• Piyumi Kapugeekiyana

On the (relatable) genius of Leonardo da Vinci

I recently read Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci cover to cover.

It's easily the best book I've read all year and quite possibly, one of the most satisfying reads of my life.

Obviously, Leonardo is famed for his paintings. Among them, we have the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Lady with an Ermine and my personal favourite - Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Leonardo pioneered the use of techniques like sfumato and his work demonstrated a stunning grasp of perspective and comparative anatomy as well as excruciating attention to detail - whether this meant reproducing the intricate threadwork on a piece of brocade, ensuring botanical accuracy in his paintings based on the season of the year or etching every last striation on a piece of rock. He understood the optics of how light hit an object from various angles and what this meant for the painting process, which meant he rendered fabrics with a beguiling fluidity. Where his contemporaries mistakenly incorporated white paint to desaturate colours in areas of greatest light exposure on a painting, Leonardo reasoned that light only exposed the true qualities of a colour and saved the most saturated pigment for these particular areas. To create contrast, he mixed in small quantities of black pigment to darken the hues and develop shadows - a practice that artists today might take for granted.

Yet, to extoll the merits of Leonardo as a painter alone is to do an immense disservice to his predilection for focused observation and exploration in diverse domains. Reading about Leonardo's life does not make one feel daunted by the breadth of his intellectual prowess - arguably, this has a lot to do with the humor and clarity with which Isaacson brought him to life on the page. But it is more than that. As Isaacson described it, Leonardo's genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves."

It's difficult to to summarize everything I got out of this read but here are a few of the big lessons I took away:

  • Nurture curiosity. Pursue areas of research and inquiry for its own sake and for however little or long it takes.

Leonardo was known for picking up subjects that caught his fancy and spending as much time as decades of dogged research or as little time as it took to hold a conversation with a subject matter expert in Florence or Milan. His inquiries ranged from detailed dissections of the human body to experiments with fluid dynamics to seemingly random curiosities (Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders. Observe the goose's foot. Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when water is heavier and thicker than air?)

Leonardo's notebooks documenting his anatomical dissections and observations of the human body are practically a seminal human biology textbook. They feature 240 drawings and 13,000 words describing every bone, muscle group and major organ in the body. He was the first to correctly depict the human skull and dental elements; the first to show accurately theorize how blood flows through the heart. It makes for a remarkable body of work.

And yet no one commissioned or directed the course of Leonardo's research - it was his own unadulterated curiosity that steered the process and once sated, the inquiry wound to a natural close. With the invention of the printing press in his lifetime, publishing was a worthy endeavor for men with areas of intellectual expertise. But Leonardo's copious notes were evidently for his own edification. The man did not trouble himself with publishing a single word of his research - which meant his discoveries were lost for a time and the full breadth of his genius only came to light much later. (But think of the freedom this afforded!)

  • When delving into a new subject, start before you're ready, don't bother with silos and refuse to be limited by a lack of formal schooling:

It surprised me to learn that Leonardo was an avid practitioner of the 'fake it till you make it' school of thought. In a job application letter to the Duke of Milan, he made brilliant claims to knowledge and ability that were completely unfounded at the time. It was the modern-day equivalent of lying on your CV. Yet, these were not lies so much as they were a declaration of future intent. Over the course of his life, Leonardo made good on every single claim. His complete unwillingness to be shackled by the limits of formal schooling meant that Leonardo was a lifelong learner who wore many hats: Court impressario, city planner, hydraulic engineer, military innovator, architect, painter, sculptor, writer, orator, scientist, anatomist, astronomer, musician, inventor and much more. It also meant that every body of knowledge he added to his repertoire fed into another - his obsession with the swirls and eddies in water made its way into his paintings, triggered his experiments in fluid dynamics (documented in Codex Leicester) and eventually informed his understanding of just how the blood flows through the heart.

  • You don't have to live your life trying to be 'practical' about every single intellectual pursuit. Decide on your priorities and create in alignment with them.

Leonardo conceived of a great many machines and innovations that existed only in the realm of fantasia. From his flying machines to scythed chariots to perpetual motion machines to squaring the circle, not every intellectual endeavour of Leonardo's was a reasonable means to a pragmatic end. He spent hours and hours embroiled in riddles that only truly appealed to him, sketching exploded views of machinery that would never leap out of the page, contemplating the cogs of inventions that would never amount to a hill of beans, working on projects that didn't earn him a single florin while abandoning those that paid his weight in gold. Leonardo never undertook a commission that he wasn't either inspired by or otherwise motivated to do, even if it meant disappointing a wealthy benefactor. He never prioritized financial success over the integrity of his artistic and intellectual pursuits. He didn't flatter patrons purely to further his position - which meant, of course, that he never quite earned the favour of patrons like Lorenzo de Medici as did peers like Botticelli- and yes, he river-danced on deadlines with gall. To his patrons and peers, Leonardo seemed like a feckless fellow but he was so faithful to the spirit of inquiry that it's hard to begrudge him anything.

