Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World

by Stefan Klein

Da Capo Press | Perseus Book Group | April 27, 2010 | 304 pp.

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

Exploring the scientific roots of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius

stefan klein

In Leonardo’s Legacy, Stefan Klein, a German science writer, reassesses the career of Leonardo. The creator of the Mona Lisa, history’s most famous painting, Leonardo was a critical scientific thinker, who understood water power, designed military weapons, flying machines, robots and a rotary device that has been called “the oldest digital computer in action.”

At the outset, Klein says Leonardo was “far more than an outstanding artist,” yet he contributes an entire chapter on his creation of the Mona Lisa indicating how his scientific mind created it. A series of chapters devoted to the individual highlights of Leonardo’s career starts with “The Gaze,” which examines how his understanding of optical laws enabled him to paint a portrait of a woman whose facial expressions are a mystery and “remain an unfathomable enigma.” The painting includes “illumination that makes Mona Lisa appear both animated and mysterious.”

He concludes that Leonardo “calculated the brightness of each and every square inch of his painting to achieve a particular effect.”

A successive chapter, “War,” details Leonardo’s design of weaponry, including crossbows and automatic rifles, and his preparations for chemical warfare, which included the use of “chalk, fine sulfuride of arsenic and powdered verdiris,” which could be fatal if ingested. Klein writes that Leonardo was a pacifist who had no interest in promoting war, but he designed weaponry in an effort to challenge the warlords he encountered. He worked for one Ludovico Sforza, who was involved in the Italian Wars. Leonard designed a wheel lock, which became the handgun’s first effective firing mechanism. He had an idea for a giant crossbow, which would have withstood cannon fire, but Klein says it was never produced. Indeed, most of Leonardo’s ideas are detailed in his drawings, but were never realized in real life.

The same can be said about the flying machines he envisioned, which are explored in the next chapter, “The Dream of Flying.” His goal was to develop a flying machine that would enable “man to imitate the incomparable elegance of the flight of birds.” Leonardo’s understanding of bird anatomy enabled him to design a machine that men could use to fly, but he ultimately realized humans were too weak to rise in the sky on their own power. But even this realization didn’t stop Leonardo, who developed another idea: a pilot floating through the air inside a sphere with a circular sail


Besides being a painter, Leonardo was a graphic designer who created hundreds of thousands of drawings, including detailed depictions of the human body, from the brain to the heart to the fetus in the womb.

Klein’s book portrays Leonardo’s thought processes in everything, from his paintings, to his ideas for weapons and flying machines. What the book lacks is an historical account of Leonardo’s life. He comes across as a single man who lived during the Renaissance, devoid of family and friends.

At the end of the book, a long chronology section provides useful information, from Leonardo’s birth in 1452, to his death in 1519, including information on the history of the period, from the conquest of Granada by Spanish troops (1491) to the French occupation of Naples (1495). Leonardo lived in Florence, Milan and France, painting, drawing and conceptualizing about everything from the power of water to the human body. The book also includes numerous photos that align with the text.

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