Big biography elegantly captures the dazzle of Da Vinci

Visitors to Iceland, keen to experience the famous Blue Lagoon, are sometimes corralled on a bus tour in order to spread the tourist currency among the country’s less gripping spectacles. The final destination is a halibut farm. Along the way, the coach passes through lava fields – acres of featureless black emptiness, where, the guide announces, it will take 800 hundred years post-eruption for any life to form, starting with some pioneer lichens, then another century or two before anything as sophisticated as a moss attempts colonisation. Visitors carry the lava field with them as a symbol of near total stasis.

Had Leonardo da Vinci taken the tour, he couldn’t have disagreed more. Restless and relentless in his curiosity about the natural world, he saw movement in everything, and where he saw it, he felt the need to observe further, draw, test, explain, connect, link and transform his knowledge into a greater understanding, quite possibly of something wildly unrelated.

On the lava field he would have seen the play of light over the rock, the sunbeams bursting through threatening clouds and the ominous spread of shadow, the way the wind moved over it, the multitude of varieties of rain and snow, how the rock dealt with water, the many ways it had been shaped and was being shaped still, not to mention the incessant adjustment of the scene caused by the eye wandering over it. To him it would have looked like a three-ringed circus. The sketchbook would have been out, and arrival at the halibut farm delayed significantly.

To Walter Isaacson, student of geniuses and da Vinci’s biographer, incessant motion is the great connecting theme of the awesome range of disciplines to which the dandyish turn-of-the-sixteenth century Florentine directed his attention. From the moment a bird flew into his cot as a baby – da Vinci claimed to recall the sensation of its tail feathers in his mouth – he was propelled by a fearsome curiosity to understand how things worked and the consequence of those workings.

He was also gifted with a magnificent eye. Isaacson recounts Da Vinci’s HD-like fascination as a child with how the four wings of the dragon fly conspire to produce movement, but also stresses how observation and curiosity are at the disposal of everyone, which makes Da Vinci a very mortal – and charming – genius of geniuses.

Curiosity may come as standard for humans, but no one can compete with the output Da Vinci generated from it – wherever he went, things started moving. In the service of Cesare Borgia he was calculating the best way to fire cannon balls at a wall (and worked out why a curved wall was so defensively superior to a straight one). He was attempting to divert the flow of the Arno to suppress Pisa by dehydration, and designed a canal-digging machine to speed the process while at it. He was designing flying machines (probably for theatrical pageants, his first job at the Medici court) and he was tugging on the muscles and ligaments of cadavers to fathom which worked the eyelid, say, and which enabled the lip to pucker, the better to understand how the subtleties of emotion transform into expression or gesture.

There’s a magnificent symmetry in his painting the Mona Lisa by day, constructing that smile over 16 years (it was still unfinished in his bedroom when he died) and conducting his anatomy studies by night, deconstructing the parts of the body that make the smile possible. Some of his discoveries of the mechanisms that govern the human heart and circulation predate scientific confirmation by centuries.

Even his paintings wrestle with the conundrum of capturing something that is never still. Da Vinci saw every moment as made possible by that which precedes it and leading into whatever follows (no wonder he was obsessed all his life with the flowing of water and how to draw it).

Isaacson describes beautifully how this affected Da Vinci’s creation of The Last Supper, which is just as much a product of his enquiries into geometry and optics as artistic technique. Indeed, Da Vinci probably wouldn’t have considered the fields unrelated at all.

Whether one cares for the Mona Lisa or not is irrelevant – plenty find more to enjoy in the design of say, Hawkwind album covers – but Isaacson is outstanding on why it is important, and why deserving of attention, just as he is on the significance of the Vitruvian Man sketch. Many will be shocked as realisation dawns they had no idea what they were looking at, at all.

Isaacson has quite the feel for motion as well, ensuring that this large book proceeds at a pleasing velocity, giddying things up with his touches of detective intrigue and art-world squabbles over what is a Leonardo and what isn’t, or gossipy path-crossings between the older, friendlier, exquisitely dressed and comfortably homosexual Leonardo, and the snotty, unwashed, ascetic and closeted up-and-comer Michelangelo.

Leonardo even anticipated 20th century jokes, warning “an anatomical painter” (ie Michelangelo), in the privacy of his notebook, not to overdo the musculature on his subjects, or they’ll look like a “sack of walnuts”. It would be almost another 500 years before the critic Clive James described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like “a condom full of walnuts.”

One of the great wonders of Leonardo, of course, is his power to entrance even today, in his work and in his prices. Among the book’s many revelations is that the painting Salvator Mundi, sold recently for $450m, was in the possession of the British royal family until Charles II gave it away. The latest Charles must be imagining how those dollars would have helped with the repointing of Buckingham Palace and the catering of another royal wedding. Da Vinci’s ability to tantalise is strengthening with age.

Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, £30)