Spending Time with Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci.

It’s a name that stands on its own, separate from all others. A magical name that evokes such strong reactions, especially among artists, writers and other creative thinkers. “He’s my hero” is a frequent refrain whenever I mention Leonardo.

Our friend Alfred Poor has a theory about why he is so fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci (as well as Benjamin Franklin). For him, they were men who “knew about everything there was to know in their world,” an incredible accomplishment in their times, but something that is no longer possible.

While Leonardo da Vinci is an important talisman and touchstone who is rarely far from my thoughts (or, at least, my subconscious), this past week I read two stories that brought him to the forefront.

The first was Michael Kammen’s review of “The Lost Battles” by Jonathan Jones for the Los Angeles Review of Books . The battles referred to in the title are paintings by Leonardo and Michelangelo. As the subtitle says, the book is about “the artistic duel that defined the renaissance.” Kammen’s review gave me just enough of a taste of the intrigues and personalities (and art history) involved in the competition between those two giants that I’m definitely planning on buying and reading “The Lost Battles.”

Then, I came across “Leonardo’s Notebook Digitized in All Its Befuddling Glory” in The Atlantic. What a great opportunity for scholars all around the globe. No longer will this collection of Leonardo’s notebooks be available to only a few who manage to get to the British Library and obtain permission, but to anyone with a computer and access. Given that Leonardo used reversed writing (readable only with a mirror) in his notebooks, I imagine that it will be that much easier to decipher digital copies that can be flipped with the click of a mouse button.

I wonder if Leonardo isn’t one of the most written about individuals in history, and that those two stories caught my eye this week, because I needed some time with him just now.
Spending time with Leonardo. I’m sure my friends will recognize the need. It’s something we all feel compelled to do periodically, whether it’s opening a book of his drawings, going to a lecture on his work, sitting in a museum in front of a painting, or reading a book or article about him. We need to be transported to this other place within us, where Leonardo speaks to us, inspires and intimidates us, and sometimes kicks us in the rear to get up and get doing.

One of my first private interludes with Leonardo was when I was about 13 or 14. I had plucked a biography about Leonardo from my parent’s library, and I couldn’t put the thick, heavy tome down. (I wish I could remember which one it was.) The stories of him constantly reaching beyond what is to what could be, what might yet be possible, fascinated me. Engineer, painter, sculptor. He saw no difference among the various fields of study opening up in that period of history. I still sometimes lay awake at night imagining his struggle to try to combine mathematics, metallurgy, and artistic composition to create a sculpture of a rearing horse. (Even with the idea of having a vanquished soldier beneath the horse, as a support, Leonardo couldn’t achieve his vision and executed the piece as a horse prancing with only one leg up.) But what struck me at that tender age was how many things Leonardo left undone. His mind was pulled in so many directions that one lifetime just wasn’t enough, and it appeared that he was easily distracted by new ideas before he could follow through on previous ones.

I remember wondering, “Is that what it is to be a genius? To never be finished?” Over the years, “to never be finished” has taken on many different meanings for me.

To always leave something undone.
To have too many ideas.
To not have enough commitment to a single idea.
To not have enough time.
To have only one lifetime, and it will never be enough.

Genius is much more than that, of course. That leap of creativity that blazes, sets minds on fire, forces us to look anew at what we thought we knew. Sometimes, it’s a spark of beauty or truth that, when we gaze on it, breaks our hearts and heals them at the same time. Other times, it’s the simple answer that no one else saw because all we could recognize was the forest, not the path.

That humanity produced a Leonardo da Vinci gives me hope. Not that I expect we’ll ever see another like him any time soon. Still, when I look at one of his drawings or read with fascination about his notebooks, I am inspired to be more, do more. To at least try to fill my own lifetime to brimming.

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