Leonardo Da Vinci summary
Key takeaway lessons for us all
Be curious, relentlessly curious. “I have no special talents,” Einstein once wrote to a friend. “I am just passionately curious.” Leonardo actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity.
Seek knowledge for its own sake. Not all knowledge needs to be useful. Sometimes it should be pursued for pure pleasure. Leonardo did not need to know how heart valves work to paint the Mona Lisa, nor did he need to figure out how fossils got to the top of mountains to produce Virgin of the Rocks. By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of his era.
Retain a childlike sense of wonder. At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over everyday phenomena. We might savor the beauty of a blue sky, but we no longer bother to wonder why it is that color. Leonardo did. So did Einstein, who wrote to another friend, “You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” We should be careful to never outgrow our wonder years, or to let our children do so.
Observe. Leonardo’s greatest skill was his acute ability to observe things. It was the talent that empowered his curiosity, and vice versa.
Start with the details. In his notebook, Leonardo shared a trick for observing something carefully: Do it in steps, starting with each detail.
See things unseen. Leonardo’s primary activity in many of his formative years was conjuring up pageants, performances, and plays. This helped with creativity and imagining how things might work and experiments designed.
Go down rabbit holes.
Respect facts. Leonardo was a forerunner of the age of observational experiments and critical thinking. When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it.
Procrastinate. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave. He told Duke Ludovico that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to gel. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”
Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Think visually. Leonardo was not blessed with the ability to formulate math equations or abstractions. So he had to visualize them, which he did with his studies of proportions, his rules of perspective, his method for calculating reflections from concave mirrors, and his ways of changing one shape into another of the same size. Too often, when we learn a formula or a rule—even one so simple as the method for multiplying numbers or mixing a paint color—we no longer visualize how it works. As a result, we lose our appreciation for the underlying beauty of nature’s laws.
Avoid silos. At the end of many of his product presentations, Jobs displayed a slide of a sign that showed the intersection of “Liberal Arts” and “Technology” streets. He knew that at such crossroads lay creativity.
Let your reach exceed your grasp. Imagine, as he did, how you would build a human-powered flying machine or divert a river. Even try to devise a perpetual-motion machine or square a circle using only a ruler and a compass. There are some problems we will never solve. Learn why.
Indulge fantasy. His giant crossbow? The turtle-like tanks? His plan for an ideal city? The man-powered mechanisms to flap a flying machine? Just as Leonardo blurred the lines between science and art, he did so between reality and fantasy.
Create for yourself, not just for patrons. No matter how hard the rich and powerful marchesa Isabella d’Este begged, Leonardo would not paint her portrait.
Collaborate. Genius is often considered the purview of loners who retreat to their garrets and are struck by creative lightning. Like many myths, that of the lone genius has some truth to it. But there’s usually more to the story.
Make lists. And be sure to put odd things on them. Leonardo’s to-do lists may have been the greatest testaments to pure curiosity the world has ever seen.
Take notes, on paper. Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start writing them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.
Be open to mystery. Not everything needs sharp lines.
The ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.
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, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.
Vision without execution is hallucination. But I also came to believe that his ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy, just like his sfumato techniques for blurring the lines of a painting, was a key to his creativity. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.
...a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.
His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity. So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people. Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.
His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years.
The glory of being an artist, he realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain. “If the painter wishes to see beauties that would enrapture him, he is master of their production,” he wrote. “If he seeks valleys, if he wants to disclose great expanses of countryside from the summits of mountains, and if he subsequently wishes to see the horizon of the sea, he is lord of all of them.”
This allows viewers to look at the eyes of the woman, which, as Leonardo declared, are “the window of the soul.” With Ginevra women were no longer presented as passive mannequins but were shown as people with their own thoughts and emotions.
He did not like to let go. That is why he would die with some of his masterpieces still near his bedside. As frustrating as it is to us today, there was a poignant and inspiring aspect to Leonardo’s unwillingness to declare a painting done and relinquish it: he knew that there was always more he might learn, new techniques he might master, and further inspirations that might strike him. And he was right.
