The best books about Leonardo da Vinci

The Books I Picked & Why

Leonardo. the Complete Paintings and Drawings

By Frank Zöllner, Johannes Nathan

Leonardo. the Complete Paintings and Drawings

Why this book?

The definitive account of Leonardo’s life and work by one of the world’s greatest Leonardo scholars, magnificently illustrated, clearly written, admirably objective. Frank was very generous in his advice to me, as I wrote my own book about Leonardo, though he generally takes a more favourable view of the Saudi Salvator Mundi than I do. It’s a big book but easy to dip in and out of with its Catalogue Raisonée structure of an account of the artist's life followed by essays on each painting.


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Leonardo Da Vinci

By Walter Isaacson

Leonardo Da Vinci

Why this book?

There are no new scholarly discoveries about Leonardo in Walter Isaacson’s biography, but he writes in such an easy, lucid, and memorable way that this book is really the only place to start if you don’t know much about Leonardo. Books on Leonardo can feel quite dense, and leave the reader with the sensation of floating in a galaxy of disconnected facts without knowing what journey they are on. Not so, Isaacson’s book, which is the airplane read of the Leonardo lexicon.


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Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond

By Martin Kemp

Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond

Why this book?

Here we shift the focus to what it’s like being a Leonardist. Yes, that is a word! Oxford professor Martin Kemp is one of the world’s most in-demand Leonardo scholars. His inbox is full of emails from strangers who think they have an undiscovered Leonardo in their attic. He rebuilds Leonardo’s flying machines for museum exhibitions. And when a stolen Leonardo da Vinci painting is recovered, he gets a call from the police. Somehow Kemp manages to be self-regarding and self-deprecating, accessible and a little superior at the same time, as he whisks you along on his adventures in Leonardoland.


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Leonardo Da Vinci: Under the Skin

By Michael Farthing, Stephen Farthing

Leonardo Da Vinci: Under the Skin

Why this book?

This is a slim volume, which stands out amidst the thousands of books on aspects of Leonardo, for its focus and unusual team of authors. Written by two brothers, one a professor of drawing, the other of medicine, it walks the reader through Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and their far-reaching influence on both science and art. The authors are particularly good at sorting out what Leonardo got from previous students of anatomy, from the Greeks onwards, and what was new that he brought to, or took away from the dissection table, where he claims to have examined over thirty corpses.


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Leonardo Da Vinci: Extraordinary Machines

By David Hawcock

Leonardo Da Vinci: Extraordinary Machines

Why this book?

Here’s the one to get to introduce your children to Leonardo da Vinci – a pop-up book with gloriously beautiful drawings and 3D models of Leonardo’s inventions, which included airplanes, a submarine, a parachute, helicopter, armoured vehicle, and a crossbow-machine gun. Aside from the renovation of the sewers and plumbing of a Florentine church, none of Leonardo’s technological designs are ever known to have been built and tested, which leaves us with the question of whether he was more of a dreamer than a doer. I think this would work for 6-12-year-olds.


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