Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain

There are a great many books out there on the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.  What makes this one different?  It was written by a brain surgeon at the end of his life while he was combatting a brain tumor.  As Leonardo himself could tell you, perspective and experience make a world of difference.

I’m going to nitpick the title a bit because this is truly one of my pet peeves.  Anyone who calls him “da Vinci” has no clue.  This is not his given name, it is where he claims he is from to set himself apart from others with the name Leonardo.  No self-respecting art historian will ever call him “da Vinci.”  I’ll let this pass, especially since I’m fairly certain the title came from some moron in marketing.  The text of the book rightfully refers to him as “Leonardo.”

Truly, this nitpick is the worst I can say about this book.  Shlain’s research and conclusions of this extraordinary and singular individual are in themselves extraordinary and singular.  Through an understanding of how the human brain works, applied directly to what we know of the man’s history and an examination of his works, Shlain has potentially cracked a code that biographers have wrestled with for generations.  For all we know of those who use their left or right brains, Leonardo is perhaps the only person in the whole of human history who has demonstrated a higher functioning ability to use both hemispheres at the same time.

Through the study of serious works such as his two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks,” we can see Leonardo’s trickster side, a trait that most creative geniuses exhibit but remains hidden to those who do not know what to look for.  Through other paintings and the history of how they were painted, we’re able to see how he bucked the religious trends of the age in favor of more philosophical considerations.  Through the study of his aerial maps for the war campaigns of Cesare Borgia, we can see the manifestation of perceptive abilities that mankind has only since been able to achieve through the use of orbital satellites.  The conclusions that Shlain comes up with are astounding, not only in their suggestion, but in their acknowledgment in the realm of science.  It’s incredible to consider the implications, which Shlain backs with further examples of scientific study from more modern eras and from other examples of both drawings and descriptions within Leonardo’s own notebooks.

Another big discussion towards the end of the book deals with the brain chemistry — and ability — of left and right-brained individuals across the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation.  It’s the kind of eye-opening science that really needs to be explored and brought to the forefront.

As a student of art, history, and of the Renaissance, I am drawn to the genius of Leonardo and to the high standard he set for the rest of us as human beings.  This book acknowledges how he set that standard by ignoring the standards of the world around him, often at his own peril.  As Shlain points out, creativity is born from the same fear that gives humans the ability to adapt and evolve.  It’s the trait that put us on our path to evolutionary development.  In Leonardo, we have a true exemplar of our species.  The opportunity to learn about him from a completely new perspective opens doors that have remained shut for the largest part of 500 years.  I have a great respect for both the subject of this book and for what this book has achieved.  If there is any justice, this work will be a foundation stone for not only further studies of Leonardo, both artistic and scientific, but also for human evolution and achievement.

5 stars

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