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Book review: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Penguin Life” by Sherwin B. Nuland

The stellar Penguin Lives series, published from 1999 to 2011, was a collective act of courage and chutzpah.

Each of the 34 writers in the series dared to tell the life story of a major historical figure in 100 to 200 short pages — to plunge through all the events, ideas, words and actions of the subject, down to the essence of the person’s life and impact.

None of the great writers who took part evidenced greater bravery and audacity than Sherwin B. Nuland whose biography of Leonardo da Vinci was published in 2000. In some 40,000 words, Nuland attempts to capture the life and genius of the 16th century man he calls “perhaps the most diversely expansive mind this world has ever known, and certainly the most engaging.”

“An artist’s eye”

To be sure, Nuland’s strategy is to focus predominately on Leonardo’s work as a scientific investigator and thinker, particularly his study of human anatomy. Yet, as Nuland writes, Leonardo’s life as an artist and a scientist were intrinsically intertwined. It was as a painter that he began his dissections and other researches into the way the human body works, even if that search piqued his world-size inquisitiveness and became an end in itself.

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In order to answer his perennial question of why, he had first to understand how, which demanded a meticulous attention to accurate anatomical detail such as had never before been so much as considered by any predecessor….His was an artist’s eye, but his also was the scientist’s curiosity and the scientist’s apperception that only by reducing a phenomenon to its component elements can it be fully understood. And only by knowing the minute particulars of structure can function even begin to be elucidated.

“The greatest of all books”

Leonardo wrote in his notes that scholars and experts of his day dismissed him as “totally unlettered.” This, Nuland points out, was a good thing because it helped keep Leonardo relatively (but not totally) free of the commonly accepted misconceptions of his time.

He defended himself, contrasting those who based their knowledge upon tradition and the writings of ancient sources with his own approach of looking directly at Nature. “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jug,” he wrote. And further:

But they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than in words, and experience has been the mistress of those who have written well. And so, as mistress, I will cite her in all cases…I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy — on experience, the mistress of their masters.

As he put it, “the greatest of all books, I mean the Universe, stands open before our eyes.”

Amateur and professional

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Leonardo’s unlettered-ness had another positive impact on his career and his researches. Unlike the scholars, he did not think that he had the answers. He went in search of the answers. Nuland writes:

He approached everything he did with the enthusiasm of an amateur and the skill of a professional: painting, architecture, interior design, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, military ordnance, flight, optics, geology, botany, the diversion of rivers and the drainage of swamps, city planning…anatomy and the functioning of the parts of the body.

That list of 16 fields of study gives the briefest of glimpses into the profound heights of Leonardo’s brilliance, curiosity and learning (and of Nuland’s guts to dare attempt summarizing such a life). And, to that list, Nuland could as easily have added psychology.

Nuland notes that, for Leonardo, “a painter has two objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul.” As an artist, he sought to depict a moment — amid a moment, as it were, in a kind of stop action. Nuland writes of Leonardo’s artistic approach:

Outward actions reveal inner thought; it is in the mind that movement originates. Every painting of a person is therefore a psychological study.

No shoulders

Nuland, who died earlier this year, was a surgeon and the author of the wide-eyed and life-affirming 1993 book How We Die. He is most interested in Leonardo’s studies of the human body — drawings and notes that are found in more than 5,000 manuscript pages. These were composed over a 35-year period, and may represent only a third of all the notes and drawings that Leonardo created during his long life.

It is often said that great discoveries are made by men and women standing on the shoulders of those who went before.

But, in Leonardo’s case, there were no shoulders.

His investigations and insights into the workings of the human body, Nuland writes, were light years ahead of what the experts of his time thought they knew. He discovered much about the heart and brain and muscles and bones and virtually all other aspects of human anatomy that other scientists would not uncover for centuries.

Leonardo’s limits

That is a measure of his unimaginable genius — and also of his limits.

He prepared these notes and drawings for his own use. He had a vague idea that, someday, he would bring all of this research together in some sort of publication. But his mind was so lively and so curious and so unstoppable that he never paused long enough to turn his notes into something that he could give to the public.

Instead, he died, and his contemporaries never got the benefit of his learning. Not them, nor their grandchildren, nor their great-grandchildren.

For the most part, it has only been within the last century or so that scholars have studied the notes and drawings and have understood how much Leonardo understood — how much he knew that the world would have to re-discover over the next 400 years. Nuland writes:

What an incalculable loss, therefore, that no one knew what he had done, that everything had to be repeated decades or centuries later.

An edge of grieving

So there is in this reverential book about Leonardo and in Nuland’s study of the great man’s drawings and notes an edge of grieving — at what Leonardo gained and at what the world lost.

In these stream-of-consciousness manuscripts, Nuland writes, Leonardo set forth a kind of manifesto:

He exposes at once his innermost musings and the overt thrust of the message he devoted his life to transmitting: That a human being can understand only by turning toward nature; that the secrets of nature are discoverable by observation and experiment free of preconception; that there are no bounds to the possibilities of man’s understanding; that there is a unity between all elements in the universe; that the study of form is essential, but the key to understanding lies in the study of movement and function; that the investigation of forces and energies will lead to the ultimate comprehension of the dynamics of nature; that scientific knowledge should be reducible to mathematically demonstrable principles; that the ultimate question to be answered about about life and indeed all nature is not how, but why.

There was so much Leonardo could have passed along to the rest of humanity.

Ultimately, Leonardo’s message boils down, Nuland writes, to three words, “reverence for life.” It was with awe and respect that Leonardo approached art and science, Nature and life.

The universe, the earth and every living thing fell into his purview, and he saw relationships between them all.

Patrick T. Reardon

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