  • It's never too late to pursue something you love. And it's okay to change your mind even if you've invested a lot of time and effort in a domain.

Leonardo spent the better part of two decades aspiring to be a military engineer. He made terrifying designs for a scythed chariot and a giant crossbow as well as an amusing contraption for knocking enemy ladders off your castle walls. None of this came to pass. Much later, in his 50s, the Renaissance man finally received an opportunity to live out his military fantasies in the service of the brutal Cesare Borgia. Attracted to military engineering although indifferent to the shifting political agendas of Italy, Leonardo spent 8 months traveling with Borgia's armies. Among his accomplishments were designs for a self-supporting bridge (this one actually worked), a rudimentary odometer and a military map of Imola that is considered his best contribution to the art of war. Yet, not long after there came a point when he found battle and strife to be a weary madness and he abandoned the whole enterprise. We don't find Leonardo agonizing over these decisions. He seems to pick up subjects and drop them with equanimity, never beating himself up for losing interest in a line of inquiry or pushing himself to stay the course once his interest has waned.

  • Sometimes, 'good enough' just isn't good enough.

For every painting that Leonardo completed, there are many that he never finished. Most notable among them are the Battle of Anghiari and the Adoration of the Magi. Isaacson theorizes that Leonardo's unrelenting perfectionism often led him to abandon works that he felt he would not complete to his satisfaction or standard. Conversely, he spent a lifetime adding finishing touches to those pieces that he truly committed to; transporting paintings over miles as he took up new positions. As a former perfectionist, I can't advocate this practice and I've long seen merit in Voltaire's saying “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien” (“the perfect is the enemy of the good”) but can we just recognize that a job is worth doing well or not at all?

  • Life takes all kinds of twists and turns. Disappointment and failure are par for the course. Don't stop learning and creating on account of it.

As a sculptor, Leonardo spent four years developing a large equestrian monument for the Sforza family of Milan. The project ended shortly after he'd cast the first clay model and had made arrangements for the final work in bronze. The troops of the French king Charles VIII swept through Italy and the French archers used Leonardo's clay model of the horse for target practice, destroying it.

As a budding architect, he was among a group of individuals who submitted designs for the construction of the Tiburio in the Milan Cathedral. For various reasons including his own reputation for being flaky on timelines, his designs were never picked.

As a hydraulic engineer, he came up with a way to drain/divert the Arno River to give Florence leverage over Pisa during a political standoff. The project required digging a diversion ditch by moving a million tons of earth and Leonardo calculated the man-hours necessary by doing a detailed time-and-motion study, one of the first in history. However, when digging began on the diversion ditch a new waterworks engineer ignored Leonardo's calculations and created a shallower ditch than specified. The project failed miserably and had to be abandoned. Was he dejected? Perhaps. But it didn't stop him from going on to consider a larger scheme: creating a navigable waterway between Florence and the Mediterranean Sea.

Towards the end of his life, Leonardo was asked to design a new town and palace complex for the royal court of his final patron, Charles d'Amboise, the French governor of Milan from 1503 to 1511. Leonardo developed some lovely plans but passed away before they could be realized. By then, it's likely that Leonardo knew he was on his last legs - he'd put his affairs in order by drafting a last will. What's brilliant is that he embarked on the enterprise even when he wasn't altogether sure he'd be around to complete it. He probably thought: Who knows what might happen?


There's not a lot of difference between the world Leonardo lived in and the one we inhabit today, barring the technological advancements that expedite and enhance access to information. Today, as much as in Leonardo's time, it's typical for people to feel locked-in by past educational and work experiences and locked out by the cost of formal schooling, persistent gender imbalances and North-South inequalities. We continue to live in a world where the priorities of funders/patrons dictate the course of research, arts and science, where an individual's capacity to meet outmoded performance metrics largely determines their capacity for advancement and where motivations for intellectual inquiry are muddied by practical concerns like optics, money, power and position.

Pure curiosity, learning and creating for its own sake remains a rare thing and perhaps this is why I found it especially refreshing to see this mental posture modeled so fully by someone like Leonardo da Vinci. It throws into sharp relief one's own limiting mindsets, biases and doubts about the human capacity to learn, and encourages us to doggedly move past all that.