The Best Bits of: Leonardo Da Vinci  by Walter Isaacson  Simon & Schuster 2017

Vision without execution is hallucination (4).

[Disciple of Experience] Leonardo was mainly self-taught. He often seemed defensive about being an “unlettered man,” as he dubbed himself with some irony. But he also took pride that his lack of formal schooling led him to be a disciple of experience and experiment… 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 cent later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at (17) phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years. 

To that was added an intense desire and ability to observe the wonders of nature. He pushed himself to perceive shapes and shadows with wondrous precision. He was particularly good at apprehending movement, from the motions of a flapping wing to the emotions flickering across a face. On this foundation he built experiments, some conducted in his mind, others with drawings, and a few with physical objects. “First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further,” he announced, “because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way (18).

[Childhood Memories]  And it does not take a Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality,” he wrote in one of his notebooks (20). 

[Education]  One skill that was emphasized was how to draw analogies between cases, a method that Leonardo would use repeatedly in his later science. Analogies and spotting patterns became for him a rudimentary method of theorizing (31).

Being left-handed also affected Leonardo’s method of drawing. As with his writing, he drew from right to left so as not to smudge the lines with his hand. Most artists draw hatching strokes that slope upward to the right, like this: ////. But Leonardo’s hatching was distinctive because his lines started on the lower right and moved upward to the left, like this: \\. Today this style has an added advantage: the left-handed hatching in a drawing is evidence that it was made by Leonardo (32).

[Verrocchio]  Piero gave the task to Leonardo, who decided to create a terrifying image of a dragon-like monster breathing fire and belching poison. To make it naturalistic, he assembled parts from real lizards, crickets, snakes, butterflies, grasshoppers, and bats. “He labored over it so long that the stench of the dead animals was past bearing, but Leonardo did not notice it, so great was the love that he bore towards art,” Vasari wrote. When Piero finally came to get it, he recoiled in shock from what in the dim light appeared at first to be a real monster. Piero decided to keep his son’s creation and buy another shield for the peasant. “Later, Ser Piero sold the buckler of Leonardo secretly to some merchants in Florence, for a hundred ducats; and in a short time it came into the hands of the Duke of Milan, having been sold to him by the merchants for three hundred ducats.”

The shield, perhaps Leonardo’s first recorded piece of art, displayed his lifelong talent for combining fantasy with observation. In the notes for his proposed treatise on painting, he would later write, “If you wish to make an imaginary animal invented by you appear natural, let us say a dragon, take for the head that of a mastiff or hound, for the eyes a cat, and for the ears a porcupine, and for the nose a greyhound, and the brows of a lion, the temple of an old cock, the neck of a terrapin” (39).

[Draperies, Chiaroscuro, and Sfumato]  “The first intention of the painter,” Leonardo later wrote, “is to make a flat surface display a body as if modeled and separated from this plane, and he who surpass others in this skill deserves most praise. This accomplishment, with which the science of painting is crowned, arises from light and shade, or we may say chiaroscuro.” That statement could stand as his artistic manifesto, or at least a key element of it (40-1). 

When mastering drapery drawings in Vercocchio’s studio, Leonardo also pioneered sfumato, the technique of blurring contours and edges. It is a way for artists to render objects as they appear to our eye rather than with sharp contours. This advance caused Vasari to proclaim Leonardo the inventor of the “modern manner” in painting, and the art historian Ernst Gombrich called sfumato “Leonardo’s famous invention, the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.

The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke,” or more precisely the dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air,” he wrote in a series of maxims for young painters. From the eyes of his angel in the Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously (41).

[The Arno Landscape]  The glory of being an artist, he realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain (47). 

…doing something different: depicting nature for its own sake. That makes his Arno Valley drawing a contender for the first such landscape in European art. The geological realism is striking: the craggy rock outcroppings eroded by the river reveal accurately rendered layers of stratified rock, a subject that was to fascinate Leonardo for the rest of his life. So, too, is the near-precision of linear perspective and the way the atmosphere blurs the distant horizon, an optical phenomenon that he would later call “aerial perspective.”

