Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci – by Walter Isaacson
Date read: 9/29/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

The amount of information in this book is incredible–biographies by Walter Isaacson are not quick reads. Throughout the book, I’d marvel at not only Leonardo, but also Isaacson’s ability to aggregate so much information and tell a compelling story. He’s brilliant in drawing out subtle themes that help tie everything together. Leonardo feels relatable and human in that his genius was self-made, built from personal experience/experiments, and dedication to his craft(s). But he also feels simultaneously distant in that the breadth of his abilities across disciplines, obsession with detail, and ability to bridge observation and imagination seem otherworldly. This book is an investment, but you’ll walk away with a reenergized curiosity and a newfound appreciation for the finer details in life. That’s what makes books like this worth it–the message resonates far stronger than what you might get out of a 200-page popular nonfiction title.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

Archetype of the Renaissance Man – combined art, science, engineering, technology, the humanities.
-Ability to make connections across each discipline is key to innovation, imagination, creativity, and genius.
-Benjamin Franklin was the Leonardo of his own era, no formal education, taught himself.
-The world has produced other thinkers who were more profound and logical, and many who were more practical, but none who was so creative in so many different fields.

Genius:
-Leonardo's was a human one, built on will and ambition (not a divine recipient live Newton or Einstein)
-He had almost no schooling, his genius was based on skills of curiosity and intense observation.
-Ability to blur the lines of reality and fantasy, marrying observation and imagination, was key to his creative genius/innovation.
-Obsession is a component of genius.

"Vision without execution is hallucination...Skill without imagination is barren." WI

Teaches us to marvel about the world we encounter each day, appreciate details, and make each moment of our lives richer.

Self-taught:
-Born out of wedlock so wasn't required to pursue family notary business. Instead, able to pursue creative passions.
-Took pride in lack of formal schooling, led him to be a disciple of experiment and experience.
-Freethinking attitude and willingness to question dogma saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking.
-Disciple of experience.

Curiosity and intense power of observation:
-Fanatical, and similar to Einstein, about things many people overlook after the age of ten ("why is the sky blue?")
-Aided by the sharpness of his eye which caught details that most of us glance over.
-"Describe the tongue of a woodpecker"
-Most distinguishing and inspiring trait was his intense curiosity.

Environment matters:
-Spent most of his career in centers of creativity and commerce: Florence, Milan, Rome.
-Few places offered better creative environment than Florence in the 1400s (interwove art, technology, and commerce). The culture rewarded those who mastered/mixed multiple disciplines.
-Surrounded himself with students, companions, patrons.
-"Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously." WI (why Steve Jobs liked to have central atrium in buildings, Benjamin Franklin founded a club).
-In the court of Ludovico Sforza (Milan), Leonardo found friends with diverse passions who could spark new ideas in each other. He moved here initially to recast himself as engineer, scientist, and inventor.
-"Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires singular vision. But executing it often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor." WI

Apprenticeship with Verrocchio:
-Leonardo began his apprenticeship under Verrocchio at age 14.
-Rigorous teaching program that involved studying surface anatomy, mechanics, drawing techniques, effects of light and shade on draperies, beauty of geometry.
-When mastering drapery drawings under Verrocchio, Leonardo pioneered sfumato–technique of blurring edges (removes sharp edges so objects appear closer to how we see them). Allows room for our imagination to fill in the rest. Outlines of reality are inherently blurry, leaving a hint of uncertainty that we should embrace.
-After apprenticeship ended at 20, continued to work and live there.

Reality should inform, not constrain.
-Leonardo redefined how a painter transforms and transmits what he observes.

Signature marks:
-Sfumato
-Luster: sparkling glint of sunlight in the eyes and curls of hair.
-Flowing curls
-Enigmatic smiles
-Twisting movements

Failures:
-Mistakes in his early twenties with light, perspective, and human reactions.
-First workshop that he opened of his own in 1477, only received three commissions in five years.
-Genius undisciplined by diligence. He frequently gave up on paintings and left them incomplete because they were too much for a perfectionist. His willingness to put down brush is also why he's known as an obsessed genius and not a reliable master painter.
-At age 30, he was known as a genius but had little to show for it. In his gloom, he left Florence for Milan.

