Walter Isaacson discusses latest biography in SXSW talk

Chris Duncan

Starting his lecture off with a thank you to Austin for housing his family after Hurricane Katrina, Walter Isaacson delivered a stoic talk about Leonardo da Vinci’s connection of art and technology, and the responsibility of writing about such a famous name.

Rooting the tradition of art and technology in da Vinci’s work, Isaacson said that Apple founder Steve Jobs is just one of the many people that carries on the lineage of inventors and dreamers started by da Vinci himself.

“He does it with an absolute insatiable curiosity,” Isaacson said. “Placing rocks in streams and figuring out how spirals are formed, doing the mathematics of the flows, researching the intricacies of the heart valve. His curiosity drove him to learn so much.”

Isaacson recounted that da Vinci first moved to Florence, Italy at the age of 12, apprenticing for Andrea del Verrocchio. Isaacson said da Vinci was the definition of a misfit — gay, left-handed, vegetarian, the list goes on. As a result, Isaacson theorizes that’s exactly why Florence was a hub for innovation — they were willing to accept the misfits.

Isaacson dissected Da Vinci’s ultimate question of how we all fit into nature and creation, breaking down paintings and drawings in order to understand how detailed da Vinci truly was. Referencing da Vinci’s first known contribution to painting “The Baptism of Christ,” Isaacson notes the minute attributes of every single piece.

“You can see he’s getting the details as perfect as possible,” Isaacson said. “The ripples of the water, the science of it. It’s all intended to be exact.”

Emphasizing that innovation happens as a result of many inventions coming together, Isaacson noted that da Vinci always kept a notebook with him. Whereas emails can become hard to use — like when Isaacson tried to access Jobs’ old emails sent on the NeXT operating system — paper, if preserved properly, can be forever. Isaacson’s read several of da Vinci’s personal notebooks, and he noted that it’s obvious da Vinci was obsessed with mathematical challenges.

“It’s called squaring the circle,” Isaacson said. “How do you make a square that is the same exact area of a given circle? It’s actually impossible to do it perfectly, since pi is irrational. But you can see that da Vinci kept trying throughout his life to solve it.”

Around the age of 30, da Vinci found Salaì, the companion for the rest of his life, and his life shifts from Florence to Milan to study music, along with a variety of other delegates studying theatre, science and more. Eventually, Isaacson said da Vinci became an engineer and artist for the Duke of Milan with a simple 11-paragraph job application. Isaacson told the story of how da Vinci contributed along with three others to what Isaacson called the greatest piece of art in history and “a work of unnecessary beauty” — the Vitruvian Man.

“These four friends get deeply into it,” Isaacson said. “And they decide they’re going to break the notion of design in the Renaissance with a design that reflects the portions and balance of creation… they had to make sure Salaì didn’t spill wine on it.”

Isaacson said all of da Vinci’s work, research and creativity was put into his art. Similarly to the way he broke down da Vinci’s first contribution to painting, Isaacson broke down “The Last Supper,” explaining the artwork displayed a narrative rather than a moment, a section of the Bible rather than just a line. He even took the time to take into account Santa Maria delle Grazie’s lighting, making it look as if the sun was always shining on the painting as it always did at midday.

At the end of his lecture, Isaacson called the Mona Lisa “the greatest painting ever done.” Isaacson said that da Vinci carried around the painting for 16 years, trying to perfect the piece, until he gets to France.

“He never delivers this one to the cloth merchant. He carries it around wherever he goes, but what he does it layer after layer, he connected art and science. If you look at her smile, if you look very carefully, you can see her inner emotions coming out. When you look differently, she looks differently.”