Last year, as a dutiful Barnes & Noble bookseller, I had the task of displaying copies of Leonardo da Vinci, the highly anticipated biography from acclaimed author Walter Isaacson, the night before it went on sale. Is there a better feeling than unboxing a case of freshly printed books? But beyond that night holding the book in my hands for the first time, and my experience interacting with the digitalized avatar of Leonardo da Vinci in the Assassin’s Creed video game series, I knew next to nothing about the genius behind (among other things as I came to learn) the Mona Lisa. The book demanded my attention, and between skimming the first few chapters while standing at the checkout counter patiently waiting for any sign of life to walk through the front door and my mother purchasing me a copy of the book just a few days later, I vowed to tame the tome that was.
Thanks to a healthy amount of procrastination and an equally impressive amount of distractions I finally finished the 500+ page behemoth – more than a year later. Part art history text, part case study on creativity and the human mind, Leonardo da Vinci is, quite simply, the most compelling book I have ever read.
If you know me personally, you know that I often go off on tangents (for my speech kids, they’re more appropriately titled “Dan-gents”.) I am also the type of person to hyper-focus on erratic, random endeavors and interests. One day becoming obsessed with photography and camera work, the next running to Hobby Lobby to grab a slew of new art supplies, then filling up a reading ‘wish list’ on my favorite used book website. After that, I could be found scouring the internet for the best tutorials on making music via my MacBook, then diving into an online coding class that somehow leads to a rabbit hole of philosophical and political theory courses, which in turn directs me back to that used book website I love so much. All of this culminating in me finally and somewhat reluctantly returning to what I should have been doing in the first place: Writing.
This behavior could stem from someone being passionately curious about a variety of topics, which I am. But most likely it’s an underlying derivative of being a passionate procrastinator and becoming easily distracted, but I digress. I remember when I was a kid my parents gave me one of those huge ‘random fact’/ ‘did you know’/ ‘how things work’ style book. I loved the hell out of that thing. I still have it somewhere.
Now, it’s pointless for me to try and rewrite the book in which I am discussing. But what you learn from reading this enthralling biography is that while Da Vinci’s cultural and scientific impacts may have been the foundation of one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-seen-again life, his utter curiosity for the way the world worked was the lifeblood through which all of his ideas flowed. That being said, I am someone who tends to overthink almost everything, from the simple to the soulful. So reading that one of the greatest minds in history could, at times, be as scattered as a Jackson Pollock painting, it made me realize that it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a lot of seemingly random interests. It made me realize that it’s OK to ask “how” something works, or “why” are things the way they are as often as possible.
Throughout the book’s 500+ pages, Isaacson introduces us to Leonardo’s passions and interests. Obviously he was an artist (a painter, specifically — Da Vinci wrote amidst his personal and public rivalry with Michelangelo [yes, that Michelangelo] that he considered painting to be the highest form of art, whereas he didn’t see the appeal to his rival’s work with sculpting.) But as we learn, Leonardo came to hate that title throughout his life. Artist. It was never that simple. He preferred to be known foremost as an engineer, among other things, and his colleagues would all come to include the title of philosopher, as well, viewing him as a great thinker and respected scientist. And as Isaacson illustrates time and time again, Da Vinci was the truest form of a polymath that the world has ever seen.
From an early age he began painting, drawing, and experimenting in the world of art. One of those experimentations, called “sfumato”, was his pioneering method of blending and smearing paint on a canvas. This technique refused to produce sharp edges and lines around his subjects, giving them a smoky, misty characteristic that wasn’t seen until he picked up a brush. But all of his devotion to perfecting this technique throughout his life stemmed from his obsessive study of optics and the human eye, realizing that nothing in our world is ever that distinct or sharp. Objects, even if only inches from our eyes, share the light and shadows from all around us. Nothing ever has a ‘black border’ or ‘outline’ surrounding it, like most artwork of his time. Think about if you’ve ever edited a photo and used the ‘structure’ setting in which everything in the picture becomes highly stylized and vivid, but almost cartoonish.