Dedicated years and years of work to single projects:
-Would make refinements on many of his paintings for years/decades.
-Knew there was always more he might learn and techniques he might master, so he would often refuse to relinquish paintings.
-Squaring the circle took him years, his notebook filled with attempts.

Know your audience:
-Leonardo demonstrated a knack for swaying patrons because he knew his audience.
-Cast himself as an engineer, architect, and mentioned none of his paintings to Ludovico Sforza (Milan facing threats of local revolt and French invasion).

Unrealized visions:
-Design for utopian city was sensible and brilliant. Was never implemented but might have transformed cities, reduced plagues, and changed history.

Notebooks:
-Always kept a small notebook hanging from his belt
-7,200 pages currently in existence probably only represent a quarter of what he wrote, but that's more than all emails/digital documents from Steve Jobs in the 1990s.
-But he was always more interested in pursuing knowledge than publishing it. Made little effort to share his findings. Had no real understanding of the growth of knowledge as a cumulative and collaborative process. As a result, his work had less impact than it should have.
-"He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar..." WI

Looking for opportunities in every environment:
-While in the court of Ludovico Sforza, produced pageants. This was a way to channel artistic and technical skills - stage design, costumes, scenery, music, mechanisms, etc.
-Mechanical birds and wings he made during this time led him to observe birds more closely and consider real flying machines.

On Wealth:
"Men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind." LDV

Anatomy:
-Saw art and science as interwoven. Art required deep understanding of anatomy, which was in turn aided by a profound appreciation for the beauty of nature. Intense studies here made him a better artist.
-Depicted in multiple layers (which he also later did while deconstructing complex mechanisms, making drawing for each element), using exploded views, multiple angles, stacked-up layers.
-He made 240 drawings with 13,000 words of text illustrating and describing every bone, muscle group, and major organ.
-His study of anatomy informed his art, but his other disciplines also aided his anatomical studies.
-Discovered the way the aortic valve works (vortices between the cusp and its sinus), only recently validated in 1960s.

The "Mona Lisa effect" - creating a stare or gaze that seems to follow viewer around the room. Comes from drawing realistic set of eyes staring directly at viewer with proper perspective, shading, and modeling.

The Science of Art
-Wove together shadows, lighting, color, tone, perspective, optics, and the perception of movements. Helped him perfect his painting techniques. But also pursued these complexities of science for the pure joy of understanding nature.

"Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality." WI

Patterns:
-His quest for knowledge across disciplines of arts and sciences helped him see patterns. But at the same time, his multi-disciplinary approach helped him avoid letting other patterns blind him.

Mark of a great mind is a willingness to change it:
-Willingness to surrender preconceptions, and always remain open-minded was key to his creativity.
-Best example: questioned then abandoned analogy between circulation of water on earth and circulation of blood in the human body

The Mona Lisa:
-Spent the last 16 years of life making additions, distillation of all his accumulated knowledge.
-Shows the development of Leonardo's painterly skills, but also his maturation as scientist, philosopher, and humanist.
-"The science, the pictorial skill, the obsession with nature, the psychological insight are all there, and so perfectly balanced that at first we are hardly aware of them." Kenneth Clark
-Reason he wanted to paint Lisa del Giocondo was because she was relatively obscure (not a famed noble or mistress), meant he wouldn't have to take direction from a patron.
-Flow of the landscape flows in her and becomes part of her.
-Perfected Lisa's elusive smile in his anatomical drawings. Represents his ultimate realization about human nature–never fully know true emotion from outer manifestation.
-Provokes a complex series of psychological reactions (which she also exhibits) why so many find her engaging.

Deluge Drawings:
-Conveyed his belief that chaos and destruction are inherent in the raw power of nature

"Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

"Be open to mystery. Not everything needs sharp lines." WI

Awesome takeaways and lessons from Leonardo summarized on pages 519-524.