Leonardo da Vinci: His History, Humanity & 5 Attributes You Can Adopt Today 🚀
Portrait of a Polymath
“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself... the height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.”
Leonardo da Vinci
He was a painter, sculptor, scientist, inventor and writer. He studied human biology, engineering, botany, aerodynamics, geology, zoology, hydrodynamics and architecture... to name a few. He sketched blueprints for machines that have been engineered today. He painted some of the most iconic masterpieces in human history. He had a strong understanding of nutrition and how to take care of his body. He understood the Scientific Method before it was even codified. His drawings and interpretation of the inner workings of the human heart were centuries ahead of its time. He theorized elements of flight & the Solar System before Copernicus, Galileo or Kepler posited a single thought on Classical Physics or Astronomy… and he did all of this over 500 years ago.
The man had a stunning intellect and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He was clearly a genius and adept at everything he turned his attention towards.
Da Vinci was a Polymath:
a person of encyclopedic learning
They engage in a method of inquiry that consists of discovering, pursuing, experiencing, and knowing multiple perspectives, then synthesizing them together in a way that allows for a fairer and more complete picture of the world.
He exemplified the “Renaissance Man.” He had deep specialization across a handful of domains & respectable expertise across many more.
What can we learn from such a brilliant mind?
This article will not endeavor to give a full historical account of the man, or provide a chronology of his work. My source material has plenty of biographical accounts, so please check those links out in the footer.
I. Origins: brief account of his birth/early years
II. Exploring the Mastermind: non-exhaustive review of da Vinci’s private journal sketches/notes
III. Portrait of Imperfection: some themes from his life
IV. The Nature of da Vinci’s Self-Mastery: 5 attributes that defined the exceptional artist & scientist
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Leonardo da Vinci was born a bastard to a wealthy public official and a peasant mother in Vinci, Florence, Italy in 1452 during the High Renaissance. His father was not completely absent from his life, though da Vinci was unable to claim any inheritance to his father's name or estate. His name therefore translates to: ‘of Vinci’ with respect to his birthplace. Despite him being born an 'illegitimate' child, he was provided some education. In his mid-teens, he was apprenticed to a respected local artist.
Leonardo da Vinci was formally trained as an artist in both painting and sculpture and was accepted into the painters guild of Florence. He then spent the majority of his career between Milan, Florence, briefly Rome and then spent the last few years of his life in France. Throughout his career, he was commissioned by the church, statesmen and wealthy patrons to complete sculptures & paintings for them.
II. Exploring The Mastermind
Much of what we know about Leonardo da Vinci’s work - outside of his prominent paintings - live in his surviving journals and manuscripts. No sculptures (that we know of) exist and he never was formally published as a writer. However, he privately wrote & illustrated thousands of pages of material on human anatomy, engineering, symbolism, natural phenomena, theory, architecture and much more.
The sketches of the human heart I’ve included below were from da Vinci's invasive study of human anatomy. He would dissect cadavers, which was illegal, as he was not formally a physician. Nonetheless, da Vinci's curiosity would not be tamed. According to modern day cardiologists, Leonardo da Vinci had an understanding of valves, blood flow, coronary disease and other essential functions of the heart that were not known until we had MRI technology to confirm it.
In another paradigm shift in thinking, da Vinci was able to utilize his artistic ability to create what modern Cartographers call an iconographic map - which is a flattened perspective of a city. His map is still accurate and could be used to effectively navigate the city even 500+ years on.
Among his many talents, da Vinci also had a keen eye for engineering, machinery & weapons of war. He had designs for an automobile, fully armored tank, scythed chariot, multi-barreled canons, mortar, crossbows, catapults, automatic guns & flying machines. It was interesting to see many of the doting academics gloss over the extent at which da Vinci devoted his time and energy in dreaming up new killing machines. This clearly didn’t align to their favored perspective of the artist. While we can speak about the morality of this separately, what remains is yet more proof of the man’s uncanny ability and imagination.
Leonardo da Vinci was somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, he was a brilliant artist and humanist, studying and marveling at the entire animal kingdom and its rich tapestry of life. On the other, he was an ambitious arms designer, writing letters to Dukes promising them an arsenal of weapons that would reign chaos on their enemies and relinquish them of the very life he seemed to love so much. Some have said this speaks to a turbulent mind or tortured soul, but I don’t buy that. I believe he was a balanced individual and his explorations into various topics further confirm his uniquely heterodox approach to scientific inquiry.
