can – she’s the world’s best-known masterpiece of Italian art, and she’s survived much worse. Klein’s approach fully works, when we see also the science da Vinci did know and that he worked on himself, which all helps us know partly why the truths of La Gioconda are still unknowable.

Again Klein starts with the small and reveals the large, with his second chapter. Take one slightly odd diagram of water swirling in copious flows beneath a waterfall, and our author is crossing the Lombardy plains outside Milan, to show us how Leonardo became a scholarly mechanic, helpmeet, canal planner and state engineer to his patron. And even further on from there we see how that very move was important for Leonardo in letting him learn hydrodynamics in the first place.

But he was neither entirely correct about this, nor all other things. He looked at the world in a very pictorial way, but this did not make him a complete scientist. However pages 64-67 here in my edition seem to be the be-all and end-all of the book, where Klein shows ultimately how this Renaissance man saw art, technology and scientific research as one linked entity.

Can then this review be finished here? This is clearly an intelligent book, hanging great science and knowledge from five centuries regarding all aspects of its subject on personable stories, artefacts and travels. Klein is great at spinning off from the modern-day experience of looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, or perhaps dropping in biographical details about da Vinci, such as his keenness for buying and freeing cage birds, only to contrast that with him making detailed plans for weapons of mass destruction at the same time, at an age when warfare was starting to open itself to exploring technological means.

But the answer is no – nothing can be so pat when faced with the might of da Vinci. He was not the best scientist of his age, by all means – he sometimes drew details into his anatomical drawings that just were not there. He wasn’t brilliant at mathematics. He published practically nothing – purely from the time pressures in facing up to his own erudition and interest in seemingly everything.

And I cannot let this review rest without pointing out that however complex and diverse its subject is, the book is forever readable, perfect on depth and clarity. We learn more about Italian history and geology than we might have thought likely. And whether the logically-arranged chapters are concerning trivia such as mechanical automata from da Vinci, or the fact we might assume he had experiments in powerless flight from the hills overlooking Florence, Klein is on hand with all we need to know.

It’s one of those perfect examples of great subject meeting great telling. This volume never stints on the black and white illustrations, either, and has been laid out very nicely. It ends with thoughts on whether we will see such like as Leonardo again.

There was a cultural disaster almost 500 years ago when the entire output of Leonardo was scattered across Europe, cut up, dissembled, sold off – and much of it lost. This is the best book I could expect for redressing some of that balance in such a readable way.

I must thank the kind people at Da Capo Press for my review copy.

For those wanting more of the history behind La Gioconda, there is also The Lost Mona Lisa by R A Scotti - well worth reading too.

Buy Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein at Amazon.com.


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