Think Like a Genius: Reflections on Leonardo da Vinci
What would Leonardo do with today?
When was the last time you looked up from your iPhone to observe how long it takes pupils to dilate in light? Or to notice that when a dragonfly flies, the wings in the front are raised while the ones behind are lowered? Or the last time you wrote 15,000 words on shadows or 35,000 on machines enabling humans to fly or obsessively compared the swirls of curly hair to the flow of water?
Asking you to consider the life of a man that lived over 500 years ago in an age that demands constant newness and innovation might sound odd. How do a mere 15 paintings attributed to Leonardo da Vinci compare to the millions of Tik Tok posts that stream through the Web every second? Perhaps we’d be better off reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Surely brilliance has some sort of expiration date? Alas, this post is inspired by Isaacson’s biography of the great da Vinci.
Learning to think like Leonardo da Vinci may be the smartest thing you ever do. As one of the most diversely talented individuals that ever lived, da Vinci fostered such a deep sense of curiosity that he made leaps and bounds in a wide variety of fields while noting the deeply interconnected nature of all things on planet Earth, from the muscles on the face of cadavers to Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile. Da Vinci made discoveries in medicine, science, and art, and not for accolades or ‘likes’ but rather, for fun.
More than 7,200 pages of da Vinci’s notebook pages exist today, probably a quarter of what he actually wrote. After studying this breadth of work, Walter Isaacson comes to a stunning conclusion that is promising for the common man. da Vinci’s mind, Isaacson writes, “did not come from some divine recipient…his genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observations.” Isaacson himself has published 3,848 pages on several other geniuses including Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein. If he thinks Leo is up to snuff, I’m willing to take his word for it.
I was surprised to learn that beyond his masterful painting skills, da Vinci possessed intrigue on a range of subjects so wide that it’s almost comical- until I realized his intense observational skills led to mastery of nearly all of them. Unfortunately, we mortals still cannot fly without assistance, as far as we know. Isaacson says that his remarkable concentration came not from “some superpower he possessed” but rather from an “omnivorous curiosity” and sense of wonder at the connection between us and the world, something we all can learn to foster. Interest: piqued.
Leonardo da Vinci’s observations helped him to create the movement and motion that makes his artwork masterful. It would seem nearly every human being on Earth might be aware of the subtle smile of the Mona Lisa, a seemingly simple expression that is actually quite difficult to convey with canvas and paint. How could Leonardo possibly master it?
“By peeling the flesh off cadavers and exposing the nerves underneath,” of course. He “analyzed every possible movement of each part of the face to determine the origin of every nerve that controls every facial muscle” at night in the morgue underneath the hospital in Florence. With permission, of course.
It’s hard to decide which is more shocking; the fact that the lovely da Vinci spent many nights elbow-deep in the bodies of the dead or that he resigned himself to such a macabre task to quench his intrigue and curiosity. How many people on Twitter can say that?
Leonardo da Vinci’s ability to let anatomy influence his painting is just one example of the way that he worked and thought across multiple disciplines.
“What Leonardo probably began as four distinct elements ended up woven together in a way that illustrates a fundamental theme in his art and science: the interconnectedness of nature, the unity of its patterns, and the analogy between the workings of the human body and those of the Earth,” says Isaacson.
Believe it or not, this aspect of da Vinci was trending at the time. “The Italian Renaissance was producing artist-engineer-architects who straddled disciplines” but none were quite as dedicated as da Vinci. For instance, “the analogy between water eddies and air turbulence provided a framework for studying the flight of birds,” and “when inventing musical instruments, he made an analogy between how the larynx works and how a glissando recorder could perform similarly.”
Let us not forget the brilliance of the Vitruvian Man, a masterful drawing representing the harmonies between man and the universe.
“Leonardo’s interest in harmonic ratios was reflected in his intense studies of the ways that ratios and proportions are manifest in anatomy, science, and art.”
For Leonardo this kind of interdisciplinary study was all in a day’s work and nurtured on his own accord. As an illegitimate son of his father, a notable notary, he received no formal education. He liked to boast about learning from his own experiences instead.
This was probably the only time da Vinci ever boasted, however. When it came to his own work, Leonardo never sought recognition in the eyes of others. As for his commissioned paintings, he often left them abandoned or fussed over them for years until they were quite literally perfect, sometimes at the frustrations of others.
As for the Mona Lisa, he never delivered the painting to the commissioner nor received any money for it. “Instead, he kept it with him in Florence, Milan, Rome, and France until he died, sixteen years after he began. Over that period, he added thin layer after layer of little glaze strokes as he perfected it, retouched it, and imbued it with new depths of understanding about humans and nature. Some new insight, new appreciation, new inspiration would strike him, and the brush would alight gently on the poplar panel yet again,” Isaacson writes.
One of the most dumbfounding insights of the entire book lies in Leonardo da Vinci’s interest in the pursuit of knowledge rather than publishing. He wrote and abandoned treatise after treatise on many subjects that he delighted in examining, but once that knowledge was gained, Leonardo had little interest in gaining any recognition for it.
His “brilliance was often unfettered by diligence or discipline,” Isaacson writes. This often led to ‘rediscoveries’ throughout history. For example,“his discovery of the way the aortic valve works, was a triumph that was confirmed only in modern times. It was birthed by his understanding, indeed love, of spiral flows.” Shockingly, “it took 450 years for anatomists to realize that Leonardo was correct.” The golden spiral, often referred to as the fibonacci spiral, is said to explain the very existence and origins of all life. However, fear not that Leonardo da Vinci worked for wonder and joy alone, perhaps the most quintessential elements of discovery.
I admire da Vinci’s open-mindedness, confidence, and willingness to challenge his own notions. Firstly, while many other men of the Italian Renaissance were homosexual, few were as open and comfortable with it as da Vinci. Being gay “contributed to his sense of being unconventional,” Isaacson writes. He wore dramatic robes and bright colored cloth as he walked through the streets, favoring bold hues like pink.
As for his work, Leonardo loved to learn from others and was always peppering his friends with question after question. That curiosity could never be quenched! He was always willing to surrender his preconceived theories in the face of new experiences and eventually became a “disciple of both experience and wisdom.” Isaacson writes, “One mark of a great mind is the willingness to change it. We can see that in Leonardo.” Indeed, we can.
As I write, I try to imagine our world today if we decided to do things for knowledge, wonder, and love instead of money, fame, and likes. Perhaps you’re wondering this too. A world in which we all do as da Vinci did could be more beautiful, blissful, maybe even just. At the very least, I try to envision what the lives of those around me would be like if we did not do things for show and ego but rather for ourselves and for the joy of it. Some may say that we may be too far gone and far too tapped in to let go, but I don’t think so. Inside all of us lies an innate sense of curiosity and wonder, a ‘genius’ waiting to be nurtured and explored.