Heaven sometimes sends us beings who represent not humanity alone but divinity itself, so that taking them as our models and imitating them, our minds and the best of our intelligence may approach the highest celestial spheres. Experience shows that those who are led to study and follow the traces of these marvelous geniuses, even if nature gives them little or no help, may at least approach the supernatural works that participate in his divinity.
— Giorgio Vasari on Leonardo da Vinci, The Lives of the Artists (1550)
Is there anyone in the world who isn’t, or hasn’t been at some point, in love with Leonardo da Vinci?
Please show me how you do it. Because the more I read and learn about this man, the more I want to A) Channel his spirit; B) Adopt and apply his modus operandi; C) If all else fails, marry him (more realistically speaking).
One of the three greatest artists of the high Renaissance (the other ones being Michelangelo and Raphael), Leonardo da Vinci‘s unprecedented genius has permeated inspiration through the last five centuries, as the most ideal and masterful Renaissance man.
As a restless creator and self-proclaimed Renaissance woman trying to make a life & art collage on this piece of universal canvas I’ve been granted, I followed (and devoured) Michael Gelb’s advice in his modern classic, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci:
If you want to become a better golfer, study Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. If you want to become a leader, study Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Queen Elizabeth I. And if you want to be a Renaissance man or woman, study Leon Battista Alberti, Thomas Jefferson, Hildegard von Bingen, and best of all, Leonardo da Vinci.
But how do you determine someone’s multiplicity and overall Renaissance spirit? What makes a person more “genius” or multi-dimensional than another? And most importantly, how do you cultivate this genius in your own life?
In The Book of Genius, Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene attempt to rank the greatest (known) geniuses in history. They propose the following categories for the Genius Awards: Originality, Versatility, Dominance-in-Field, Universality-of-Vision and Strength & Energy.
10. Albert Einstein
9. Phidias (architect of Athens)
8. Alexander the Great
7. Thomas Jefferson
6. Sir Isaac Newton
4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
3. The Great Pyramid Builders
2. William Shakespeare
And the Award to the Greatest Genius of All Time goes to… (wait for it)…
Mr. Da Vinci.
But maybe the most convincing geniusmeter to date is Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, introduced in his classic, Frames of Mind (1983). Gardner argues that each of us possesses at least seven types of intelligence. He offers some genius examples, with Leonardo da Vinci, again, excelling in each one of these areas (as paraphrased in Gelb’s tribute to Da Vinci):
– Logical / Mathematical: Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie.
– Verbal / Linguistic: William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges.
– Spatial / Mechanical: Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Buckminster Fuller.
– Musical: Mozart, George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald.
– Bodily / Kinestetic: Morihei Ueshiba, Muhammad Ali, F.M. Alexander.
– Interpersonal / Social: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth I.
– Intrapersonal (Self-knowledge): Viktor Frankl, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these genius hot zones? What type of intelligence have you been developing most? On which of these fronts do you excel? If more than one, you would rank higher on the Renaissance geniusmeter. But the amazing thing about Leonardo da Vinci is that he scored them all, with wholeness, mastery and humility symmetrically combined into one hell of a human.
Yet, there is another important element that characterized the Renaissance creator, which Leo equally mastered: the Art of Communicating his genius, of sharing his gifts with the world — a.k.a. shameless and brilliant self-promotion.
In addition to a reawakening of classical beauty, a renewed awareness of human potential and a restless, curious spirit, the Renaissance artist was also driven by commercialism. You know, the stuff that pays the bills.
If there is any hope for our everyday Art to marry Sustainability, the often negative connotation of commercial artwork and artistic self-promotion need to be thoroughly revised by our starving artist spirit malnourished on false modesty, and quickly upgraded to creative marketer mentality, along with a renewed Renaissance passion and drive to commercialize and make our work profitable. And thus, our art and life, sustainable.
As Lisa Jardin illustrates in Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, during this magical period of awakening in human history,
A painter’s [artist’s] reputation rested on his ability to arouse commercial interest in his works of art, not on some intrinsic criteria of intellectual worth.
Renaissance artists were first and foremost, CEOs of their dreams and entrepreneurs of their art. This brings up another nearly forgotten practice: the need for Patrons — people who value the Arts as our most treasured social and historical human footprint on Earth and they are willing to support the unreasonable artists and thinkers of our time in taking quantum leaps of creativity and as a result, moving the human race forward.
Is there a more valuable use of one’s money?
Truth be re-examined, at the end of the day, artists save more lives than doctors because Art is the only physician (with Inspiration, the nurse) that can operate through the thickest walls we build around our unique Truth, and perform the most elaborate by-passes on the sick and dying Heart. It heals by inspiration and it saves lives that are greater than just the body and fuller than just the mind. It re-births the obtuse, cynical, adventureless, tired spirit trapped inside your skeleton, into its own personalized expansive Renaissance.
Ludovico Sforza, regent of Milan in 1482, would have agreed. He became Leonardo Da Vinci’s patron, supporting his creation for 16 fruitful years. The following is the cover letter our favorite genius in history sent him to ensure himself the position. “I wish to work miracles,” was one of Leonardo’s mantras. And that’s exactly what he did with his life and work.
So let’s be overwhelmed by his multiplicity and then applaud and adopt his boldness:
Having, most illustrious lord, seen and considered the experiments of all those who pose as masters in the art of inventing instruments of war, and finding that their inventions differ in no way from those in common use, I am emboldened, without prejudice to anyone, to solicit an appointment of acquainting your Excellency with certain of my secrets.
