Book Review – Leonardo Da Vinci by W. Isaacson

Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in. – Leonardo da Vinci

After reading the bestsellers books of Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, I came to appreciate how talented Mr Isaacson is as an author.

In this magnificent biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, Mr Isaacson shows how, from Leonardo’s genius skills, we can get inspired, develop our potential, discover with passionate curiosity, careful observation, and imagination.

I took the following excerpts from the book as a reminder of what Leonardo Da Vinci did during his lifetime as well as the skills and great ideas from this amazing person. I hope you enjoy it just as much.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519), more commonly Leonardo da Vinci or simple Leonardo was an Italian Renaissance polymath whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography.


BE CURIOUS, RELENTLESSLY CURIOUS. “I have no special talents.” Einstein once wrote to a friend. “I am just passionately curious.” Leonardo actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know what causes people to yawn, how they walk on ice in Flanders, methods for squaring a circle, what makes the aortic valve close, how light is processed in the eye and what that means for the perspective in a painting. He instructed himself to learn about the placenta of a calf, the jaw of a crocodile, the tongue of a woodpecker, the muscles of a face, the light of the moon, and the edges of shadows. Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do, every waking hour, just as he did.

SEEK KNOWLEDGE FOR ITS OWN SAKE. Not all knowledge needs to be useful. Sometimes it should be pursued for pure pleasure. Leonardo did not need to know how heart valves work to paint the Mona Lisa, nor did he need to figure out how fossils got to the top of a mountain to produce Virgin of the Rocks. By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of this era.

RETAIN A CHILDLIKE SENSE OF WONDER. At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over everyday phenomena. We might savour the beauty of a blue sky, but we no longer bother to wonder why it is that colour. Leonardo did. So did Einstein, who wrote to another friend, “You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” We should be careful to never outgrow our wonder years or to let our children do so.

OBSERVE. Leonardo’s greatest skill was his acute ability to observe things. It was the talent that empowered his curiosity, and vice versa. It was not some magical gift but a product of his own effort. When he visited the moats surrounding Sforza Castle, he looked at the four wing dragonflies and notice how the wing pairs alternate in motion. When he walked around town, he observed how the facial expressions of people relate to their emotions, and he discerned how light bounces off differing surfaces. He saw which birds move their wings faster on the upswing than on the downswing, and which do the opposite. This, too, we can emulate. Water flowing into a bowl? Look as he did, at exactly how the eddies swirl. Then wonder why.

START WITH THE DETAILS. In this notebook, Leonardo shared a trick for observing something carefully: Do it in steps, starting with each detail. A page of a book, he noted, cannot be absorbed in one stare; you need to go word by word. “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.”

SEE THINGS UNSEEN. Leonardo’s primary activity in many of his formative years was conjuring up pageants, performances, and plays. He mixed theatrical ingenuity with fantasy. This gave him combinatory creativity. He could see birds in flight and also angels, lions, roaring and also dragons.

GO DOWN RABBIT HOLES. He filled the opening pages of one of his notebooks with 169 attempts to square a circle. In eight pages of this Codex Leicester, he recorded 730 findings about the flow of water; in another notebook, he listed sixty-seven words that describe different types of moving water. He measured every segment of the human body, calculated their proportional relationships, and then did the same for a horse. He drilled down the pure joy of geeking out.

GET DISTRACTED. The greatest rap on Leonardo was that these passionate pursuits caused him to wander off on tangents, literally in the case of his math inquiries. It ‘has left posterity the poorer,” Kenneth Clark lamented. But in fact, Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.

RESPECT FACTS. Leonardo was a forerunner of the age of observational experiments and critical thinking. When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it. And when his experience showed that a theory was flawed – such as his belief that the springs with the earn are replenished the same way as blood vessels in humans – he abandoned his theory and sought a new one. This practice became common a century later, during the age of Galileo and Bacon. It has, however, become a bit less prevalent these days. If we want to be more like Leonardo, we have to be fearless about changing our minds based on new information.

PROCRASTINATE. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally, make one small stroke, and then leave. He told Duke Ludovico that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuition to get. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” Most of us don’t need advice to procrastinate, we do it naturally. But procrastinating like Leonardo requires work; it involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas, and only after that allowing the collection to simmer.

