On November 15th, 2017, Christies auction-house dropped the hammer on a piece of artwork for $450.3 million USD. Yes, you read that correctly, nearly half a billion dollars. That sale smashed all records, the highest price ever paid for a piece of art by quite a margin (google Interchange by de Kooning for the runner up). The painting was a portrait of Jesus Christ, entitled Salvator Mundi or “Saviour of the World’. The painter was a figure almost as prominent in today’s study of history. A rather renowned Italian by the name of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Da Vinci has captured imaginations the world over since the time of his death, undergoing a particularly prominent reprisal in recent times. From Dan Browns Da Vinci Code to Netflix series, the Salvator Mundi sale and now a recent biography by Walter Isaacson, it would be hard to imagine the name not being recognised by any member of Western Society. What is it about this man that has us so captivated? He’s been titled ‘history’s most creative genius,’ ‘superhuman’ and perhaps most fittingly ‘Renaissance Master’ (by another linguistic genius, albeit self-proclaimed).
Before we can fully understand the modern fascination, perhaps we first need to understand a little more about the man behind the legend.
Who was Leonardo Da Vinci?
The baby named simply ‘Leonardo’ was born April 15, 1452 in the rural Italian town of Vinci. Lacking a formal surname, he was termed Leonardo da Vinci meaning Leonardo from Vinci. He was born out of wedlock to Messer (Master, of noble birth) Piero Fruosino, a legal notary and Caterina, a local peasant. Ol’ Piero pulled a sly one here, having already been betrothed to a woman he would marry 8 months after Leonardo’s birth. Not wanting to cause too great a scandal, Caterina was quickly married off to a local farmer and went on to give Leo 4 half-siblings. Not to be outdone, Piero would produce 11 more offspring, split between his 3rd and 4th marriages. The latest was born when Leonardo was 40 years old (meaning Piero would’ve been in his 60’s.)
Despite the potential psychological issues this chaotic start to life could have brought to Leonardo, it appears his childhood was relatively calm, full of family and love from both sides. In his biography, Walter Isaacson proclaimed the period ‘A Golden Age for Bastards‘ and Leonardo’s birth was hardly met with scorn or distaste. In fact, he had a sizeable congregation attend his baptism the day after his birth. That was the little bastards first taste of good fortune.
As pointed out in Isaacson’s book, another not so obvious bonus from being born illegitimate; he wasn’t expected to follow his fathers’ path to becoming a Notary, as was custom at the time. This saved him the ‘stifling’education he was so proud of forgoing, allowing his mind the freedom to explore and study whatever he saw fit. It’s questionable whether he would’ve developed into the incredible artist as we know him if his path had been down the alternative route. Though who really knows… There does seem to be a trend among histories most creative types towards either doing poorly in school, or dropping out entirely quite early on.
I never find the childhood passages from biographies very interesting and as luck would have it, little is known of Leonardo’s. We’ll be skipping right along then.
A True Misfit
An illegitimate bastard, gay, vegetarian, left-handed and often prone to procrastination and general tomfoolery. Sound like a recipe for success in the Catholic-dominated Europe of the 15th century? Well, fortune strikes again. Da Vinci was lucky enough to be born during the renaissance age, an open and accepting period in the worlds not so open-minded history. It was also a fertile breeding ground for creative types, with powerful benefactors like the Medici & King Francis pouring vast sums into the arts.
There are various stories on where Leonardo’s talent for arts was first discovered, though what is certainly known, is that by the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, one of Florence’s most renowned painters. This is certainly where the technical aspects of the arts were first instilled on the young sponge and where his raw talent was molded. There is a story floating round about Verrocchio being shown up by Leonardo on a piece titled The Baptism of Christ.
As legend has it, there was a collaboration on the piece, as was common in Verrocchio’s workshop at the time. After the majority of the work had already been completed, Leonardo made a few brush strokes, contributing an angel and other small details to the piece. Verrocchio deemed the new additions so superior, he hung up his brush and never painted again. Whether there’s any truth to that, it certainly gives a clear view of the tremendous talent that Leonardo already possessed at a young age.
