Dell Technologies (DT): What were Leonardo's greatest contributions to the world of mapping?
Walter Isaacson (WI): When I was reading Leonardo's notebooks, one of the things that struck was why he went to work for almost a year for Cesare Borgia, the Italian warrior. I was wondering what type of engineering devices Leonardo would come up with. He thought of himself as a military engineer, he came up with all sorts of weapons and ways to drain swamps, but what ended up being the most important thing that Leonardo came up with was a new way to do mapping. It was a bird's eye view of a town carefully rendered in beautiful colors and three dimensions.
That was because Cesare Borgia relied on the element of surprise when he tried to capture a town. Knowing exact locations, where buildings were, how you would make turns and get to places, it allowed him to capture cities. It's been 500 years since Leonardo drew that map, and ever since then, defense mapping and military mapping has been really a key to military strategies.
DT: When most of us think about Leonardo, we don't think about contributions to military. Can you tell us more about that side of him that you discovered while writing Leonardo da Vinci?
WI: When Leonardo was a young guy in his twenties, he wrote a job application letter to the Duke of Milan. What surprised me was it was eleven paragraphs long, and in the first ten paragraphs, he talked about all sorts of engineering things he could do, especially military engineering. It was only in the last paragraph that he said, "I can also paint and do sculpture as well as any person."
So Leonardo liked to think of himself as an engineer as well as an artist. It became part of the theme of my book – that his engineering was connected to his art. In fact, his map of Imola and his other maps of the valleys of Italy are very much that. They're beautiful pieces of art. They're great at the visual display of information. They combine an artistic talent with an engineering talent. That's really the key to Leonardo's genius.
DT: So would you say that combination of artistic and engineering talent is what makes Leonardo one of the great disruptors?
WI: Yes, Leonardo was a great disruptor because he knew how to tie art to technology, how to connect the humanities to engineering and science. He could think across a lot of disciplines – he could love the way a bird might fly, then think of a way that maybe a human can fly, and then think of ways to do theatrical performances with wonderful devices, and then also draw beautiful scenes of nature based on observations of how engineering and technology works.
The combination helped him reinvent how we do art, reinvent how to convey a three-dimensional scene on a flat panel, but also helped him reinvent the way we study anatomy, the way we do dissections, the way we convey visual information – whether it's mapping or the anatomy of the human body. All of that came from Leonardo's very disruptive ability to think of himself as both an artist and a scientist, as somebody who loved both beauty and engineering.