“Paper is a really cool technology for the storage of information,” says Walter Isaacson, author of the definitive biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Ben Franklin. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci felt exactly the same way. From his childhood growing up as the illegitimate son of a notary to his death as an international luminary, Leonardo filled journal after journal with sketches, notes, questions, and doodles. This habit would eventually culminate in some of the most celebrated artwork ever, including the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man. About 7,000 pages—or 25 percent—of the artist’s journals still exist, and Isaacson traveled to Venice, Florence, Milan, Paris, London, and Seattle to study them. “Geeking out on them,” he says, “I felt a personal connection.” We spoke with the author of Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, $35) about the genius’s worldview and how it’s still relevant to the modern reader.
BLOOMBERG PURSUITS: What drew you to Leonardo as a subject?
ISAACSON: I’m always interested in creative genius. I’ve come to realize that one of the secrets of creativity is to be passionately and playfully curious about a wide range of subjects. The ultimate example of that is Leonardo. He made no distinction between art and science. One of his most famous works, the Vitruvian Man, is partly a self-portrait, with beautiful curls and perfect shading. Leonardo’s drawing has the exact proportions of the body correct. He made 230 measurements before drawing—so it’s a work of staggering scientific sophistication and also a work of unnecessary beauty. Meanwhile, his peers made line drawings.
You based much of your book on Leonardo’s journals, 7,000 pages of which still exist. Was there anything you came across that was truly surprising?
There’s one page I write about in the book where I go over every doodle—from clouds forming, to this craggy, old warrior he loved to draw, to these beautiful mountains. And at the end of the notes on that page, which he wrote in his mid-30s, there was also a recipe for tawny hair dye made by boiling nuts in oil. I realized, Here was my wonderful companion doing all these brilliant things but also worrying about having a few gray hairs. And I thought, Man, this guy is really human.
Unlike some creatives, he wasn’t a recluse—he seems to have relished being part of the scene.
Leonardo was deeply appreciated during his lifetime as both an engineer and an artist. He was so comfortable with people. He loved being part of the court of the Duke of Milan, where he was surrounded by mathematicians and magicians, architects and artists. There was a rising creative class. That environment in the late 1400s was similar to the Bay Area of California in the 1970s, when they were inventing personal computers and the internet.
Speaking of today, do any modern visionaries remind you of him?
Well, there are a lot of similarities between Leonardo and Steve [Jobs]. First and foremost, they believed in connecting art and science. Beauty and design and engineering were all the same to them. Jeff Bezos cares about space travel and storytelling and artificial intelligence and retail. Like Leonardo, he shows exuberance across many fields.
That seems to be something you come back to again and again: his curiosity about everything.
One lesson to learn from Leonardo is to try to embrace many fields of knowledge and passion. Often, we fail to be creative because we think too narrowly. Leonardo would just wonder, What does a woodpecker’s tongue look like? And he wanted to know, not because it would help him build a flying machine or paint a better painting, but out of curiosity. All of that eventually leads to a spiritual feel for patterns of nature. But even if it doesn’t lead you to someday paint the Mona Lisa, it can still lead to a more enriching life.
This is the first time you’ve included a section in one of your biographies highlighting the lessons you can learn from your subject. Why did you do that here?
Unlike Einstein, Leonardo was not some supermind we can never try to match. He was a normal guy who procrastinates, who doesn’t do math all that well, who doesn’t finish projects. You can actually learn from this guy—about how to balance the business of being perfect with also being productive.
What’s the most important takeaway for a business reader?
Push yourself to be more observant and understand the simplest principle in business: Beauty matters. Even the parts unseen need to be beautiful. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa for 14 years knowing he could always add a brushstroke to make that smile more beautiful. If each of us, in our own lives, became a little more observant, a little more curious about the wonders of nature, and a little more committed to beauty, not only would we have better businesses, we’d have better lives.
If you could speak to Leonardo, what’s the first question you’d ask?
I would actually ask him, “What’s your first question for us today? What do you want to know about the future?”