Excerpt: Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci”

Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has previously written noted biographies of such revolutionary thinkers as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. 

His latest book is “Leonardo da Vinci” (Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS), about the Italian Renaissance artist and inventor.

Read an excerpt from his book below — and don’t miss Dr. Jon LaPook’s interview with Isaacson on “Sunday Morning” October 15! 


Simon & Schuster

Chapter 1
Childhood
Vinci, 1452-1464

Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.

His family roots can be traced to the early 1300s, when his great-great- great-grandfather, Michele, practiced as a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, about seventeen miles west of Florence.* With the rise of Italy’s mercantile economy, notaries played an important role drawing up commercial contracts, land sales, wills, and other legal documents in Latin, often garnishing them with historical references and literary flourishes.

* Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes incorrectly called “da Vinci,” as if that were his last name rather than a descriptor meaning “from Vinci.” However, the usage is not as egregious as some purists proclaim. During Leonardo’s lifetime, Italians increasingly began to regularize and register the use of hereditary surnames, and many of these, such as Genovese and DiCaprio, derived from family hometowns. Both Leonardo and his father, Piero, frequently appended “da Vinci” to their names. When Leonardo moved to Milan, his friend the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni referred to him in writing as “Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine.”

Because Michele was a notary, he was entitled to the honorific “Ser” and thus became known as Ser Michele da Vinci. His son and grandson were even more successful…

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