Examining the genius of da Vinci
Last month’s selection for our book club was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo was certainly a remarkable human being, possessing a wide variety of characteristics that combined to produce a bona fide genius. Indeed, it is easy to agree with observers who consider him to be the greatest mind in history.
He was the prototype polymath, possessing a curiosity about everything he saw or experienced. His powers of observation were matched only by Sherlock Holmes’. He was completely uninhibited when it came to creativity, rivaling Rube Goldberg at his zaniest. He was a master mechanic, understanding in detail the workings of pulleys and gearing.
Of course, his greatest accomplishments and long-lasting contributions to our cultural heritage were as a painter. The “Mona Lisa” is acknowledged as the most famous painting ever produced; “The Last Supper” is nearly as popular.
Leonardo’s modest list of paintings can be explained by his wide variety of other interests and by the fact that he was a perfectionist. Nothing he painted was ever good enough for him to declare it finished. The “Mona Lisa” was begun in 1503; he was still putting finishing touches on it when he died 16 years later. Another story has him sitting for hours staring at “The Last Supper” before adding one brush stroke, then packing up and leaving.
Much of his painting success came from his mastery of optics and his understanding of how our eyes perceive a scene. He understood perspective perfectly and knew how to modify it to take advantage of the stereoscopic capability of our vision. He is credited with being the first painter to master lighting and shading and suggest a three-dimensional effect in his work.
Leonardo believed he could not properly paint the human body without understanding human anatomy, so he dissected dozens of cadavers. The record of these dissections in his notebooks (codices) is a remarkable medical textbook — one, unfortunately, that was never published. His sketches are a perfect example of the synergy of curiosity, observation and graphic skills.
Similarly, he became an expert in geology and a pioneer in paleontology so he could depict landscapes properly. Only a perfectionist would pair Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile with the exotic scene in the background.
In addition to all of his other talents, da Vinci was a master producer of theatrical productions, extravaganzas that noblemen and clergy put on to impress the populous. Leonardo was a combination of producer, director and set designer. He successfully designed a variety of machines for the theater, including a mechanical lion.
The so-called “war machines” he designed were not as impressive and, fortunately, none of them was ever built. They do not compare to Archimedes’ military engineering concepts 18 centuries earlier.
I am also lukewarm about his aeronautical technology. The fact that he studied birds in flight and concluded a man could never generate enough energy to fly is impressive. I also liked his design of a hang glider; it might actually have worked.
Had he only contributed his 15 paintings to our cultural heritage, Leonardo da Vinci would be remembered as a great man. The survival of his notebooks (26,000 pages!) provides a testament to his accomplishments in a dozen other areas, a legacy that may never be equaled.