Even more arresting is the young artist’s ability to convey motion. The leaves of the trees and even their shadows are drawn with quick curved lines that make them seem to tremble in the breeze. The water falling into a pool is made vibrant with flutters of luck stokes. The result is a delightful display of the wart of observing movement (48).

[Baptism of Christ]  An X-ray analysis of the painting confirms that the angel on the left and much of the background landscape and the body of Jesus were painted with multiple thin layers of oil paint, the pigments highly diluted, stroked on with great delicacy and sometimes dabbed and smoothed by fingertips, a style that Leonardo was developing in the 1470s. Oil painting had come to Italy from the Netherlands…(54).

This use of sfumato, the smokiness that blurs sharp contours, was by now a hallmark of Leonardo’s art. Alberti in his treatise on painting had advised that lines should be drawn to delineate edges, and Vercocchio did just that. Leonardo took care to observe the real world, and he noticed the opposite: when we look at three-dimensional objects, we don’t see sharp lines. “Paint so that a smoky finish can be seen, rather than contours and profiles that are distinct and crude,” he wrote. “When you paint shadows and their edges, which cannot be perceived except indistinctly, do not make them sharp or clearly defined, otherwise your work will have a wooden appearance.” Vercocchio’s angel has this wooden appearance. Leonardo’s does not (55).

In these acutely observed vortexes and scientifically accurate ripples, Leonardo delights in what will become his favorite pattern: nature’s spirals. The curls flowing down his angel’s neck look like cascades of water, as if the river had flowed over his head and transformed into hair (56).

[Motions of the Mind]  Alberti, in On Painting…”Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body” (87).

[Despair]  From Dante’s Inferno: “Put off this sloth,” the master said, “for shame! Sitting on feather-pillows, lying reclined Beneath the blanket is no way to fame—Fame, without which man’s life wastes out of mind, Leaving on earth no more memorial Than foam in water or smoke upon the wind” (89).

[Plays and Pageants]  The steed was followed by the horde of cavemen and savages. It was typical of Leonardo’s desire to indulge in the scary and exotic; he had an affinity for bizarre demons and dragons (115). 

[Literary Amusements]  Many of the prophecy-riddles select Leonardo’s love for animals. “Countless numbers will have their little children taken away and their throats shall be cut,” is one prophecy, as if describing a brutal act of war and genocide. But then Leonardo, who had become a vegetarian, reveals that this prophecy refers to the sheep and cows that humans eat. “Winged creatures will support people with their feathers,” he wrote in another example, and then revealed that he was not referring to flying machines but “the feathers used to stuff mattresses.” As they say in show business, you had to be there” (126). 

[Outstanding Beauty and Infinite Grace]  The horses brought him “much delight,” Vasari wrote, as did all animals. “Often when passing the places where birds were sold, he would take them with his own hand out of their cages, and having paid to those who sold them the price that was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.”

Because of his love for animals, Leonardo was a vegetarian fo much of his life, although his shopping lists show that he often bought meat for others in his household. “He would not kill a flea for any reason whatsoever,” a friend wrote. “He preferred to dress in linen, so as not to war something dead.” A Florentine traveler to India recorded that the people there “do not feed on anything that has blood, nor will they allow anyone to hurt any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci.

In addition to his prophecy tales that include dire descriptions of the practice of slaying animals for food, Leonardo’s notebooks contain other literary passages assailing meant eating. “If you are, as you have described yourself, the king of the animals,” he wrote of humans, “why do you help other animals only so that they may be able to give you their young in order to gratify your palate?” He referred to a vegetable diet as “simple” food and urged its adoption. “Does not nature bring forth enough simple food things to satisfy your hunger? Or if you cannot content yourself with simple things can you not do so by blending these simple foods together to make an infinite number of compounds?”

His rationale for avoiding meat derived from a morality based on science. Unlike plants, animals could feel pain, Leonardo realized. Hi studies led him to believe that this was because animals had the ability to move their bodies. “Nature has given sensibility to pain to living organisms that have the power of movement, in order to preserve those parts which might be destroyed by movement,” he surmised. “Pain is not necessary in plants (130-1). 

[Collaboration and Vitruvian Man]  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 (159).

