A wealth of lessons

A wealth of lessons

The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In...

Excerpts and topics from Walter Isaacson’s ‘Leonardo da Vinci’:

On why Leonardo matters today:

“The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own. That is why we have much to learn from Leonardo. His ability to combine art, science, technology, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity. So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical…Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.” (page 9)

Isaacson on how his research changed him
“I 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.” (page 7)

“The best way to approach [Leonardo’s] life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.” (page 516)

On Leonardo’s notebooks
“The more than 7,200 pages now extant probably represent about one-quarter of what Leonardo actually wrote.” (page 106)

“Fortunately, 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 intimations of his mental leaps. Scribbled alongside each other, with rhyme if not reason, are math calculations, sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, siphons, plant stems, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles, and studies for paintings.” (page 4)

“The beauty of a notebook is that it indulges provisional thoughts, half-finished ideas, unpolished sketches, and drafts for treatises not yet refined. That, too, suited Leonardo’s leaps of the imagination, in which brilliance was often unfettered by diligence or discipline. He occasionally declared an intent to organize and refine his notebook jottings into published works, but his failure to do so became a companion to his failure to complete artworks.” (page 108)

On his mirror script:
“A left-hander, Leonardo wrote from right to left on a page, the opposite direction of the words on this and other normal pages, with each letter facing backwards. ‘They are not to be read save with a mirror,’ as [his biographer] Vasari described these pages. Some have speculated that he adopted his script as a code to keep his writings secret. But that is not true; it can be read, with or without a mirror. He wrote that way because when using his left hand he could glide leftward across the page without smudging the ink. The practice was not completely uncommon.” (page 32)

On his artistic manifesto and innovative artistic techniques
“Leonardo also pioneered sfumato, the technique of blurring contours and edges. It is a way for artists to render objects as they appear to our eye rather than with sharp contours. This advance caused Vasari to proclaim Leonardo the inventor of the ‘modern manner’ in painting.” (The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke”; page 41)

“Leonardo’s most important contribution to the study of perspective was to broaden the concept to include not just linear perspective, which uses geometry to figure out the relative sizes of objects in the foreground and background of a painting, but also ways of conveying depth through changes in color and clarity.” (page 274)
He sought to portray not only moti corporali, the motions of the body, but also how they related to what he called ‘atti e moti mentali,’ the attitudes and motions of the mind….This is most noticeable in his actionpacked and gesture-filled narrative works, such as the Adoration and The Last Supper. But it is also the genius behind his most serene portraits, most notably the Mona Lisa.” (page 87)

Mona Lisa
“So the world’s most famous smile is inherently and fundamentally elusive, and therein lies Leonardo’s ultimate realization about human nature. His expertise was in depicting the outer manifestation of inner emotions. But here in the Mona Lisa he shows something more important: that we can never fully know true emotion from outer manifestations. There is always a sfumato quality to other people’s emotions, always a veil.” (page 490)
On Leonardo’s failure to complete his work:

“Notoriously, he left many of his paintings unfinished…As a result, there exist now at most fifteen paintings fully or mainly attributable to him.” (page 8)

“The Adoration of the Magi thus encapsulates Leonardo’s frustrating genius: a pathbreaking and astonishing display of brilliance that was abandoned once it was conceptualized.” (page 74) “Thus one of history’s most creative artists found himself decorating a clock for firewood, borrowing money for paint, and cadging wine.” (page 76)

“There was another reason, one even more fundemental, that Leanardo did not complete the painting: he preferred the conception to the execution….He was a genius undisciplined by diligence.” (page 82)

“As frustrating as it is to us today, there was a poignant and inspiring aspect to Leonardo’s unwillingness to declare a painting done and relinquish it: he knew that there was always more he might learn, new techniques he might master, and further inspirations that might strike him. And he was right.” (page 87)

On his personal life
Leonardo was gay (he used the phrase l’amore masculino) and made no secret of it, despite being arrested on more than one occasion for sodomy. “Leonardo’s most serious longtime companion….acquired the nickname Salai, the Little Devil.” (page 70) “Leonardo, who rarely revealed much of a personal nature in his notebooks, mentioned Salai dozens of times, often in tones of exasperation that also betrayed amusement and affection.” (page 132) “Leonardo was never known to have had a relationship with a woman, and he occasionally recorded his distaste for the idea of heterosexual copulation.” (page 70) His last companion was a young man, named Francesco Melzi (page 385).

“Leonardo liked to wear rose-colored tunics that reached only to his knee even though others wore long garments.” (page 7). Leonardo also indulged Salai and dressed him in “colorful and dandy clothes, many of them pink, the costs of which (including at least twenty-four pairs of fancy shoes and a pair of stockings so expensive they must have been jeweled) would routinely be recorded in his notebooks.” (page 133)

-Extracted with permission.

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