The making of a genius: Leonardo da Vinci
I can't remember the last biography I read. I have a documented aversion to "hero-worship" which means I am wary of reading them. But then I saw this cover at the Blossom Book House.
I would never have picked this up on Amazon but the processing of buying in a bookstore is different.
Walter Isaacson is well known for his biographies (of Steve Jobs among others) but this was his first book that I've picked up.
There is a shared understanding of who is a genius. Einstein, Ben Franklin, Leonardo, Feynman and so on.
But this understanding is usually based on second, third or fourth hand knowledge. Beyond the fact that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa and some allusions to a flying contraption, I knew nothing about him.
So I decided to dive in.
This book explores both how one becomes exceptional and how people around them recognize it. There could be many ways this can happen, so this book illustrates one of them.
Isaacson also paints a vivid picture of what is happening around Leonardo. Is the source of "genius", the community around them? Is it the random events they encounter?
The book also serves as a basic history lesson for the "peak renaissance" period. The opening up of minds, art and science. The brutality and inequality of society. Famous history names like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Macchiavelli and Borgia meeting up.
Leonardo's father was a notary in Florence. It is usually not a well-paid or high status job today but it was different in the 1400s.
Rule of law was emerging. Contracts were written down and witnessed, breaches were arbitrated or litigated on.
So notaries were well-paid, respected and had the right connections with the nobility, the church and the various guilds of merchants and craftsmen.
Hereditary occupations were still the norm. But Leonardo didn't have to become a notary because he was an illegitimate child.
It was repetitive and boring so he would have sucked at it and history would not remember him.
Both his parents married other people and he had many half-siblings. But he spent time at both their places. His childhood wasn't particularly troubled.
His main privilege was that his dad could place him with the best artist studios and later get him commissions and retainers from the nobility and the rich to make art.
The rulers were usually brutal men seeking to either create diversions for the people or build cultural capital. They wanted a steady supply of art and entertainment which led to the rise of the artist and theatre community.
This privilege also helped him get off a prosecution in his young days for being gay. That would be the end of someone in the lower rungs of society.
Adjectives are used too loosely most of the time. But what do you call someone who wants to know how a dragonfly's wings or a woodpecker's tongue work?
What do you call someone who dissects bodies to find out which nerve controls how we smile or rage? Someone who makes a mould to find out how the blood swirls around in the heart?
Intensely curious and deeply observant.
Every little child has the same instinct. But most get it beaten out of them by tired parents or rigid schooling.
It is this relentless curiosity that kept him on the path to genius. He would simply keep studying something until he reached the limits of what he could learn with 1500s technology.
He didn't become a notary but he did make notes. His notes aren't just blocks of text. There are thousands of drawings.
He could have been the father of anatomical and machine drawings. His copious notes could have formed several of the most famous illustrated books in history.
When he was learning anatomy, he dissected bodies layer by layer for every part of the body. Dozens of dissections were needed as the bodies decayed soon without refridgeration.
He documented this using very modern-looking 3D type drawings (see article below), along with copious notes.
This level of curiosity has the side-effect of making sure you get to the first principles. He then combined this curiosity with deep observation.
For example, he found that the back wings of a dragonfly flap downward when the front wings flap upward!
He observed how (and why) objects become blurrier and their colour changes as they move further away. He deduced that the atmosphere interfered with the sharpness and colour. This changed how perspective was represented in his paintings.
He studied sedimentary rock layers and saw that each layer had a heavier lower part and heavier upper part. When he found fossils of sea creatures as part of this study, he came to fairly logical conclusions about how this could have happened.
On the flip-side, his curiosity meant he wouldn't rigourously complete something and publish a book. Just knowing for himself was enough and he always had another thing to move on to.
So much of what he wrote down in his notes had to be rediscovered by others a few decades to a few centuries later!
He would have published more if he was more disciplined. But then, would he be the Leonardo we know?
He was also a perfectionist and didn't deliver many of his commissions as he obsessed over improving them.
Being an illegitimate son, he didn't attend formal schooling. He bought and read books as the printing presses expanded their business and translations in Italian became available.
But his primary learning method was to setup experiments and just do things.
Leonardo spent a lot of his time in set design and making contraptions for the theatre. He made a series of machine drawings based on this experience.
In later years, he worked on military engineering. He experimented with forces and realized that circular fort walls could withstand greater forces than the usual linear walls.
Optics was one of his core subjects of study. How does the skin look with day-light, reflected light and shadows? How does the glint in the eye happen?
He poured all he learnt about optics, rocks, river flows and perspective into his art.
Why is Silicon Valley a hub for innovation? Talent flocks there from many parts of the world, universities deepen the talent pool and investors fund their wildest ideas.
You can credit the individual geniuses who built the best companies but the community plays a huge role in this.
The forgotten people are those who seed and nurture the community. They make the fertile ground on which geniuses thrive.
Florence during the Renaissance was the Silicon Valley of its day.
Leonardo went to a studio (run by Verocchio) as a young apprentice. These studios were funded by mass-produced art and some larger commissions. This is where he learned everything that everyone else knew.
There were many studios that competed with each other. These studios also helped the rulers stage pageants and plays with grand contraptions, costumes and special effects.
Florence was a city of merchants who could export culture. But they were weak militarily and they loaned Leonardo to Milan to build relations with them.
Sforza, a warlord, took over Milan and wanted to build his own cultural capital.
Milan became a hub for scholars and artists. Leonardo found this environment so stimulating that he almost abandoned painting and focused on scientific learning. Many of his studies on anatomy, optics and engineering were all done here.
His own studio had many artists who would work together to finish a commission. An artist wouldn't sign their work. But this started to change soon.
There are still debates on which paintings are Leonardo's own and which are collaborative.
The nobility who funded all this, did so obsessively. They were usually busy cutting off people's heads or ransacking towns. But they would tolerate artists delaying commissions by years!
One cannot force innovation and creativity.
By his old age, Leonardo was a legend. The King of France paid him stipends and took him to Paris. And more or less all he got was Leonardo's company.
The community around him also played a large part in recognizing his genius. They did free PR for him in their circles. A couple of hagiographic books were written in the decades after his death.
His art speaks for itself. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world.
But his modern-day genius was solidified by what others had written about him in the 1500s and the study of his own notes which came to reside with different collectors. His notes are the foundation for Isaacson's book.
Many geniuses have been forgotten because their ideas and work haven't survived. Most scholars in India, for example, didn't write down stuff for thousands of years!
So if you want to be a genius, write your stuff down! Preferably in some durable medium.