Leonardo da Vinci (2017) is an illuminating and thoughtful account of one of history’s most renowned individuals. Isaacson has studied previous biographies and accounts of Leonardo’s life – including the very first one, from the sixteenth century – as well as Leonardo’s wealth of notes. Isaacson paints a very human portrait of the legendary Renaissance artist and engineer. Though one of the few people in history who may truly be called a genius, Leonardo was only human and there is much that can be learned from his curiosity and approach to life.
Even in the best of times, being labeled “illegitimate” would hardly be considered a great plus. But for Leonardo da Vinci it turned out to be a distinct benefit.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, to Piero da Vinci and Caterina Lippi, a 16-year-old peasant girl. They were not married.
Piero was a notary in the town of Vinci. In other words, he worked for merchants and upper-crust princes, resolving disputes and handling business transactions. It was a pretty respectable job as these things go – it even meant that Piero could use the honorific title “Ser.”
But because Leonardo had been born out of wedlock, he was under no compulsion to join Piero’s business.
Ser Piero’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been notaries and, in normal circumstances, Leonardo would have become one, too. However, to be a notary you had to be a member of the guild. Needless to say, there were rules about who they let in. Certainly no children born out of wedlock, which is why the door was closed to Leonardo.
However, this exclusion gave Leonardo the opportunity to flourish. Nor was he the only one who benefited from being an illegitimate child. In fact, some of the most famous cardinals, princes and generals of the day had been born out of wedlock. The same was true of the Renaissance poets Giovanni Boccaccio and Petrarch, as well as the artist Leon Battista Alberti, who himself greatly influenced Leonardo.
Theoretically, Piero would have been able to fill out the paperwork to “legitimize” Leonardo at a later date. But there was little point – it was clear from early on that Leonardo was destined for life as an artist.
It made sense. He hadn’t been sent to any of the foremost Latin schools, and this further spurred Leonardo to learn through his unique personal curiosity and from experience. Another sort of life was in store.