A lucid examination of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), emphasizing his immense secret journal.
In an excellent translation by Frisch, German science writer Klein (The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life’s Scarcest Commodity, 2008, etc.) states that early da Vinci scholars were mostly art historians. However, as they assembled thousands of pages, notebooks and fragments scattered across the world after his death, scientists and engineers joined in extolling his insights. The author traveled across Europe and America, considering along the way da Vinci paintings, manuscripts and a few remaining engineering works that reveal the scope of his genius. Besides describing da Vinci’s research in anatomy, physics, hydraulics, military weapons and flight, Klein also highlights enthusiasts devoted to building the inventions whose beautiful diagrams have long graced coffee-table histories. The long chapter on the Mona Lisa shows da Vinci’s exhaustive curiosity—he worked on it for 15 years. Dozens of journal pages illustrate his study of light, color and human anatomy, all of which contribute to the painting’s brilliance. Flying also fascinated da Vinci, and many of his extraordinarily precise analyses of bird flight were only confirmed by 20th-century stop-motion photography. Klein describes da Vinci as the first modern scientist, obsessed with understanding the world as it actually worked, which turned out to be different from the explanations by traditional authorities.
This richly illustrated, engrossing account makes a good case that da Vinci was not only ahead of his time but ahead of our own.