Book Review: da Vinci

I chose to read a 500+ page biography on a strange renaissance artist because, much like Einstein, I was fascinated with how he approached the world through curiosity. I read Isaacson's biography of Einstein first, and he made comments about how da Vinci's life was filled with even more wonder and curiosity than Einstein's, and I wanted to know how, what that was like, and how I can do the same.

It turns out it's simple: Never complete what you say you're going to and spend years perfecting every intricate detail of your work. Easy, right?

Joke aside, da Vinci was infamous for not completing most of his commissions (more on that later) and was also known for spending hours perfecting the stroke of a tiny rock in the background that the normal layman would probably never see. But this isn't what made him so intelligent and wise in a broad array of fields. Oh no. That, he can thank his "relentless curiosity" for. His goal in life, above being an amazing painter, war machine architect, or city designer, was to know "everything there was to know about the world." Although he didn't quite get there, it wasn't for a lack of trying.

How did da Vinci's life start?

Being born out of wedlock in 1400s Italy didn't leave a lot of options for the son of a multi-generation notary. It was custom in that day for the sons of tradesmen to acquire the skills of the father, but da Vinci didn't have that luxury since he was illegitimate. That fact also made it very difficult to engage in proper schooling, which da Vinci lacked. Most people would attempt to use this as a crutch against him later in life. But to him, it was a strength. What he did didn't require words but experience, which he learned early on how to become an apprentice of. Da Vinci, going against the typical image of the "Renaissance Man" that loved acquiring knowledge and wisdom from lost work, once wrote:

He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water jar.

As he matured though, it became clear that knowledge is neither all experience or past wisdom, but a combination of both.

Though da Vinci lacked education in the traditional sense, he did attend an abacus school to learn useful skills in math and commerce. It was here that he learned the value of thinking about subjects through analogies and patterns, which became "for him a rudimentary method of theorizing."

It was after, where he got an apprenticeship in Verrocchio's workshop, that his true genius began to shine.

On da Vinci's art

One critique I have with the book is that Isaacson doesn't go into much detail about how da Vinci got into the different paths of life. Nevertheless we know da Vinci became an apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 - 1488) at about 14 years old, but it seems he was mostly a natural.

The first painting da Vinci worked on with Verrocchio was The Baptism of Christ. It's believed he worked on the leftmost angel because of its soft facial features, which the other subjects in the painting are not graced with.

Being a disciple of experience, da Vinci noticed when he looked at something in real life, it wasn't obvious where one object ended and another began, like it is so often painted in pictures. It's hard to describe what he saw, but he didn't think there should be a harsh boundary between different objects in paintings. This lead him to embrace a painting technique called sfumato. The word, derived from the Italian word for smoke, fumo, can be roughly translated to "soft, vague, or blurred." It makes the painting look very airy and kind of smashed together.

This was just one example of da Vinci's acute observational skills represented in his paintings. He wrote in a notebook:

If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.

The genius of Da Vinci isn't realized in his incredible observational skills about how the world works though. Instead, it was realized in his ability to make those observations appear on a canvas. This was the true genius.

When he had an idea for a new painting, he would think about what type of social setting and emotion the piece should illustrate. When he got his answer, he would go to the places that held that type of emotion and observe how people behave, how their bodies are positioned, and what their faces look like. Then, "he noted it in a little book which he was always carrying on his belt." But da Vinci didn't just recreate that scene on a canvas. He used that as a starting point in reality and would add imagination and fantasy to make the painting truly come alive. Isaacson notes:

Leonardo wove an argument that was integral to understanding his genius: that true creativity involves the ability to combine observation with imagination, thereby blurring the border between reality and fantasy

Leonardo's artistic genius is undoubted, but his business suave could have been a bit better. He seemed to get by okay, but was never truly rich because he couldn't finish most of the pieces he was commissioned to do. There's no real reason why this happened, but there are some hypothesis.

One hypothesis is that what could be excited Leonardo much more than what was. He got so excited about an idea when he thought of it that he abandoned everything else he was working on. This cycle just continued. Isaacson wrote, "he was a genius undisciplined by diligence."

Another example could be that da Vinci wasn't about "the grind." He preferred to work very little and follow his curiosity about the world instead. This was found in one of his notebooks:

Men of loft genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.

Another reason he may have not been able to finish paintings, was because his ideas were so close to reality, they could never be pulled off to the degree of perfection Leonardo expected of himself. So, he got as far as he could on some paintings and then just stopped. He didn't like to finish pieces because he would inevitably learn a new technique or fact about how a body should be positioned that he could use to make the piece better. To him, nothing was more beautiful than representing Nature like it ought to be represented:

Though human ingenuity may make various inventions it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, more direct than does Nature; because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.

An example of this relentless perfectionism can be seen by examining St. Jerome in the Wilderness. This painting was done in two phases: the first being in 1480 when he started the painting and the second being in 1510. Under infrared analysis of the painting, one can see there were dual neck muscles and other parts added in 1510 that were not part of the original drawing. The muscles and parts added seem to align with the anatomical discoveries da Vinci was making through his autopsies (coming soon). This implied he started the painting in 1480, but then changed it 30 years later to add small neck muscles that he didn't know existed before. His perfectionism was a virtue, but it was also his vice.

So back to the autopsies. Da Vinci was so much a disciple of experience that he dissected some 300+ bodies throughout his lifetime. This wasn't some crazy fantasy for him though, he wanted to understand the layout of the human body so he knew which muscles moved which body parts. He also did a detailed analysis of the skull and brain.

He made very, very detailed drawings of his work and debated with himself about writing a treatise on the anatomy of the human body. He discovered things about how the body works centuries before someone would make the "real" discovery. But because Leonardo didn't have the organizational skills, drive, or desire to publish many of his writings or drawings, he didn't get credit for them until they were discovered.

Lesson: Be more curious

Da Vinci never intended to be a famous painter and artist, he simply went about his life as he thought he should and had some lucky breaks along the way. So even though he didn't intend for his life to come under a microscope 500 years later, there is one thing we can learn when we do so: to observe and be curious about the little things in life more often.

Isaacson writes:

I did learn from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.

He continued:

Yes, he was a genius: wildly imaginative, passionately curious, and creative across multiple disciplines. His genius was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.

If we look at Leonardo for a thesis on how to approach life, he might say to do so "with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders."

That, Mr. da Vinci, I will strive to do.


Recieve new posts and my monthly reading list emails.