Leonardo’s adult life is one for the ages and I don’t have space in this article, nor the capacity to fully describe how incredible were the feats he achieved. If you want to be awed by one man’s brilliance, I highly recommend the aforementioned biography from Walter Isaacson. Instead, the intention of this article is to distill the lessons that we can learn from Leonardo Da Vinci, with the intention of incorporating them into our own lives. I have no doubt, we’ll all be the better for it.
Lessons from the Renaissance Master
Lesson #1: Be intensely curious about the world
Albert Einstein once wrote to a friend “I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.” Now, that’s obviously nonsense coming from one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Whether Albert actually meant that or was just playing the humble card, the statement still holds some merit. Leonardo, it’s clear, was the same.
He appears to be one of those rare souls who history encounters every few centuries that just want to understand everything possible about the world, purely for the sake of knowledge. He wasn’t motivated by money or fame, as is clear from the fact he never actually published any of his findings (you can look at this as being selfish in some respects. We could’ve been far more advanced as a species if it were only for the discoveries of this one man).
What perhaps began as curiosity and a quest for understanding to improve his art, undoubtedly became curiosity for curiosities sake. You only have to check out his to-do list to realise much of what seeks is entirely unrelated to painting.
Lesson #2: Patience is a virtue
Leonardo used to take years to get through some of his paintings, frustrating his employers to no end. He was given 7 months to complete his commission of Virgin on the Rocks, instead taking 25 years. Mona Lisa took a mere 15 by comparison. Numerous works that he had started were never followed through to completion. Yet look at the results.
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least” -Da Vinci
Procrastination is the fermentation period which allows creativity to blossom. Over the long stretches of time he took to develop his paintings, he had been studying optics, shadows and different materials that all added to the quality of his works. He would apply these techniques bits at a time over many years to arrive at the end result. As biographer Walter Isaacson proclaimed “Relinquishing a work, declaring it finished, froze its evolution. Leonardo did not like to do that.” In one example, he was asked by a local merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa. Leonardo accepted the commission, sitting down with Lisa to produce the preliminary sketches. He would go on to ‘complete’ the painting, working on it sporadically for years. The Mona Lisa turned out to be the most famous painting of all time, one he worked on until his death. Unfortunately for Francesco, the painting of his wife he asked and paid for, he never received.
Just as in life itself, nothing is everlasting. Life is constantly evolving, tweaking, refining, seeking perfection but never attaining it as new knowledge and experience comes to hand. That is the way of Leonardo. Despite the fact that he almost certainly considered none of his works truly ‘finished”, we are left with end results that are unquestionably worth the wait.
Lesson #3: Understand the crossover between various disciplines
The term ‘Renaissance Man’ has come to mean one who has achieved a degree of expertise across various disciplines. A polymath in broader terms, with the Renaissance part of the description being reserved for those throughout a specific period in Italy. Leonardo Da Vinci has become the symbol of the term and quite fittingly so. He developed methods and understandings in art, engineering, optics, mathematics, anatomy and town planning often centuries before they were ‘re-discovered’ and developed into practical use. Unfortunately for the rest of humanity, Da Vinci never really published any of his findings, relegating his vast swaths of knowledge to a series of personal notebooks that would be studied long after his death.
This is one aspect of the renaissance period that really resonates with me personally; the emphasis on understanding, studying and attempting to master multiple disciplines. It didn’t pay to be a specialist. This suits my personality to a tee. I’m a big believer that we should all develop ourselves across all aspects of life, from the physical to environmental to existential. Only then can we fully appreciate this incredible world of which are a part of.
AOM sums it up well with the ideal of a Renaissance Man being ”based on the belief that a man’s capacity for personal development is without limits; competence in a broad range of abilities and areas of knowledge should be every man’s goal and is within every man’s grasp.”I like to believe that’s true.
Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go against the grain
I doubt this was something Leonardo had to remind himself of very often, it would’ve come naturally. As we’ve seen, he wasn’t exactly the typical individual waltzing round the Venetian court. This was to his benefit, just as it can be to ours.
Leonardo used to get commissions to paint a certain piece, one desired by bishops or rulers alike. Instead, he painted whatever he chose to, almost unquestionably improving on the original request. He would still be lauded and praised because he’d created something far superior to the initial concept.
Now this takes 2 factors to be able to pull off: self-belief and skill. You have to believe in yourself enough to have the balls to go against the majority or your boss. Then you have to have the skill to back it up. If you lack the self-belief, you’ll never go against the grain in the first place. If you lack the skill, you’ll make a fool of yourself. These can both be developed.
Lesson #5: Be Observant
Have you ever sat down and study the way in which a bird flaps its wings? Perhaps sat at a cafe and observed the way a mans forehead creases as he smiles? No? Well, you’re not looking at the world as deeply as Leonardo. Whether that level of observation is required, we do tend to gloss over our surroundings and interact with the world in a shallow way. Perhaps more than any other of the lessons I’ve written in this blog, this one could bring us more inner-peace and connection to our environment and our fellow man than any other. The real meaning behind this is to simply live in the moment.
Lesson #6: Test Your Limits
Sometimes you should try the impossible, just to understand where the limits are. By doing so, your ceiling will grow.
Da Vinci would frequently attempt to find solutions to impossible problems- creating flight the same way as a bird does, squaring a circle, creating perpetual motion. Leonardo spent years on each of these problems, eventually coming to the conclusion that each couldn’t be done, though not before he attacked each problem from every conceivable angle. These are all problems that have yet to be solved today, with all our advancements and innovations.
Yet what those attempts did, was allow Leonardo to expand his sphere of understanding, showing him where the limits lie. I think there’s a sense of peace in that, a fulfillment of potential. One of our greatest regrets as humans is not reaching our potential, at least not trying to reach our potential. By attempting the impossible and failing, we at least have more of a sense of where our limits lie. We will always be satisfied, as long as we know we did the best we could.
Lesson #7: Record Everything (On Paper)
One of Da Vincis most enduring legacies is the notebooks he left behind, revealing the inner workings of his mind in relation to how he viewed the world. There appears to have been very little recorded in the way of self-introspection, rather these scribblings and drawings focused almost exclusively on the workings of the world.
There is something to writing things down on paper that externalises thoughts and ideas. If you write down your goals for instance, they become more concrete, more definitive, than if you simply have them buzzing around in your head. Writing something down also signifies intention. They’re there, laid out before you, reminding you constantly that action is required to ensure their completion.
Paper has been the greatest storer of information and knowledge throughout much of the world’s history. Of course in the modern day, hard-drives and cloud-based storage capabilities have far surpassed the capacity of paper. However, there is some magical quality to paper that I think we intuitively appreciate. It takes us away from screens and into our own imaginations. Do you think a series of word documents would be examined 500 years into the future? No matter who typed them, I couldn’t imagine so.
Lesson #8: Collaborate: Be around like-minded people
Perhaps what most surprised me from reading about and studying Leonardo, was how much of a collaborator he was. From his early days as an apprentice in Verrocchio’s studio to the days he started his own, much of the work he did was in partnership with other artists.
In his own studio, there appeared to be somewhat of an assembly-line production process. Leo would produce the original work and his students would make multiple copies and variations that would be sold off. It certainly rids us off this romantic notion we tend to have of the lone genius, struggling in turmoil to create these masterpieces. There were certainly artists who did operate in that manner (Michaelangelo), though it appears Da Vinci was not one.
I’m sure this approach served as fuel and motivated him to excel himself and his work even further. As they say, you are the average of the people you are in contact with most.