Great Thinkers: da Vinci (1452-1519)

by Dahlia Miller
December 2010

This is the second of two articles on great thinkers. In each article, we look at some interesting details about the life of a historical thinker who changed the way we look at the world. This month’s article focuses on Leonardo da Vinci

Pushing the Boundaries

Leonardo daVinci is the ultimate model of a man who stretched and flexed his brain’s capabilities for creativity and original ideas. He is best known for his paintings (the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’), but he was more than an artist. He was also an architect, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor.

Da Vinci had a relentless curiousity and impulse to investigate. He wanted to find out all there was to know; to think new thoughts and bring new things into being.
His quest for universal knowledge through observation, speculation and experimentation, lay the groundwork for future studies in many fields. In fact, he sketched the first parachute, first helicopter, first airplane, first tank, first repeating rifle, swinging bridge, paddle boat and first motor car, and he made observations that changed how we think about many, many subjects.

Da Vinci lived during the Renaissance, when people were looking again to ncient writers, philosophers, poets and artists for wisdom and inspiration. At the same time, assumptions were being

questioned and rules broken. Da Vinci was born right at the time that the printing press was invented; he was 40 years old when Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. This was a time of new thinking and a new-found respect for beauty and humanity.

Da Vinci loved challenging accepted notions and assumptions. He pushed the boundaries of what was known, opening himself to his pure observations of the natural world around him.

“The mind of a painter should be like a mirror which always takes the colour of the thing it reflects, and which is filled by as many images as there are things placed before it.”
da Vinci

Not an Ordinary Child

As a boy, Leonardo was endlessly curious about the natural world – water, animals, light. He’d dissect dead animals and systematically experiment, interchanging their parts and drawing his hideous creations. His love of the scientific method was apparent even in his play as a child.

Since he was an illegitimate child, da Vinci didn’t have a formal grammar school education. Though being illegitimate wasn’t considered shameful at the time, it impacted his access to formal education. He wasn’t taught Greek or Latin (and most books were written in Greek or Latin at the time). Perhaps being excluded from studying the past helped him to develop his openness to novel ideas. He learned by observation more than following the teachings of the past.

Da Vinci was schooled in reading, writing and math in preparation for an apprenticeship in a trade (artists were considered trades people at the time). He was then apprenticed in the workshop of the sculptor-goldsmith-painter, Verrocchio, who trained many of Florence’s young artists.

After a few years into his apprenticeship, da Vinci was assigned to paint an angel in one of Verrocchio’s artworks, the ‘Baptism of Christ’. Rather than using the customary egg tempura paint which was challenging to work with, da Vinci chose to use oil paints which were relatively unknown at the time. The results showed his brilliance in technique as well as artistic ability. After seeing da Vinci’s work on the angel, Verrocchio put down his brush, vowing never to paint again.

Seeking To Know It All

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
da Vinci

Da Vinci brought science and art together. He felt that artists should be adept at mathematics and geometry so as to accurately demonstrate perspective in their art (depth, relationships between objects). A pen and ink sketch from when he was 21 years old demonstrates his understanding of the degradation of light with distance (physics), his awareness of rock formations (geology) and his eye for detail.

He started keeping journals when he was 37 years old. Totaling about 15-20,000 pages, these notes express his questioning and exploration of life. They were unedited outpourings – a mixture of observations about the world around him: theories, drawings, observations and ideas.

He didn’t limit himself in his notebooks (not even with punctuation) and instead looked for how things may be connected in novel ways. These notebooks demonstrate a restlessness in da Vinci’s thinking. The pages are a jumble of ideas and lines of inquiry, jumping from topic to topic: anatomy, botany, optics, architecture, astronomy, military engineering, aerodynamics, music, painting, flight, costume design, robotics and more.

Being left-handed, he found an interesting solution to smudged ink in his writing. He used ‘mirror’ writing. Though da Vinci was writing in Italian which reads right to left like English, his journals were written from left to right as though written in a mirror, with all the letters backwards.

Da Vinci was relentlessly curious. He asked himself questions about the world around him and attempted to answer them – questions like, ‘How do birds fly?’ In fact, his interest and life-long study of birds led him to a fascination with aerodynomics and flight.

Another characteristic which was foundational to the exploration of da Vinci’s genius was his extreme willingness to move into the unknown with confidence.

As a young man, da Vinci applied to Ludovico Sforza in Milan wanting a position at court as an engineer. In his portfolio, da Vinci had drawn the plans for many military inventions: light portable bridges, naval vessels, tunneling machines, tanks. He claimed to be an architect and a military engineer though to date he’d produced only paintings and sculptures.

What made this man such a genius? Perhaps it was that he didn’t limit the extent of his interests and natural talents. In fact, he seemed to allow his mind to roam over any and all topics that caught his imagination.

The thing that impresses me the most about da Vinci is his relentless pursuit for universal knowledge. He felt that we ought to seek out and recognize the interconnectedness of nature and the reality around us. He investigated the world around him with a fervency and passion and became an expert in a wide range of fields.

What might happen if you gave yourself the license to explore the world and the creative reaches of your imagination in the same way that Da Vinci did?

Atalay, Bulent & Keith Wamsley. 2008. Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci. Washington: National Geographic.