He applied the classic analogy between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the earth: cities are organisms that breathe and have fluids that circulate and waste that needs to move. He had recently begun studying blood and fluid circulation in the body. Thinking by analogy, he considered what would be the best circulation systems for urban needs, ranging from commerce to waste removal.
In collecting such a medley of ideas, Leonardo was following a practice that had become popular in Renaissance Italy of keeping a commonplace and sketch book, known as a zibaldone.
His rationale for avoiding meat derived from a morality based on science. Unlike plants, animals could feel pain, Leonardo realized. His studies led him to believe that this was because animals had the ability to move their bodies.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 BC, served in the Roman army under Caesar and specialized in the design and construction of artillery machines. What made Vitruvius’s work appealing to Leonardo and Francesco was that it gave concrete expression to an analogy that went back to Plato and the ancients, one that had become a defining metaphor of Renaissance humanism: the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth.
Vitruvius described in great detail the proportions of this “well-shaped man” that should inform the design of a temple.
Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium and why the young Benjamin Franklin founded a club where the most interesting people of Philadelphia would gather every Friday. At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions.
Even though it was typical of him, we still should marvel that he would decide that before sculpting a horse he had to dissect one. Once again his compulsion to engage in anatomical investigations for his art eventually led him to pursue the science for its own sake. We can see this process unfold as he worked on the horse: careful measurements and observations are recorded in his notes, which lead to scores of diagrams, charts, sketches, and beautiful drawings in which art and science are interwoven.
Thus Leonardo became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom. More important, he came to see that the progress of science came from a dialogue between the two. That in turn helped him realize that knowledge also came from a related dialogue: that between experiment and theory.
With his keen observational skills across multiple disciplines, he discerned recurring themes. As the philosopher Michel Foucault noted, the “protoscience” of Leonardo’s era was based on similarities and analogies.13 Because of his intuitive feel for the unity of nature, his mind and eye and pen darted across disciplines, sensing connections. “This constant search for basic, rhyming, organic form meant that when he looked at a heart blossoming into its network of veins he saw, and sketched alongside it, a seed germinating into shoots,” Adam Gopnik wrote. “Studying the curls on a beautiful woman’s head he thought in terms of the swirling motion of a turbulent flow of water.”14 His drawing of a fetus in a womb hints at the similarity to a seed in a shell.
He saw both machines and humans as apparatuses designed to move, with analogous components such as cords and sinews. As he did with his anatomy drawings of dissected bodies, he drew machines disassembled—using exploded and layered views—to show how motion is transferred from gears and levers to wheels and pulleys, and his cross-disciplinary interests allowed him to connect concepts from anatomy to engineering.
Leonardo increasingly came to realize that mathematics was the key to turning observations into theories. It was the language that nature used to write her laws. “There is no certainty in sciences where mathematics cannot be applied,” he declared.1 He was correct.
...as far as is now known, he became the first person in history to describe fully the human dental elements, including a depiction of the roots that is almost perfect.
But there was something grander involved. Leonardo had set for himself the most magnificent of all tasks for the mind of mankind: nothing less than knowing fully the measure of man and how he fits into the cosmos. In his notebook, he proclaimed his intention to fathom what he called “universale misura del huomo,” the universal measure of man.17 It was the quest that defined Leonardo’s life, the one that tied together his art and his science.
“Between light and darkness there is infinite variation, because their quantity is continuous,” he wrote. That was not a radical proposition. But Leonardo then took a further step. Nothing in nature, he realized, has precise mathematical lines or boundaries or borders.
This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the route of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway. Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality.
