Leonardo da Vinci

Published: 2022-07-11

Impressions

I could not have been happier with the few hours I spent reading this book. How da Vinci's life ebbs and flows through his curiosity is a whirlwind of unbelievable stories. This book encouraged me to do two things:

1.) Write more on physical paper. Isaacson explained how much easier it was to piece parts of da Vinci's life together because most of his journals were still around, unlike most of Steve Job's writing.

2.) Continue to be unashamedly curious. Da Vinci wrote down things like "describe the tongue of a woodpecker" in his notebook multiple times. Some of the research was for a painting, but most of it was to soothe his insatiable curiosity. I aim to do the same.

Takeaways

  • da Vinci's goal in life, through his practice of art and study of science, was no less than to know "everything there was to know about the world."
  • Kenneth Clark called da Vinci "the most relentlessly curious man in history."
  • He didn't have any traditional education and learning with art, science, or math. Some people would use this as a crutch against him, saying he didn't really know what he was talking about. But he famously whipped back saying what he does doesn't require words, it requires experience. So, Leonardo became a disciple of experience early on. As he got more curious, he learned to use others books and advice better to blend with his experience for the ultimate learning machine. He wrote in a notebook, "He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water jar." Isaacson went on to write, "This makes him different from the archetypal Renaissance Man, who embraced the rebirth of wisdom that came from rediscovered works of classical antiquity." Eventually, though, he realized that knowledge is a mix between acquired wisdom and life experience.
  • The leading thinkers of Florence "embraced a Renaissance humanity that put its faith in the dignity of the individual and in the aspiration to find happiness on this earth through knowledge."
  • Leonardo's only formal education was through an abacus school, where he learned useful math skills for commerce. One skill that was emphasized mainly was how to draw analogies between cases. "Analogies and spotting patterns became for him a rudimentary method of theorizing."
  • As a left-hander, da Vinci wrote from right to left on a page and each letter was facing backwards. Often, they had to be read with a mirror. (p. 32)
  • One defining method of his works in art is the realistic appearance of light and shadows. He observed greatly how things should look in real life and then figured out a way to make that happen on a canvas. But, he never let the realities limit his imagination of what was able to be accomplished in a painting. Reality informed his paintings, but it never constrained them.
  • A sometimes surprising fact of the life of Leonardo is that he started many, many more works than he actually finished. He was a great artist, but a horrible business man. A hypothesis as to why this is was that 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. Another reason this happened was because 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. 'He was a genius undisciplined by diligence.' He was afraid to call a painting completed, for he knew he would learn something new eventually that would make the piece better.
  • da Vinci was not motivated at all by wealth or luxury. In one of his notebooks he wrote, "men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind."
  • da Vinci's Virtuvian Man was birthed from a treatise written by Virtruvius, a Roman military officer and engineer from the first century B.C. What his work did for Leonardo was that it gave a concrete example of the Renaissance humanism: "the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth" p.149
  • da Vinci, unlike Einstein, struggled with theory, thought experiments, and abstract concepts. He preferred to look at the effects of something and deduce the cause instead of knowing the case and thinking about what effects it may have.
  • da Vinci started to work on many problems that he could, and we haven't still, solved. But he showed there is at least a value to trying because even if we may never know how to solve them, it's important to understand why we wouldn't.
    • Lots of examples in page 199 of da Vinci creating something years before it became mainstream. And another on p.272
  • Mastery requires focusing intently on the little details.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Leonardo was not an individual artist working like a mad genius in his workshop. Instead, he would devise a painting and his assistants worked on it with him to make multiple copies. Sometimes they were duplicates. Other times, though, they were identical in message but differed in form.
  • Leonardo thought through sketching. It's a process called "componimento inculto" - an uncultivated composition that helps work out ideas through an intuitive process.
  • "America" is named so after Amerigo Vespucci, cousin of Agostino Vespucci, who landed in Brazil with Columbus during his third voyage and correctly surmised they had graced a new continent. #idea
  • Leonardo magically transformed "complexity into elegance" through his anatomical drawings. Similarly, great writers are able to magically transform complex subjects, ideas, and philosophies into a beautiful elegance.

Never miss a post

If you like these posts, get new ones in your email.

