Leonardo Da Vinci – Walter Isaacson
Recommendation: HIGH (If you like a lot of history and detail)
Key Comment: Was he history’s most creative genius? What secrets can he teach us?
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding” – Leonardo De Vinci
I’ve just finished reading the biography of ‘Leonardo Da Vinci‘ I bought in Queenscliff, Victoria as we were finishing writing Strategisation. Written by Walter Isaacson who is the best-selling author of biographies on Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin. I’d read the first two which were profoundly insightful and gave a different perspective on their subjects. This book is deeply researched and a heavy but worthwhile read – you’ve just got to stick with it.
While many people will know Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, many of us (me included), don’t know that he never finished it! It seems that while he probably started the painting in 1503, he was still dabbling around until the year of his death in 1518. The number of projects he started but never finished and his exceptional observation of detail , are amongst the most noteworthy characteristics of the great man.
A creative genius considerably ahead of his time, his driving force and focus was always on the gaining of knowledge for its own sake. He didn’t tell a lot of people about what he was working on and as a consequence many of his ideas were buried with him. 500 years after his death things he postulated were still being rediscovered.
The book is filled with wonderful images and explanations of Da Vinci’s work. The chapter on ‘The Science of Art’ is a particular highlight, demonstrating his argument that painting should move from being seen as a mechanical craft to the supreme form of liberal art due to the link with the science of optics and mathematics of perspective. Da Vinci’s creativity combined observation with imagination, bordering reality with fantasy to give a fresh perspective.
Isaacson delves into the background of his life during the Renaissance period in Italy and his relationships with various men in his life. There’s also lots of gory dissection details (not for the faint -hearted) of cadavers and other animals with images of hearts, brains and skeletons alongside various flying contraptions and his fascination with water.
The conclusions Isaacson highlights in learning from Leonardo De Vinci’s life and genius are worth their weight in gold and are as applicable today as they were 600 years ago. I’ve summarised some of these below, but to really appreciate just how innovative he was you need to read the biography in full:
- Be curious, relentlessly curious – being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around you is something we can all do.
- Seek knowledge for its own sake – pure curiosity enables us to explore more horizons and see more connections.
- Retain a childlike sense of wonder – continue to puzzle over every day phenomena, encourage your children ask all those questions
- Observe – with an open mind. It’s about the details and the different perspectives.
- Start with the details – “if you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them” – we are still exploring the depths of the universe, the oceans, and the components of the atom.
- See things unseen – One of Leonardo’s primary activities was to conjure pageants and plays. He combined fantasy with reality to create birds in flight.
- Go down rabbit holes – Drill down for the pure joy of “geeking it out” as Isaacson puts it.
- Get distracted – be prepared to wander off on tangents to create connections.
- Respect Facts – be fearless about changing your mind based on new information, something the world needs to think more about today.
- Procrastination – creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to gel. This requires hard work gathering all the possible ideas and connections to simmer. Too often today we don’t have the patience or time.
- Let perfect be the enemy of good – Leonardo walked away from many works he couldn’t perfect; Steve Job’s stopped the shipment of the original Macintosh to make the circuit boards look beautiful. It’s a balancing act. Jobs also adopted the maxim, ‘Real artists ship” I wonder how Da Vinci would have felt about that?
- Think visually – if we can visualise how something works we can appreciate the beauty of nature’s laws
- Avoid silos – My favourite! Da Vinci transformed painting because he roamed across arts, sciences, engineering, and the humanities. He understood how light strikes the retina, giving him a unique understanding of perspective to help him paint The Last Supper
- Indulge fantasy – just as Leonardo blurred the lines between science and art he did the same with reality and fantasy, his flying machines are testament to that.
- Create for yourself, not just for patrons – Leonardo refused to do work when it was of no interest but, like the Mona Lisa, when he chose to do so he’d work on if for the rest of his life
- Collaborate – genius is not the purview of loners, many of Leonardo’s paintings and ideas were developed with others. Vitruvian Man was shared with others before its final sketching. As Isaacson puts it, “Innovation is a team sport, creativity is a collaborative endeavour.”
If you’re interested in what drives creativity and the life story of one of the most extraordinary people to have walked this planet, written in a way that guides you through his lessons and what made him tick, this book is for you!