“Leonardo was handsome, urbane, eloquent and dandyishly well dressed,” wrote Michelangelo’s biographer Martin Gayford. “In contrast, Michelangelo was neurotically secretive.” He was also “intense, disheveled, and irascible,” according to another biographer, Miles Unger. He had powerful feelings of love and hate toward those around him but few close companions or protégés. “My delight is in melancholy,” Michelangelo once confessed. Whereas Leonardo was disinterested in personal religious practice, Michelangelo was a pious Christian who found himself convulsed by the agony and the ecstasy of faith. They were both gay, but Michelangelo was tormented and apparently imposed celibacy on himself, whereas Leonardo was quite comfortable and open about having male companions. Leonardo took delight in clothes, sporting colorful short tunics and fur-lined cloaks. Michelangelo was ascetic in dress and demeanor; he slept in his dusty studio, rarely bathed or removed his dog-skin shoes, and dined on bread crusts. “How could he fail to envy and detest the easy charm, the elegance, refinement, amiable sweetness of manner, dilettantism, and above all the skepticism of Leonardo, a man of another generation, said to be without religious faith, around whom there constantly strutted a crowd of beautiful pupils, led by the insufferable Salai?” wrote Serge Bramly.
He was a perfectionist faced with challenges other artists would have disregarded but that he could not. So he put down his brushes. That behavior meant he would never again receive a public commission. But it is also what allowed him to go down in history as an obsessed genius rather than merely a reliable master painter.
More likely is that Leonardo was not legally an heir and, with their relationship strained, Piero (his father) felt no reason to change that. He had brought Leonardo into this world as an illegitimo, had not legitimated him as a child, and on his death delegitimized him yet again.
In most of his studies of nature, Leonardo theorized by making analogies. His quest for knowledge across all the disciplines of arts and sciences helped him see patterns. Occasionally this mode of thinking misled him, and it sometimes substituted for reaching more profound scientific theories. But this cross-disciplinary thinking and pattern-seeking was his hallmark as the quintessential Renaissance Man, and it made him a pioneer of scientific humanism.
Just as Leonardo’s anatomy informed his art, so was the reverse true: his artistic, sculpting, drawing, and engineering skills crossed disciplines and aided his anatomical studies. In a groundbreaking experiment, he used sculpture and casting techniques to map the hollow cavities, known as cerebral ventricles, in the human brain. From his studies of ways to cast the great horse monument in Milan, Leonardo knew how to inject molten wax into the brain and provide ventilation holes for the air and fluids in the cavities to escape.
Leonardo had for the first time in history injected a molding material into a human cavity. It was a technique that would not be replicated until the studies by the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch more than two centuries later. Along with his discoveries about heart valves, it was Leonardo’s most important anatomical breakthrough, and it happened because he was a sculptor as well as a scientist.
For his entire career, Leonardo was fascinated by the swirls of water eddies, wind currents, and hair curls cascading down a neck. He applied this knowledge to determining how the spiral flow of blood through a part of the aorta known as the sinus of Valsalva creates eddies and swirls that serve to close the valve of a beating heart.
As usual, Leonardo saw patterns across disciplines and used analogies as a method of inquiry. At the time of his fetus drawing, he had reengaged in his study of plants. Just as he had made an analogy between the branching of plants and rivers and blood vessels, so he noticed the similarities between the way plant seeds and human embryos develop. Plants have a stalk, known as a funiculus, that connects the seed to the wall of its ovule until the seed becomes ripe, and Leonardo realized that it served the same purpose as an umbilical cord.
The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. 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 or to be part of the progress of history. Some have even said that he wrote in mirror script partly to guard his discoveries from prying eyes; I do not think that is true, but it is indisputable that his passion for gathering knowledge was not matched by one for sharing it widely.
Modern anatomy instead began twenty-five years after Leonardo’s death, when Andreas Vesalius published his epochal and beautifully produced On the Fabric of the Human Body. That was the book that Leonardo—perhaps in conjunction with Marcantonio della Torre, had he not died young from the plague—could have preceded and surpassed. Instead, Leonardo’s anatomical work had minimal influence. Over the years, and even centuries, his discoveries had to be rediscovered by others. The fact that he didn’t publish served to diminish his impact on the history of science. But it did not diminish his genius.
[On the Mona Lisa] What began as a portrait of a silk merchant’s young wife became a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion, made memorable through the mysteries of a hinted smile, and to connect our nature to that of our universe. The landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined.