Quotes

  • His curiosity was pure, personal, and delightfully obsessive.
  • 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.
  • Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.
  • I [Isaacson] 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.
  • Like so many writers and artists, da Vinci grew up feeling a part of the world but also detached.
  • Florence's festive culture was spiced by the ability to inspire those with creative minds to combine ideas from disparate disciplines.
  • There was harmony in proportions, and math was nature's brushstroke.
  • "Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body."
  • "Pleasure and pain are represented as twins, because there is never one without the other." - Leonardo
  • Leonardo's Vitruvian Man embodies a moment when art and science combined to allow mortal minds to probe timeless questions about who we are and how we fit into the grand order of the universe.
  • Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously.
  • da Vinci's "uncanny abilities to engage in a dialogue between experience and theory made him a prime example of how acute observations, fanatic curiosity, experimental testing, a willingness to question dogma, and the ability to discern patterns across disciplines can lead to great leaps in human understanding."
  • "His curiosity, like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that most people over the age of ten no longer puzzle about."
  • "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."
  • "As with his study of the flight of birds, Leonardo went from seeking knowledge that could be of practical use and began seeking knowledge for its own sake, out of pure curiosity and joy."
  • "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."
  • "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." - da Vinci
  • "We should put aside our romantic image of the artist alone in his studio creating works of genius. Instead, Leonardo's studio was like a shop in which he devised a painting and his assistants worked with him to make multiple copies."
  • On being so obsessed with something else: "In truth, his mathematical experiments have absorbed his thoughts so entirely that he cannot bear the sight of a paintbrush."
  • "Sometimes fantasies are paths to realities."
  • "Although at times he was irresolute and willing to abandon tasks, his powerful curiosity tended to overcome any hesitations when it came to exploring nature's wonders."
  • Leonardo: "Though human ingenuity make 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."
  • "Leonardo wanted to accumulate knowledge for his own sake and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history." Perhaps that is what made his knowledge and curiosity so "out-of-this-world-like"
  • "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."

Stories

  • An example of his relentless perfectionism can be seen be examining St. Jerome in the Wilderness. This painting was done in two phases: the first being in 1480 when he started and the second being in 1510. Under infared analysis of the painting, 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 autopsys.
  • When da Vinci wanted to paint something, he would think about what type of social setting and emotion the piece would represent. When he determined the answer, he would go to places that held that type of emotion and observed people's faces, manners, and dresses, and gestures. Then, "he noted it in a little book which he was always carrying in his belt."
  • One notebook page from about 1490 was deemed Leonardo's "theme sheet." It had various drawings, doodles, and sketches of many of the different interests that da Vinci thought of or wanted to think of. (p. 109)
  • da Vinci predicted the scientific method, writing, "Before you make a general rule of this case, test it two or three times and observe whether the tests produce the same effects."
  • p.438 - Great story about being open minded and willing to change his mind. He thought that springs of the earth, just like blood in the body, is somehow pumped from lower areas to higher. How else could water get up into mountain springs? He was convinced of that explanation, but eventually abandoned it. He realized the water there is from evaporation getting soaked into clouds and then raining.
  • Many of Leonardo's paintings were lost or never finished, so there is a lot of mystery and allure around them. For one painting in particular, Saint Anne there were three or versions that were circulated. As historians tried to understand which came first to help paint a timeline of his life, they assumed Leonardo began one version of Saint Anne in 1501, then changed his mind and drew it a different way. He then changed his mind again to paint something that closely resembled the original sketch from 1501. This was the consensus until, in 2005, a note by Agostino Vespucci was found in a book by Cicero that he was reading. The passage in the book said something along the lines of a painter perfect the head and bust of Venus. Vespucci's comment in the margin was "So Leonardo da Vinci does in all his paintings, such as the head of Lisa del Giocondo, and Anne Mother of the Virgin." From this, we are able to assume he had begun working on the Mona Lisa and the final painting of Saint Anne in 1503.
  • Michaelangelo and Leonardo were rivals. However, people commissioned Leonardo for one style of work and Michaelangelo for another. This is why its important to create things in a style that suits you and not follow the crowd. Eventually, someone will see the need for your style.