[Love this chapter: Chapter 10; Scientist; Teaching Himself]  Leonardo da Vinci liked to boast that, because he was not formally educated, he had to learn from his own experiences instead. It was around 1490 when he wrote his screed about being “a man without letters” and a “disciple of experience,” with its swipe against those who would cite ancient wisdom rather than make observations on their own. “Though I have no power to quote from authors as they have,” he proclaimed almost proudly, “I shall rely on a far more worthy thing—on experience.” Throughout his life, he would repeat this claim to prefer experience over received scholarship. “He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water-jar,” he wrote. This made him different from the archetypal Renaissance Man, who embraced the rebirth of wisdom that came from rediscovered works of classical antiquity (170).

A goldsmith from Gutenberg’s hometown of Mainz named Johannes de Spira (or Speyer) moved to Venice and started Italy’s first major commercial publishing house in 1469; it printed many of the classics, starting with Cicero’s letters and Pliny’s encyclopedic Natural History, which Leonardo bought. By 1471 there were printing shops also in Milan, Florence, Naples, Bologna, Ferrara, Padua, and Genoa. Venice became the center of Europe’s publishing industry, and by the time Leonardo visited in 1500, there were close to a hundred printing houses there, and two million volumes had come off their presses. Leonardo thus was able to become the first major European thinker to acquire a serious knowledge of science without being formally schooled in Latin or Greek” (172).

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 (173).

[Connecting Experiment to Theory]    As with so many things, this empirical approach put him ahead of his time. Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages had fused Aristotle’s science with Christianity to create an authorized creed that left little room for skeptical inquiry or experimentation. Even the humanists of the early Renaissance preferred to repeat the wisdom of classical texts rather than test it.

Leonardo broke with this tradition by basing his science primarily on observations, then discerning patterns, and then testing their validity through more observations and experiments. Dozens of times in his notebook he wrote some variation of the phrase “this can be proved by experiment” and then proceeded to describe a real-world demonstration of his thinking. Foreshadowing what would become the scientific method, he even prescribed how experiments must be repeated and varied to assure their validity: “Before you make a general rule of this case, test it two or three times and observe whether the tests produce the same effects” (174). 

As a result, Leonardo became one of the major Western thinkers, more than a century before Galileo, to pursue in a persistent hands-on fashion the dialogue between experiment and theory that would lead to the modern Scientific Revolution. Aristotle had laid the foundations, in ancient Greece, for the method of partnering inductions and deductions: using observations to formulate general principles, then using these principles to predict outcomes. While Europe was mired in its dark years of medieval superstition, the work of combining theory and experiment was advanced primarily in the Islamic world. Muslim scientists often also worked as scientific instrument makers, which made them experts at measurements and applying theories (175). 

Meanwhile, Aristotle’s science was being revived in Europe during the thirteenth century by scholars such as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. The empirical method used by Bacon emphasized a cycle: observations should lead to a hypothesis, which should then be tested by precise experiments, which would then be used to refine the original hypothesis. Bacon also recorded and reported his experiments in precise detail so that others could independently replicate and verify them.

[Patterns and Analogies]  …he was able to see patterns in nature, and he theorized by making analogies…discerned recurring themes…based on similarities and analogies (176-7).

[Curiosity and Observation]  Kenneth Clark referred to Leonardo’s “inhumanly sharp eye.” It’s a nice phrase, but misleading. Leonardo was human. The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That’s important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely (179). 

[Bird-Watching]  He not only got the basic principles of fluid dynamics correct, but he was able to turn his insights into rudimentary theories that foreshadowed those of Newton, Galileo, and Bernoulli (184). 

[The Skull Drawings]  “The originality of the skull drawings of 1489 is so fundamentally different and superior to all other extant illustrations of the time that they are completely out of character with the age,” according to Francis Wells, a surgeon and an expert on the anatomical drawings. …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 (216). …it was not until 1739 that this pithing experiment would again be illustrated and described correctly (218).

[Head of a Young Woman]  The angel, like the one he painted for Vercocchio’s Baptism of Christ, is an example of Leonardo’s proclivity for gender fluidity. Some nineteenth-century critics saw it as a mark of his homosexuality, especially since the positioning and outward gaze of the disturbingly alluring angel make him seem a proxy for the artist (233).