In the Mona Lisa, the pupil of her right eye is slightly larger. Leonardo incorrectly believed that our eyes dilate separately when exposed to light, but in this case he shows the pupil of the eye facing the light as being smaller. This seems confusing. Was he observant enough to notice a case of anisocoria, in which one eye is more dilated than the other, which occurs in 20 percent of humans? Or was it that he knew that pleasure also causes eyes to widen and was indicating, by showing one of her eyes dilating faster than the other, that Lisa was pleased to see us? Then again, maybe this is being too obsessive about a tiny, perhaps irrelevant, observation. Call it the Leonardo Effect. His skill of observation was so acute that even an obscure anomaly in his paintings, such as an uneven dilation of pupils, causes us to wrestle, perhaps too much, with what he might have noticed and thought. If so, it is a good thing. By being around him, viewers are stimulated to observe the little details of nature, like the cause of a dilated pupil, and to regain our sense of wonder about them.
Also a bit puzzling is the issue of Lisa’s eyebrows, or lack thereof. A more plausible explanation is based on what seems to be two faint and blurry oblong patches where the eyebrows should have been, which suggest that they were painted as Vasari described, each hair meticulous, but Leonardo took so long to do them that he painted them over a layer of oil that had completely dried.
The infrared images reveal something that is likewise amazing but also, because we are dealing with Leonardo, not surprising: he painted the embroidered patterns on the bodice even in the places where he would later cover it by painting another layer of garment, so that we can faintly sense its presence even where we cannot see.
Dozens of experts have studied the Mona Lisa to determine the scientific reasons for this effect. One is that in the three-dimensional real world, shadows and light on a face shift as our vantage changes, but in a two-dimensional portrait this is not the case. Consequently, we have the perception that eyes staring straight out are looking at us, even if we are not directly in front of the painting. Leonardo’s mastery of shadows and lighting helps make the phenomenon more pronounced in the Mona Lisa.
Scientists recently found a technical way to describe all of this. “A clear smile is much more apparent in the low spatial frequency [blurrier] images than in the high spatial frequency image,” according to Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone. “Thus, if you look at the painting so that your gaze falls on the background or on Mona Lisa’s hands, your perception of her mouth would be dominated by low spatial frequencies, so it would appear much more cheerful than when you look directly at her mouth.” A study at Sheffield Hallam University showed that Leonardo used the same technique not only on La Belle Ferronnière but also on the recently discovered drawing La Bella Principessa.21 So the world’s most famous smile is inherently and fundamentally elusive, and therein lies Leonardo’s ultimate realization about human nature. His expertise was in depicting the outer manifestation of inner emotions. But here in the Mona Lisa he shows something more important: that we can never fully know true emotion from outer manifestations. There is always a sfumato quality to other people’s emotions, always a veil.
The Mona Lisa became the most famous painting in the world not just due to hype and happenstance but because viewers were able to feel an emotional engagement with her. She provokes a complex series of psychological reactions, which she herself seems to exhibit as well. Most miraculously, she seems aware—conscious—both of us and of herself. That is what makes her seem alive, the most alive of any portrait ever painted. It is also what makes her unique, one of humankind’s unsurpassed creations. As Vasari said, “It was painted in a way to make every brave artist tremble and lose heart.”
That month, Giuliano de’ Medici died. Beginning during his early career in Florence, Leonardo’s relationship to the Medici family had been uncomfortable. “The Medici made me and destroyed me,” he wrote cryptically in his notebook at the time of Giuliano’s death.2 He then accepted the French invitation, and in the summer of 1516, before the snows made the Alps impassable, he left Rome to join the court of the king who would be his final and most devoted patron. Leonardo had never been out of Italy before. He was sixty-four but looked older and knew this was likely to be his last journey. His entourage was accompanied by several mules that carried his household furniture, trunks of clothing and manuscripts, and at least three paintings he was still obsessively perfecting: the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist, and the Mona Lisa.