This misty quality could also be linked to his impassioned research into nature, geology, and as Isaacson notes, the “microcosm-macrocosm” effect: That everything is connected. Kind of like what we would refer to today as the Butterfly Effect, or if you’ve ever picked my brain, the adage that everything happens for a reason. I once wrote that writers must live and die by the belief that everything means everything; Seeing the hidden connections between the seemingly obscure and abstract. Loosely, this was Da Vinci’s mantra. Everything in life blends together.
The background in many of his paintings also feature distant, far-off mountains and streams that flow from the furthest point of the canvas into the subject front and center, almost like a spool of fabric unraveling from the background all the way to eyes of the viewer. This stemmed from his research and love of nature, and the patterns he noticed throughout the natural world that he similarly noticed in day-to-day life.
This is a very brief example, of which and many more Isaacson expounds upon to greater detail in the book. I can’t do all of Da Vinci’s disciplines justice. But quite simply, he was enamored with an unending number of interests. This, along with his perfectionist personality, lead to him leaving many of his projects unfinished, destined to live forever in the pages of his notebooks rather than the real world. But what Isaacson highlights throughout the book’s entirety, and what prompted me to write all of this in the first place, was Leonardo’s childlike curiosity.
Many areas of his expertise were mastered simply for the sake of learning something new. When was the last time any of us questioned something as random as the directional properties of water as it is poured into a bowl just for the hell of it? Da Vinci did. This was a small element of his research into the flow of water and vortexes and swirls that stemmed from him studying multiple rivers surrounding the cities of Milan and Florence, which he devised plans for to divert. None ever came into fruition, but the principles he discovered about flowing water lead to some of his medical discoveries on the flow of blood throughout the body. All of this leading back to his paintings, including those same subtle streams in the distance flowing effortlessly into the subject in the foreground.
Many of these same discoveries and connections wouldn’t be confirmed for literally centuries. He wasn’t ahead of the curve – he was the curve. In our time most obscurities like this won’t have an obvious impact on our lives. Nor is it likely that many (or any of us) would make these connections, let alone conceive them in our heads. But back in Leonardo’s day there were still countless disciplines to be explored. So that’s just what he did.
He also questioned why the sky is blue. (He theorized correctly.)
Obviously in 2018 the scale, reach, and depth of Da Vinci’s research is not realistic for everyone, let alone the scientists and professionals of today. But someone had to question something as peculiar as the nature of a woodpecker’s tongue. (Finish the book to see what I mean.)
Isaacson shows nothing but admiration for the genius who had a hard time finishing anything, detailing time and time again that Da Vinci’s propensity to dive down rabbit hole after rabbit hole may have hampered his ability to publish any major literary works, or complete dozens of more masterpieces, or construct a usable “flying machine,” or develop the infrastructure for his oft-written about plans for utopian-like cities in Italy. Da Vinci’s discoveries and ideas were years ahead of their time, aiding in the research of countless scientists and artists that followed in the centuries to come. So even though his to-do list was never complete, he contributed more knowledge and insight to the world than any other historical figure in history, simply by always asking why.
Along with his genuine interest in learning as much as his world had to offer, he also longed to find his place in the cosmos. What was the bigger picture? What was the point of everything? Why did anything on earth matter? He wrestled with these ideas until his death, which even he could not avoid, the last written words from his hand reading, “The soup is getting cold.” Whether he spoke literally about dinner that night, which Isaacson notes as being one possibility, or if the part time pageant/ costume/ stage designer was simply exercising a flare for the dramatic, Da Vinci couldn’t help but wonder what came next. And as Isaacson gracefully notes, not even the great Leonardo could answer this. Because, after all, he was human like everyone else.
As Walter Isaacson concludes, Leonardo da Vinci got sick and had desires. He got distracted constantly and relished in countless interests, each one more intense than the last. He was bad at basic algebra for his entire life and struggled with any medium that wasn’t represented geometrically; He was a visual, hands-on learner. He had no formal education other than what he taught himself through reading and real-world experience. Completing a painting or transferring one of his mechanical designs from paper to the real world was a rare occurrence. He was generally content with life but also faced bouts of melancholy. He lived from stipend to stipend most of his life, yet reluctantly took lucrative commissions from people in power. He was not a fan of due dates or rules, and refused to follow plans that were set in place against his will.
A desire to please others and do things how they had always been done was never what fueled his creative genius. Curiosity was his catalyst.