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The uncommon mastermind behind Mona Lisa’s smile

Leonardo da Vinci’s inquisitive spirit defined the quintessential “renaissance man.” The master artist, scientist and inventor is now the subject of a new biography by Walter Isaacson, who has profiled geniuses including Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. Isaacson and Judy Woodruff discuss what he discovered while chronicling da Vinci’s life.

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  • Judy Woodruff: 

    But first: A master scientist, scientist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, defined a renaissance man. He is now the subject of a new biography by Walter Isaacson, whom I recently caught up with for the latest edition of the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

    There’s an expression there. She’s pensive, I guess you would say.

  • Walter Isaacson:

     And you feel the inner emotion, just like you do in the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was always trying to say, hey, there’s a mysterious inner emotion here. Think about what it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As with his art, there’s still mystery around Leonardo da Vinci the man.

    To discuss the Renaissance era genius, I met up with Walter Isaacson at the National Gallery of art in Washington, where the only Leonardo painting in the Americas hangs. It’s a portrait of Ginevra de Benci, a 15th century Florentine aristocrat.

  • Walter Isaacson:

    If you contrast this with the Mona Lisa, you can see what an entire career of studying math and science and art, how it deepened what he does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Isaacson has profiled geniuses from Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein to mathematician Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs.

    Leonardo lived half-a-millennium ago. Why him?

  • Walter Isaacson:

    I have always been interested in people who could connect art to science.

    It’s imaginative to people who count. And that is what Leonardo was. He was somebody who loved both art and science. And by standing at that intersection, I said, oh, this is how imagination works.

    I was totally blown away by certain things of Leonardo, first of all, the role of theatrics and pageant. Secondly, the depth of his curiosity about science. It’s that notion that we can embrace the beauty of every pattern in nature. That’s what we need to relearn today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did he stand at that intersection? Because, as you say, there are a lot of people who are really good at science, people really good at the arts. What was it about the way he connected the two?

  • Walter Isaacson: 

    He wanted to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known, including how we fit into the world, and he didn’t make much of a distinction between art and science.

    He’s somebody who did, you know, the flight of birds. He did engineering. He did anatomy. But he also did wonderful drawings and art, and so, to me, that’s the exciting part.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have got some fascinating material in here about the fact that not just that he was a vegetarian. He was born out of wedlock. What made him who he was?

  • Walter Isaacson: 

    Well, he was very lucky to be born out of wedlock, because he had to be self-taught. And so instead of taking received wisdom, he questioned received wisdom.

    Also, I have written about really smart people like Einstein. Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t smart in the conventional processing power of the mind, the way doing math that you and I will never figure out.

    He was a genius and brilliant because he was so curious. He just made a list every day of things he wanted to learn. And so we can relate to him in ways that it’s hard to relate to other geniuses.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    So, Walter, the book is filled with amazing pictures, photographs of paintings and of his work. The back cover is Vitruvian Man, which you write about at length.

    What was he trying to do here?

  • Walter Isaacson: 

    This is the ultimate expression of the connection of how we fit into the world.

    There is this guy spread-eagle in the square of the world, in the circle of the cosmos, and it’s a self-portrait of Leonardo. It is a picture of unnecessary beauty, with the curly hair he had in his 30s, when he was doing it.

    And what he was trying to do with two other friends was sort of show how this ancient Roman named Vitruvius talked about the proportions of the human should be reflected in the proportions of the church.

    But then it gets larger. It’s a work of great science on the proportions of man, but it’s also a work of great art because of its beauty. And it’s spiritual, because it’s man and how man fits into the cosmos.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The most famous Leonardo creation, the Mona Lisa, he didn’t people when people thought he would finish it. What was he thinking? What was he seeing as he worked on that?

  • Walter Isaacson:

    He worked on it for about the last 14 years of his life.

    And you see everything come together, from his belief in the curving of rivers into the blood of humans and how we fit into the world, but also just take that smile, the most famous smile ever. He had just finished dissecting the human face, showing every muscle and every nerve.

    And on those pages of anatomy drawings, he starts drawing smiles. And you see the Mona Lisa’s smile start to form. And also he knows that when light hits the center of your retina, you see the detail, but when it hits a little edge of your retina, you see the shadows and color, because he had dissected the human eye.

    And so when you look directly at the Mona Lisa’s lips, it’s turning down a bit. She’s not really smiling. But if you look at her chin or her cheekbone and your eyes wander, the shadows make the smile turn on. So, it’s a smile that is elusive.

    And so it combines everything, the spirit of Leonardo, the science, the anatomy, and, of course, it’s the greatest piece of art ever painted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Way ahead of his time.

  • Walter Isaacson: 

    Absolutely, because Renaissance art had not yet done that, sort of shown narrative emotion.

    You know, having been somebody who produced plays and pageants, he loved fantasy. And one of the great things about his art is that he blurs the line sometimes, so that things leave a little to our imagination.

    Look at The Last Supper. It’s a beautiful piece of perspective and observation, but it’s also theatrical.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He had a really interesting ability to, on the one hand, dig deep, ask questions, not be satisfied with the answer, the obvious answer, but also the human frailty of not finishing projects.

  • Walter Isaacson:

    You know, I thought at first that was one of his failings, that he would start Adoration of the Magi or St. Jerome and not finish it.

    But then I realized that he spent his whole life perfecting things. He would do St. Jerome in the Wilderness, a great piece of art that he didn’t finish, because then he would be doing anatomy 20 years later, and he would change the neck muscles based on his dissection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the end of the book, you have a list of lessons that Leonardo would pass on to all of us. And I was struck. Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • Walter Isaacson:

    There were paintings Leonardo didn’t finish, and part of it was he couldn’t get it perfect.

    Once in a while, we should be like Leonardo and just say, I’m going to make this perfect and I’m not stop until it is perfect.

    I went through all of the 7,000 pages of his notebooks, and what struck me the most was the list of things he was curious about. He just was curious about everything, like why a duck’s foot, you know, expands and contracts when it swims. Why does a fish swim faster in water than a bird flies, when water is heavier?

    And then one of my favorites is, describe the tongue of a woodpecker. Now, who wakes up one morning and says, I want to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could there be a Leonardo today? Is there a climate now fertile for a mind like his?

  • Walter Isaacson:

    I do think it’s a great time to be another Leonardo. Anything you want to know, you can find a way to find out because of the Internet and ways to search for it.

    The problem today is we sometimes silo information. We do that in our universities, we do that in ourselves. And the thing about Leonardo is, whatever was beautiful, whatever was interesting, he wanted to know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Walter Isaacson, the book is “Leonardo da Vinci.”

    Thank you very much.

  • Walter Isaacson:

    Great.

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