Leonardo da Vinci saw the world afresh, from different perspectives than most of us do. He influenced several different fields, ranging from art to science to warfare and everything in-between. Stefan Klein’s intriguing and highly interesting book Leonardo's Legacy takes a look at some of the ways da Vinci reimagined and influenced the world, and how all who came after him were changed by his art, inventions and insights. The author has done quite a lot of research in writing this book, going back to the remnants of the thousands of notebooks and papers Leonardo wrote and drew on to get firsthand knowledge of how Leonardo though on a wide variety of subjects. What results is a fascinating portrayal of a man who was not only an artistic genius but equally a genius in the fields of medicine and science, and inventing robots, time-keeping devices and weapons, among other things. Da Vinci was truly a Renaissance man, one whose genius people still marvel at today.
In the first chapter, “The Gaze,” Klein analyzes the mysterious gaze of the woman in Leonardo’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. He also delves into the numerous theories about exactly who Da Vinci was portraying, and why he took it along with him wherever he traveled for the last ten years or so of his life. Many theories abound as to who the subject actually is; I believe the person most likely is Lisa Gherardini, sometimes known as Lisa Giaconda, a Florentine woman who was the wife of “a silk merchant named Francesco del Giocanda.
Another theory is that it is a painting of the renowned courtesan Isabella Gualinda:
“When a rich patron commissioned a portrait of this woman, the story goes, Leonardo simply recycled the unfinished portrait of Lisa Gheradini.” Still another theory claims that the Mona Lisa is, in reality, a self-portrait. If Leonardo’s face is flipped in a self-portrait of himself as an older man, his features match almost exactly with those of the Mona Lisa. Critics of this theory, though, say that is only because it was Da Vinci’s style to be exact in elements of his art, like how far apart he would space the eyes of his subjects.
There’s a wealth of information in Klein’s book, some of which I’d never read about before - like da Vinci having invented a mechanical lion that could walk a few steps, rise up on its hind legs, and open its chest cavity. Da Viinci demonstrated it for the French king at a banquet. Much to the delight of the king, who became Leonardo’s patron and friend in his later years, da Vinci had rigged the lion so that when its chest cavity opened, it presented the king with “a bouquet of lilies, the coat of arms of the French royal family.”
Leonardo wrote and drew diagrams about “the three crescent-shaped pockets of the aortic valve.” He figured out how the valve opened and closed and let blood flow - a particularly amazing feat given that it was not until 1999 that “researchers in London, Boston, and California, using magnetic resonance velocity mapping, were finally able to obtain images of blood flow in the living heart. They found exactly what Leonardo had described.” .
He figured out the workings of the human heart in a most ingenious way: by making a heart out of glass, then pouring “wax into the valve of a bull’s heart so that you may see the true shape of this valve.” He then traced the flow patterns that blood would make “by adding particles to the fluid.” (He used millet seeds.)
Leonardo’s life and legacy were truly extraordinary. Thankfully, due to efforts to collect his extant notebooks and to decode and translate his writing, we are getting a clearer picture than ever before of his many insights and inventions, and the reasons why hundreds of years after his death that his fame continues to grow. Art lovers who want to learn more about one of the greatest artists and intellectual minds of all time should add Leonardo's Legacy to their reading lists today.