7 Fascinating Things to Learn From The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci

7 Fascinating Things to Learn From The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in a small town called Vinci.
The birthplace of Vinci is a fort or fortified hill village and is located near the town of Empoli (about 30 kilometers west of Florence) in what is now the province of Florence, Tuscany region.

No one imagined that this little boy would one day take the scholarly world by storm with his endless curiosity, fascination, and inventiveness.

He is considered one of the most famous polymaths of all time.

Some of the most famous works by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, Mona Lisa, Self-Portrait, Studies on anatomy

I got my information out of Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo and will therefore cite a little from the book.

Right at the beginning, the author remarks on the great use-case of paper for storing information, rather than our tweets which probably won’t last over 500 years.

His mind is best revealed on the 7200 pages of notes and scribbles that miraculously survived to this day. There are estimates that he produced at least three times more than that, which were lost, unfortunately.

Leonardo could not afford to waste paper, so he crammed every inch of his pages with miscellaneous drawings and looking-glass jottings that seem random but provide glimpses of his mental leaps.

What made Leonardo a genius, what set him apart who are merely extraordinarily smart, was creativity, the ability to apply imagination to intellect. His facility for combining observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen.

“Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,” wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Because they “think different,” creative masterminds are sometimes considered misfits, but in the words that Steve Jobs helped craft for an Apple advertisement, “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Let’s dive into the 7 principles you can apply yourself

“I have no special talents,” Einstein wrote to a friend. “I’m just passionately curious.” Leonardo da Vinci actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his most distinguishing trait was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know why people yawn, what makes the aortic valve close, how light is processed in the eye and what that means for perspective in a painting. He instructed himself to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker, the muscles of a face, why the moon shines, and the list continues.

2. Retain a childlike sense of wonder

At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over everyday phenomena. We might savor the beauty of a blue sky, but we no longer bother to wonder why it is that color. Leonardo did. So did Einstein, who wrote to another friend, “You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the mystery into which we were born.” We should be careful to never great outgrow our wonder years, or to let our children do so.

3. Observe

Leonardo’s greatest skill was his acute ability to observe things. It was the talent that empowered his curiosity, and vice versa. It was not some magical gift but a product of his own effort. When he visited the moats surrounding Sforza Castle, he looked at the four wing dragonflies and noticed how the wing pairs alternate in motion. When he walked around town, he observed how the facial expressions of people relate to their emotions, and he discerned how light bounces off differing surfaces. He saw which birds move their wings faster on the upswing than on the downswing, and which do the opposite.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

4. Go down rabbit holes

Leonardo’s opening pages of one of his notebooks depict 169 attempts to square a circle. In eight pages of his Codex Leicester, he recorded 730 findings about the flow of water, then he came up with 67 words to describe different types of moving water. He measured every segment of the human body (yes also the intestines of 30 deceased), calculated their proportional relationships, and then did the same for a horse. He drilled down for the pure joy of geeking out.

5. Collaborate

Genius is often considered the purview of loners who retreat to their studios and are struck by creative lightning. Leonardo continued to work with exceptional friends and colleagues in garrets. The Madonnas and drapery studies produced in Verrochio’s studio, and the version of Virgin of the Rocks were created in such a collaborative manner that it is hard to tell whose hand made which strokes. Vitruvian Man was produced after sharing ideas and sketches with friends. Leondardo’s best anatomy studies came out of a partnership with Marcantonio della Torre. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor.

6. Get distracted

Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny object or theory crossed his mind amidst his prominent research, made his mind richer and filled with more connections. He came across the wife of a silk merchant called Lisa and was awestruck by her presence. In fact, he kept working on the portrait for the rest of his life, always adding new layers and strokes to bring it close to perfection. While painting The Last Supper, he would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, only to make one small stroke and then leave. He later explained to a friend “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when working the least”. Procrastinate at will to collect all the necessary facts and ideas, but never stop pursuing the bigger picture.

The Last Supper

7. Take notes on paper and make lists

Leonardo’s to-do lists may be the greatest testament to pure curiosity the world has ever seen. Indulge in fantasy, start visualizing patterns and movements and note them down if you find them interesting enough. 500 years later, his notes are here to astonish and inspire us. Imagine how happy your grandchildren would be if they could dive into the mind of our past self 50 years ago.

In the end, Isaacson wrote “We cannot portray him with crisp sharp lines, nor should we want to, just as he would not have wanted to portray Mona Lisa that way. There is something nice about leaving a little to our imagination. As he knew, the outlines of reality are inherently blurry, leaving a hint of uncertainty that we should embrace. The best way to approach his life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.”

Leonardo da Vinci's last note from one of his notebooks, recorded before eventually passing away

On what may be the last page he wrote in his notebooks, Leondardo drew four right triangles with bases of different lengths. In the center of the page, he made a chart with boxes labeled with the letter of each rectangle, and below what he was trying to accomplish. As he had done obsessively over the years, he was using visualization of geometry to help him understand the transformation of shapes. As Euclid tried to solve before him, Leonardo was working on extending the two lines of the triangle while keeping the area the same. A puzzle that seems unnecessary of solving at the age of sixty-seven, especially as his health was fading. To anyone other than Leonardo, it may have been.

Then abruptly at the end of the page, he breaks off his writing with an “et cetera”. That is followed by a line explaining why he is putting down his pen. “Perche la minestra si fredda,” he writes. Because the soup is getting cold.

I highly recommend reading Walter Isaacson’s Biography of Leonardo yourself. It’s simply fascinating.

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