Learning from Da Vinci


The first thing that crosses our mind when we think of Da Vinci is either the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper. But Da Vinci, who died in 1519, was a lot more than a painter and muralist. The “Renaissance man,” he was also a scientist, engineer and mathematician, as well as a student of anatomy, birds, optics and geology. He even did city planning.

In the new biography by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, the author calls da Vinci “history’s consummate innovator.” It’s a beautiful book, beautifully written and illustrated. I was especially amused by the section “A Golden Age for Bastards.” Being a bastard in that time was not an especially unusual experience. But if his father had formally adopted him, he would have had to become an account and follow in his father’s footsteps. We’d never have had the work of this master. So, give thanks for bastards!

My reading of the book offers three lessons for anyone desirous of learning from da Vinci.

First, there is no such thing as a great genius, working alone. Isaacson puts it this way: “we should be wary of that word.” What da Vinci did was based on skills that he learned from others. Da Vinci left a trove of notebooks, many of them filled with to-do lists. Although they sparkle with curiosity, they show Da Vinci relentlessly seeking people from whom he could learn. “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a circle.” “Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders.” “Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” “Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferraro is walled.”

To put it in 21st century lingo, his creativity is driven by a huge network that he uses constantly. Creativity is always like that. What that means is that if you don’t know or can’t find expertise in your network you’re doing yourself a great disservice and limiting your future…


Second, curiosity offers a central role in his life. You can see it in all the random questions he asks. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” Or, “why is the fish in the water even fast than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?” Isaacson points out that the most unique characteristic of da Vinci is both the breadth and the depth of his curiosity. He works with an unlimited curiosity.

Finally, da Vinci is both a scientist and an artist. That’s an overdue understanding for our world. People seem to think that you can only be one or the other. Of course, with the push on STEM, you have to be a scientist. It’s pretty clear that when you’re dealing with a person that is only a scientist—or only an artist—you’re dealing with pretty thin gruel.

Over all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and willingness to experiment should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, the ability to question received knowledge, “to be imaginative, and like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”



Originally Posted on http://danerwin.typepad.com/my_weblog/.

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