I’ve recently finished listening to the audio version of Walter Isaacson’s excellent Leonardo da Vinci biography. I’m sure I’ve lost something from actually holding this one, but at least it came with a PDF that’s 70-something pages long with all kinds of images and timeline information.
We look up to Leonardo for a lot of accomplishments. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. Vitruvian Man. Flying machines. Methods for diverting rivers. Early ideas for a tank for military use. Molds of human organs. Notebook after notebook full of innovations and drawings and notes and curiosities.
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But Leonardo was eminently human. You see, he was a terrible perfectionist, and, for lack of a better term, a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He was also supremely curious and inventive, and there are things you don’t have to be born with to emulate the good stuff.
First, a little thing about his life, and how it played in his favor to be who he was: Leonardo was born out of wedlock.
As the first-born son in his family, he would have been entitled to an inheritance, but he also would have been expected to take on his father’s profession. In this case, that profession was as a notary.
When he was 10, his father had the opportunity to legitimate him, which, again, would have made Leonardo the rightful heir over his half-brothers, but it would have been expected for him to become a notary. At that point, it seemed almost certain the notary guild wouldn’t have accepted him, and also that he wouldn’t have been very good at the job anyway.
He would later have a legal battle with his half brothers over some inheritance (he wasn’t entitled to any, but he settled with them for some other rights for them upon his death).
Maintaining his illegitimacy, then, allowed him to go off and create.
Leonardo wrote backwards, in a mirror script. It may have been a code, though an easily breakable one. Or, maybe that’s just the way he wrote. He was left-handed (we know that because of the direction of the hatching in his drawings). I’m right-handed, and when I try to write left-handed, my natural inclination is to reverse the script.
Leonardo wasn’t a fan of what Isaacson frequently dubs (not his term, I’m sure) received knowledge — that stuff we learn in books. He wanted to discover for himself. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” is a phrase that shows up in his notebooks.
He worked tirelessly on things he wasn’t paid for, just to sate his curiosity. He made great advances in Euclidean geometry, in human biology, in military technology. He designed a system to divert the flow of the Arno River, though it was never used. He is credited with designing the first helicopter, though it was probably meant for the stage, since he never included it among his military designs. He designed the first tank.
He was mercilessly detailed. Vitruvian Man is actually an improvement on Vitruvius’s studies on the proper proportions for drawing men. Leonardo spent hours with various men measuring lengths and widths, to determine what proportion of the body the head should be, and then from the hairline to the top of the nose, the nose to the chin, the mouth to the chin, ear to ear, the length of the arm, the distance from the naval to the top of the genitals, and on and on.
Leonardo had a very human flaw: he was a perfectionist. And perfection is a stumbling block to good.
The Mona Lisa, his most famous masterpiece, was commissioned in 1503, and was never delivered. He was still adding brush strokes when he died in 1519. His patrons frequently had to renegotiate contracts to require delivery of unfinished work plus return of advance payment if deadlines weren’t met. Some contracts, particularly early in his career, had frequent deadlines — and related penalties — attached.
He sweated over details the way only a true master could, sometimes staring at The Last Supper for an hour or two, making a single brush stroke, then retiring for the day.
He seems to have gained more admirers than detractors during his life, but there were plenty of letters of complaint along the way.
Endlessly curious, endlessly practicing, endlessly perfectionist. Two lessons and, perhaps, a warning from a great master.
But don’t forget to enjoy yourself. “I must go,” Leonardo intimated as the final notes were made in his notebooks. “The soup is getting cold.”
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