By ANTHONY GRAFTON NOV. 27, 2017
LEONARDO DA VINCI
By Walter Isaacson
Illustrated. 574 pp. Simon & Schuster. $35.
Specialists on Leonardo da Vinci have to work like detectives. They must draw information from the tiniest of clues. A few years ago, a German scholar spotted a marginal note that a Florentine had entered in 1503 in his copy of Cicero’s letters. On a page on which Cicero remarked that the painter Apelles “finished the head and bust of his Venus with the most refined artistry, but left the rest of her body incomplete,” the Florentine reader, Agostino Vespucci, connected past to present: “Leonardo da Vinci works this way in all his paintings, as in the head of Lisa del Giocondo and that of Anne, mother of the Virgin. We will see what he will do in the Hall of the Great Council.”
This little note confirmed that the subject of the infinitely mysterious “Mona Lisa” was Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. It showed that Leonardo’s contemporaries recognized and discussed the special qualities of his art. And it gave a taste of the way in which Renaissance Italians creatively combined disciplines.