It is appropriate that Leonardo da Vinci painted the woman with the mysterious smile, the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting of all time. For just as there are many questions surrounding the subject matter, and why she is smiling (or is she), and whether her eyes follow you around the room, there are also many unknowns surrounding the artist. He is an enigma himself, so THAT is why he painted the Mona Lisa.
Michael White gives a broad picture of the artist, and how he broke new ground, both within art, and also is his investigations. Da Vinci also managed to bridge science and art. He was able to see science from the perspective of an artist, to visualise art with the mindset of a scientist, and capture architecture from the viewpoint of the artist-scientist.
White postulates that da Vinci was the first scientist. However, we have to remember that the 21st century of a 'scientist' is very different to that in 15th century Florence, or Milan. There was still the scope for individuals to engage in an all-embracing approach, so the body of knowledge was sufficiently small as to be able to be grasped. Furthermore, this was so for about 250 years after da Vinci's time.
Da Vinci was a very talented man, and it is tempting to question what he might have achieved if he had been more focussed. He tended to flit from one thing to another, leaving many incomplete projects, and ever two or three books-in-the-writing, not finished, or indeed, hardly started. White does bring out the breadth of the tasks that the Italian tackled, correctly giving emphasis to some achievements not generally known.
However, whereever you look, there is the enigma that is da Vinci. He is a peculiar mix of old and new, showing in his studies of eyes that he was far ahead of his time. Da Vinci goes some of the way towards the notion of blood circulating, but not quite making the impossible leap that William Harvey was to make over 200 years later. What White does is show that da Vinci was one of the first to systematically investigate, to move from the cognitive to the experimental scientist.
Da Vinci left a huge collection of notes, drawings and "scribblings", and these were firstly lost for over 200 years, and then dissipated into private collections and archives. It is always possible to show tenuous links with hindsight. Maybe there is some over eagerness on White's part, but da Vinci was a marvellous man. Geology, rain, water and clouds, anatomy, fortifications and machinery of war, canals, and the list goes on. He was forward looking, and many have claimed that da Vinci invented helicopters, and other diverse items of machinery. Yet he was steeped in the Aristotelian view of the four elements; earth, air, fire and water. He also did not spend large amounts of time investigating cosmology, as many of his age did.
Da Vinci had feet of clay, yet a very freethinking mind. He used science to aid him, to help him as an artist. His only published work, a book on art gives views ahead of his time, on distance, perspective, light and shade. That in itself would have made the man worthy of praise. He also continued to study, to both aid his art, and for scientific discovery. The fact that he was a bridge between the old and the new is another facet of the enigma that is Leonardo.