LET THE PERFECT BE THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD. When Leonardo could not make the perspective in the Battle of Anghiari or the interaction in the Adoration of the Magi work perfectly, he abandoned them rather than produce a work that was merely good enough. He carried around masterpieces such as his Saint Anne and the Mona Lisa to the end, knowing there would always be a new stroke he could add. Likewise, Steve Jobs was such a perfectionist that he held up shipping the original Macintosh until his team could make the circuit boards inside look beautiful, even though no one would ever see them. Both he and Leonardo knew that real artists care about the beauty even of the parts unseen. Eventually, Jobs embraced a countermaxim, “Real Artists Ship,” which means the sometimes you ought to deliver a product even when there are still improvements that could be made. That is a good rule for daily life. But there are times when it is nice to be like Leonardo and not let go of something until it’s perfect.

THINK VISUALLY. Leonardo was not blessed with the ability to formulate match questions or abstractions. So he had to visualize them, which he did with his studies of proportions, his rules of perspective, his method for calculating reflections from concave mirrors, and his ways of changing one shape into another of the same size. Too often, we learn a formula or a rule – even one so simple as the method for multiplying numbers or mixing a paint colour – we no longer visualize how it works. As a result, we lose our appreciation for the underlying beauty of nature’s laws.

AVOID SILOS. At the end of many of his products presentations, Jobs displayed a slide of a sign that showed the intersection of “Liberal Arts” and “Technology” streets. He knew that at such crossroads lay creativity. Leonardo had a free-range mind that merrily wandered across all the disciplines of the arts, sciences, engineering, and humanities. His knowledge of how light strikes the retina helped inform the perspective in The Last Supper and on a page of anatomical drawings depicting the dissection of lips he drew the smile that would reappear in the Mona Lisa. He knew that art was a science and that science was an art. Whether he was drawing a fetus in the womb or the swirls of a deluge, he blurred the distinction between the two.

LET YOUR REACH EXCEED YOUR GRASP. Imagine as he did, how you would build a human-powered flying machine or divert a river. Even try to devise a river. Even try to devise a perpetual-motion machine or square a circle using only a ruler and a compass. There are some problems we will never solve. Learn why.

INDULGE FANTASY. His giant crossbow? The turtle-like tanks? His plan for an ideal city? The man-powered mechanisms to flap a flying machine? Just as Leonardo blurred the lines between science and art, he did so between reality and fantasy. It may not have produced flying machines, but it allowed his imagination to soar.

CREATE FOR YOURSELF, NOT JUST FOR YOUR PATRONS. No matter how hard the rich and powerful Marchesa Isabella d’Este begged, Leonardo would not paint her portrait. But he did begin one of a silk merchant’s wife named Lisa. He did it because he wanted to, and he kept working on it for the rest of his life, never delivering it to the silk merchant.

COLLABORATE. Genius is often considered the purview of loners who retreat to their garrets and are struck by creative lightning. Like many myths, that of the lone genius has some truth to it. But there’s usually more to the story. The Madonnas and drapery studies produced in Verrocchio’s studio, and the versions of Virgin of the Rocks and Madonna of the Yarnwinder and other paintings from Leonardo’s studio, were created in such a collaborative manner that it is hard to tell whose hand made which strokes. Vitruvian Man was produced after sharing ideas and sketches with friends. Leonardo’s best anatomy studies came when he was working in partnership with Marcantonio Della Torre. And his most fun work came from collaborations on theatrical productions and evening entertainments at the Sforza court. Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires a singular vision. But executing it often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor.

MAKE LISTS. And be sure to put odd things on them. Leonardo’s to-do lists may have been the greatest testaments to pure curiosity the world has ever seen.

TAKE NOTES, ON PAPER. Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start writing them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.

BE OPEN TO MYSTERY. Not everything needs sharp lines.

The book is based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s notebooks, inventions, art, science and discoveries about his life and work. I hope you have the opportunity to read the whole book.

What about yourself? Are there any skills or ideas you would like to harness? Has the imagination and creativity of Da Vinci helped you expand your mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

With my appreciation


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