Nearly 600 years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci is still in the headlines.
In mid November, “Salvator Mundi,” a long-lost da Vinci painting, was sold at auction to a mystery buyer for a mind boggling $450 million -- an all-time record for any artwork
Wednesday, the buyer was revealed as Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a “little known” Saudi Arabian prince with no history as an art collector.
Prince Bader, however, isn’t keeping the painting for himself -- where it would have been the only one of the 16 known da Vinci paintings in private hands.
Rather, the painting will be on view at Louvre Abu Dhabi, a United Arab Emirates franchise of the famed Paris museum that opened last month and, according to Bloomberg, has been one of the most aggressive art buyers on the international market over the last decade.
There, “Salvator Mundi” will be shown along with “La Belle Ferronniere,” another da Vinci painting that is on loan from the Paris Louvre.
Da Vinci's also on the best seller list this week.
This isn’t da Vinci as a writer -- although his writings are quoted extensively. This "Leonardo da Vinci" is the biography of the artist/scientist by Walter Isaacson, a book that is likely to stand as the definitive popular work on the artist.
Isaacson, who has done best-selling biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger, wisely constructs the book by starting with a brief sketch that draws earlier accounts, including Varsari’s fabulist take on da Vinci’s life, to outline his life.
The illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci, Leonardo was, to all our benefit, prevented from following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a notary because he was born out of wedlock in the small town of Vinci.
That ban and his father’s success at business, allowed him to study art in Florence, apprenticing under Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist, primarily a sculptor and engineer before striking out on his own, eventually moving to Milan where he spent 17 years.
At that point, Isaacson shifts much of his attention to daVinci’s work -- first his famous notebook, then examining him as a scientist before devoting chapters to individual paintings, “Virgin on the Rocks,” “The Last Supper” and his cumulative masterpiece, “Mona Lisa.”
Along the way, he continues the narrative of da Vinci’s life -- looking at his personal life -- he was gay, arrested for sodomy on a couple occasions and had a longtime companion who often served as his model.
He dealt with patrons, who commissioned his work, including, notably Cesare Borgia, who happens to be the subject of Machiavelli’s “The Prince," and moved between Milan and Florence doing his work, taking a final trip to France.
As he tells those stories, Isaacson looks at da Vinci’s attempts at creating flying machines, his study of anatomy that allowed him to draw and paint his accurate views of the body that infused a sense of life and motion and the evolution of his art.
That happens through examinations of the paintings, starting with his initial output while still in Verrocchio’s studio.
The first da Vinci's are a pair of pictures credited to Verrocchio to which da Vinci added elements, using his oil paint rather than tempera. Next to come are his version of “The Annunciation,” a pair of Madonnas and his non-religious painting -- his 1474-76 portrait of “Ginevra de Benci.”
The only painting by Leonardo in the Americas, “Ginevra de Benci” is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I’ve spent hours looking it since the '70s.
And, while I’m no da Vinci expert, Isaacson’s description and analysis of the painting is dead on. I, for example, would have never connected it as directly to the “Mona Lisa” as does Isaacson. But after reading the illuminating “Leonardo da Vinci” he’s again, 100 percent on target.
Given the fact that Isaacson is dealing with six-century-old material and that Isaacson deals with fact and analysis, not historical fiction, there’s no Leonardo-said-this-to-Michelangelo narrative nonsense in the book.
Rather, he shows the rivalry between Leonardo, who was born in 1419 and Michelangelo, who 23 years younger, through researched history -- and it was a painful, divisive conflict that even included Leonardo suggesting covering the genitals of Michelangelo’s famous statue of “David.”
Along the way, Isaacson builds his central theme -- that da Vinci, the relentlessly curious “Renaissance Man," was equal part artist and scientist, a detailed observers of nature and anatomy who injected that into his drawings and paintings and yet used what we’d call artistic license and imagination in crafting his art.
At 600 pages, “Leonardo da Vinci” is an undertaking, a continuously rewarding undertaking as Isaacson fleshes out the life of the most interesting man in the world -- ever.