[Fantasia and Reality]  Take, for example, his advice about looking at a wall that is “spotted with stains or has a mix of stones.” Leonardo could stare at such a wall and observe with precision the striations of each stone and other factual details. But he also knew how to use the wall as a springboard for his imagination and as a “way to stimulate and arouse the mind to various inventions.” He wrote in his advice for young artists: “You may discover in the patterns on the wall a resemblance to various landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could turn int complete and well-drawn forms. The effect produced by these mottled walls is like that of the sound of bells, in which you may recognize any name or word you choose to imagine…It should not be hard for you to look at stains on walls, or the ashes of a fire, or the clouds, or mud, and if you consider them well you will find marvelous new ideas, because the mind is stimulated to new inventions by obscure things” (263-4).

[Shapes Without Lines]  Nothing in nature, he realized, has precise mathematical lines or boundaries or borders. “Lines are not part of any quantity of an object’s surface, not are they part of the air which surrounds this surface,” he wrote. He realized that points and lines are mathematical constructs. They do not have a physical presence. They are infinitely small. “The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object; and this being its nature it occupies no space” (269). Leonardo’s insistence that all boundaries, both in nature and in art, are blurred led him to become the pioneer of sfumato, the technique of using hazy and smoky outlines such as those so notable in the Mona Lisa. Sfumato is not merely a technique for modeling reality more accurately in a painting. It is an analogy for the blurry distinction between the known and the mysterious, one of the core themes of Leonardo’s life. Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience and mystery, between objects and their surroundings (269-70).

[The Return]  When Leonardo reached Florence in late March 1500, he found a city that had just lived through a reactionary spasm that threatened to destroy its role in the vanguard of Renaissance culture. In 1494 a radical friar named Girolamo Savonarola had led a religious rebellion against the ruling Medici and instituted a fundamentalist regime that imposed strict new laws against homosexuality, sodomy, and adultery. Some transgressions were punished by stoning and burning. A militia of young boys was organized to patrol the streets and enforce morals. On Mardi Gras of 1497 Savonarola led what became known as the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which books, art, clothing, and cosmetics were set aflame. The following year, popular opinion turned on him, and he was hanged and burned in the central square of Florence. By Leonardo’s return, the city had again become a republic that celebrated the classics and art, but its confidence was shaken, its exuberance dampened, and the finances of its government and guilds drained (300).

[Diverting the Arno]  Milan’s waterworks had existed for centuries, even before the Romans built their famed aqueducts in the Po Valley around 200 BC (347). Just before Pisa broke away, a major world event made Florence even more eager to control a sea outlet. In March 1493 Christopher Columbus returned safely from his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and the report of his discoveries quickly spread throughout Europe. This was soon followed by a flurry of other accounts of amazing explorations. America Vespucci, whose cousin Agostina worked with Machiavelli in the Florentine chancery, helped puppy Columbus’s third voyage in 1498, and the following year he made his own voyage across the Atlantic, landing in what is now Brazil. Unlike Columbus, who thought he was finding a route to India, Vespucci correctly reported to his Florentine patrons that he had “arrived at a new land which for many reasons…we observed to be a continent.” His correct surmise led to its being named America, after him. The excitement over what portended to be a new age of exploration made Florence’s desire to regain Pisa more urgent. [verruca means “wart”] (348). This would require moving a million tons of earth, and Leonardo calculated the man-hours necessary by doing a detailed time-and-motion study, one of the first in history. He figured out everything from the weight of one shovel-load of dirt (twenty-five pounds) to how many shovel-loads would fill a wheelbarrow (twenty). His answer: it would take approximately 1.3 million man-hours, or 540 men working 100 days, to dig the Arno diversion ditch (349).

[Draining the Piombino Marshes]  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 (353-4).

[Analogies]  “Though human ingenuity may make various inventions,” he wrote, “it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, more direct than does Nature; because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous” (403). 

[Floods and Fossils]  Leonardo thus became a pioneer of ichnology, the study of fossil traces, a field that did not come into full existence for another three hundred years (440).

[The End]  [The final words written by Leonardo de Vinci:] “perche la minestra si fredda,” he writes. Because the soup is getting cold.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing.

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