In a series of best-selling biographies of Renaissance men (Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin), Walter Isaacson tackles the original Renaissance man himself: Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s interests were wide, vast, and deep: the arts (theater, painting, music), the sciences (optics, biology, anatomy, hydraulics, aviation, geology), and engineering (mechanics, civil, architecture, city design). The challenge for Isaacson was source material. His previous genius subjects left piles of material in their wakes – Da Vinci left 7200 pages of notebooks. The notebooks are rich with doodles, maps, schemes for new machines, ideas for new weapons, city designs, anatomical drawings, grocery lists, and scientific studies to work out solutions to experimental problems. They contained very limited autobiographical or inner musings. Thus, Isaacson concedes the book is more about Leonardo’s output and contributions than “intimate personal revelations”.
The astounding detail about Da Vinci was his approach to learning. Other than attending an abacus school for math, Leonardo was self-taught. He eschewed dogma and rote learning, going directly to the source: experience and experimentation. He was exceedingly curious – a two-year old that never stopped asking why and how. Why is the sky blue? How does a bird fly? How do muscles in the face express emotion? He saw patterns across different fields of study: branches of trees, rivers and tributaries, and veins in the body; how eddies and swirls in water work the same as in air to keep birds in flight – and the same patterns can be used to paint curls on a portrait’s head. His inquisitiveness led him to discover things long before they became common knowledge. He intuited the first and third laws of motion 200 years ahead of Newton. He determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did. He let science inform his art: he dissected more than 20 cadavers to create detailed anatomical drawings – especially interesting is his dissection of the face and lips to get to the source of facial expressions. There is a reason Mona Lisa’s smile is so captivating.
Da Vinci could have written dozens of books on his subjects of interest that would have likely been used for teaching in the academies for centuries. He had little interest in studying passed-down knowledge, therefore he probably did not even consider publishing and passing down what he discovered. He was learning for the sake of learning to satisfy an unbound personal curiosity.
Leonardo was the ultimate character: “illegitimate, left-handed, gay, vegetarian, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was strikingly handsome, well adjusted, gregarious, and self-expressed. He had many friends, wore pinks and purples, and in accordance with letting experience rather than dogma dictate, he had an openly gay relationship with a long-time companion.
He was notorious for procrastinating on commissions, and, more times than not, he just abandoned projects altogether. He eloquently defends procrastination: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” One of his famous abandoned projects was his Gran Cavallo commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482. It was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world. Leonardo did extensive preparatory work and produced a clay model, but eventually abandoned the venture. The project was picked up again 500 years later. Now named “The American Horse,” one of two full-size casts is on permanent display at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.
In our age, where an education is a diploma earned by memorizing and regurgitating handed-down information, all “knowledge” is a mere internet search away, and most experience is virtual, Leonardo’s example beckons us to put the books and gadgets down to interact physically with the real world and everyday sensory experience – and, most importantly, to always stay curious.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 4. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 6 to discuss Leonardo Da Vinci at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.