I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable, with which to pursue and defeat the enemy; and others more solid, which resist fire or assault, yet are easily removed and placed in position; and I can also burn and destroy those of the enemy.
In case of a siege I can cut off water from the trenches and make pontoons and scaling ladders and other similar contrivances.
If by reason of the elevation or the strength of its position a place cannot be bombarded, I can demolish every fortress if its foundations have not been set on stone.
I can also make a kind of cannon which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail, and of which the smoke causes great terror to the enemy, so that they suffer heavy loss and confusion.
I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages either straight or winding, passing if necessary underneath trenches or a river.
I can make armoured wagons carrying artillery, which shall break through the most serried ranks of the enemy, and so open a safe passage for his infantry.
If occasion should arise, I can construct cannon and mortars and light ordnance in shape both ornamental and useful and different from those in common use.
When it is impossible to use cannon I can supply in their stead catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other instruments of admirable efficiency not in general use. In short, as the occasion requires I can supply infinite means of attack and defense.
And if the fight should take place upon the sea I can construct many engines most suitable either for attack or defense and ships which can resist the fire of the heaviest cannon, and powders or weapons.
In time of peace, I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.
I can further execute sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, also in painting I can do as much as anyone else, whoever he may be.
Moreover, I would undertake the commission of the bronze horse, which shall endue with immortal glory and eternal honour the auspicious memory of your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.
And if any of the aforesaid things should seem to anyone impossible or impracticable, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.
Leonardo Da Vinci
He got the job.
As for his actual resume, which can only be fully appreciated in retrospect, here are some of the inventions and creations Mr. Da Vinci is responsible for and how he set the basis for modern scientific thinking.
– As an inventor: He made plans for a helicopter, a parachute, the extendable ladder, the three-speed gear shift, the bicycle, folding furniture, an olive press, automated musical instruments, a water-powered alarm clock. He also pioneered the concept of automation, by designing machines that can help increase our productivity.
– As a painter: He was the first to fully explore the contrast between shadow and light in painting, a revolutionary shift in Art and one of the trademarks of the Renaissance.
– As a military engineer: He made plans for the machine gun, submarine, guided missile, mortar and the armored tank. Although he was openly opposed to war, his purpose for designing war instruments was “to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty.” (Notebooks)
– As an anatomist: He pioneered comparative anatomy, he was the first to draw cross sections of the human body and the first to conduct extensive experiments on the child in the womb.
– As a botanist: He pioneered modern botanical science, discovered and described leaf arrangement in plants as well as geotropism (the growth of a living organism in response to gravity) and heliotropism (the attraction and growth of plants towards the sun).
– As a geologist and physicist: He was the first to document soil erosion.
– As an astronomist: He anticipated major scientific breakthroughs to come in the following years: 40 years before Copernicus he discovered that the “Il Sol No Si Muove” (the sun doesn’t move) and that the earth is not the center of the universe, he suggested the telescope 60 years before Galileo and 200 years before Newton he anticipated the law of gravitation.
Additionally, he made significant discoveries and advancements in hydrodynamics, cartography, human disection and alchemy.
Much has been written about Leonardo’s intriguing profile and motives. In The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, Daniel Boorstin notes that,
Unlike Dante, he had no passion for a woman. Unlike Giotto, Dante, or Brunelleschi he seemed to have had no civic loyalty. Nor devotion to church or Christ. He willingly accepted commissions from the Medici, the sforzas, the Borgias, or French kings — from the popes or their enemies. He lacked the sensual worldliness of a Bocaccio or a Chaucer, the recklessness of a Rabelais, the piety of a Dante, or the religious passion of a Michelangelo.
Yet the large amount of work he left behind and his unfinished notes suggest that his highest aspirations were fueled by a pure and elevated sense of beauty, an unquenchable thirst for life and a highly inquisitive spirit.
As he stated in his notebooks,
I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of the mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation, the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires some time to travel. How the various circles of water from around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.
But you don’t have to be a master at everything or change your name to Leo da Vinci in order to honor and reawaken your own Renaissance spirit.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the ultimate Renaissance is not a historical period, a phase or a fancy label, but a multi-dimensional, colorful, imaginative, abundant and creative way of life.
It’s enough with learning to be the master of your own life, the CEO of your art or craft, the artist of your destiny. And the best way to celebrate this multi-layered existence now running through your veins, is by finally coming to terms with your paradoxical, irresolute, unlimited creative essence and embracing the beautiful mess that you are at any given moment, with an overdose of passion, your face shaped like a question mark and an extra shot of integrity.
Renaissance people ultimately just say Yes to life — in all its splendid infinite complexity.
The mere acceptance of your Da Vincian, Renaissance nature, opens you up to a rich world of possibility in constant expansion — guided by intuition, fueled by imagination and built by creativity — a world that is directly interconnected to everything and everyone else around you.
It takes you from the black or white, yes or no and all or nothing to the definitely maybe now. From a simplistic, boring and limited “youness” into a more exquisitely complicated, multi-talented legion. You go from playing a note to being a symphony.
And it sounds nice.
*Got the hots for Da Vinci? Read more everyday genius here: 7 ways to apply Leonardo da Vinci’s creative principles to your life.