Francis became “completely enamored” with Leonardo, according to the sculptor Cellini. “He took such pleasure in hearing him discourse that there were few days in the year when he was parted from him, which was one of the reasons why Leonardo did not manage to pursue to the end his miraculous studies.” Cellini later quoted Francis declaring that he “could never believe there was another man born in this world who knew as much as Leonardo, and not only of sculpture, painting and architecture, and that he was truly a great philosopher.”
On what may be the last page he wrote in his notebooks, Leonardo drew four right triangles with bases of differing lengths. Inside of each he fit a rectangle, and then he shaded the remaining areas of the triangle. In the center of the page he made a chart with boxes labeled with the letter of each rectangle, and below it he described what he was trying to accomplish. As he had done obsessively over the years, he was using the visualization of geometry to help him understand the transformation of shapes. Specifically, he was trying to understand the formula for keeping the area of a right triangle the same while varying the lengths of its two legs. He had fussed with this problem, explored by Euclid, repeatedly over the years. It was a puzzle that, by this point in his life, as he turned sixty-seven and his health faded, might seem unnecessary to solve. To anyone other than Leonardo, it may have been.
There had apparently been an estrangement, one that had grown with the ascent of Melzi and the arrival of Battista. Salai was no longer at Leonardo’s side when he made the will. Nevertheless, he lived up to his reputation as a sticky-fingered little devil, one who was somehow able to get his hands on things. When he was killed five years later by a crossbow, the inventory of his estate showed that, perhaps during a visit to France, he had been given or had taken many copies of Leonardo’s paintings and possibly some of the originals, perhaps including the Mona Lisa and Leda and the Swan. Always the con artist, it is unclear whether the prices listed in his estate are true values, thus making it hard to know which were copies. Except for the Leda, which was lost, whatever original paintings Salai had were returned to France, perhaps having previously been sold by him to the king, and eventually ended up in the Louvre.
“As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep,” Leonardo had written thirty years earlier, “so a well-employed life brings a happy death.”27 His came on May 2, 1519, less than three weeks after he turned sixty-seven.
“Thereupon he was seized by a paroxysm, the messenger of death,” Vasari reports, “the King having risen and having taken his head, in order to assist him and show him favor to the end, in the hope of alleviating his sufferings, the spirit of Leonardo, which was most divine, conscious that it could attain to no greater honor, breathed its last in the arms of the King.” It was a moment so perfect that it was later portrayed by many admiring painters, most notably Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. And thus we have a fitting and beautiful final scene: Leonardo cradled on his deathbed by a powerful and doting patron in a comfortable house surrounded by his favorite paintings.
As always with Leonardo, in his art and in his life, in his birthplace and now even in his death, there is a veil of mystery. We cannot portray him with crisp sharp lines, nor should we want to, just as he would not have wanted to portray Mona Lisa that way. There is something nice about leaving a little to our imagination. As he knew, the outlines of reality are inherently blurry, leaving a hint of uncertainty that we should embrace. The best way to approach his life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.
But by the end of writing this book, I even began to appreciate the genius inherent in his designs left unexecuted and masterpieces left unfinished. By skirting the edge of fantasy with his flying machines and water projects and military devices, he envisioned what innovators would invent centuries later. And by refusing to churn out works that he had not perfected, he sealed his reputation as a genius rather than a master craftsman. He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.
One reason that he was reluctant to relinquish some of his works and declare them completed was that he relished a world in flux.
Leonardo’s brilliance spanned multiple disciplines, which gave him a profound feel for nature’s patterns and crosscurrents. His curiosity impelled him to become among the handful of people in history who tried to know all there was to know about everything that could be known.
Leonardo was a genius, but more: he was the epitome of the universal mind, one who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.
The fact that Leonardo was not only a genius but also very human—quirky and obsessive and playful and easily distracted—makes him more accessible. He was not graced with the type of brilliance that is completely unfathomable to us. Instead, he was self-taught and willed his way to his genius. So even though we may never be able to match his talents, we can learn from him and try to be more like him. His life offers a wealth of lessons.