Below we can see evidence of da Vinci's love of living things. This is his inquisitive mind at work, studying the nature and form of plant life.
Da Vinci had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. So much of his genius was in his ability to study science through the lens of artistry, and vice versa. That is why when we look at da Vinci’s drawings, they are both works of art & science. Da Vinci was unbound from First Principles thinking when he considered how the human heart or female reproductive system might work. He exemplified ‘thinking outside the box’ - because in many instances the ‘box’ didn’t even exist yet. He was free to muse on the nature of reality without rigid dogmas disrupting his own thought process.
III. Portrait of Imperfection
After reading much about the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, from apprentice to respected artist, what becomes very apparent is this was a man prone to the same inadequacy & failings that define all our lived experience. He was not a saint, by any stretch of the imagination. He was flawed, complex and deeply nuanced. Brilliant, yes. But, he was human.
He was jealous & envious at times.
Da Vinci did not speak highly of his younger contemporary Michelangelo. They were rivals and very clearly did not like one another. They had a very public feud where Michelangelo insulted da Vinci, and accused him of being lazy and unable to finish the commissioned works he started.
He suffered greatly with his confidence.
The great artist & polymath was extremely hard on himself, saying:
I have wasted my hours. I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.
He was no stranger to failed projects & unmet timelines.
Da Vinci did indeed have a reputation for not finishing his work, becoming easily distracted and having chronic tardiness. It’s been proposed da Vinci had fairly severe ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) that caused him to abandon many projects he started, even ones he was paid to finish.This might shed more light on his voracious curiosity as well. A contemporary of his wrote:
I have also seen him, as the caprice or whim took him, set out at midday, […] from the Corte Vecchio, where he was at work on the clay model of the great horse, and go straight to the Grazie and there mount on the scaffolding and take up his brush and give one or two touches to one of the figures and suddenly give up and go away again.
He found himself in trouble with the law.
Florentine courts accused and tried da Vinci for sodomy after receiving an anonymous tip. He was proven innocent, but his reputation in Florence was tarnished. He moved to Milan not long after due to his mired public image.
He was known to be friendly and charitable.
Leonardo da Vinci was not a brilliant recluse. While the romantic image of a tortured, hermitic genius is easy to imagine, he was known to be sociable and kind by his contemporaries. Giorgio Vasari, the first “art historian” circa 1550 described da Vinci:
Most notably, he was known for his willingness to share his blessings. He was so generous that he sheltered and fed all his friends, rich or poor.
Leonardo was human. His legacy is one we can explore comfortably. We won’t fall into the trap of elevating him to be a saintly genius that could do no wrong.
IV. The Nature of da Vinci’s Self-Mastery
Having reviewed some of his private journals and varied areas of artistic & scientific inquiry, I’d like to end with discussing the 5 attributes of da Vinci that most resonated with me. Each quote is attributed to him.
He Valued Self-Regulation and Restraint
Ask counsel of him who rules himself well.
The nuance of da Vinci is that he was known at times for incomplete projects & an erratic attention span. He was also revered for an uncompromising ability to dive into subject matter and develop a mastery over it. Is he a poster boy for work ethic? Not quite. I believe the congruency between da Vinci’s perceived ADHD & his ability to accomplish incredible works of art/scientific discovery was found through his intellectual curiosity. When he was inspired enough, da Vinci got the work done. While we can focus on the historical accounts of inaction related to various projects, there is far too much living evidence of his unbelievable output and work. Therefore, da Vinci should not be unfairly categorized. He understood himself and put in the work, no question.
He Was A Perpetual Student & Life-Long Learner
The acquisition of any knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good. For nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first known.
As I mentioned in item 2, da Vinci’s intellectual curiosity was legendary. He always kept an open mind for new ideas and possibilities. He believed consistent acquisition of knowledge to be an essential pillar of the human experience. He was not formally educated, so he sought out the answers to his own questions. This proactivity was essential in the building of his own intellect. He was not formally educated and referred to himself as a ‘man without letters.’In a world of zero search engines, far less accessibility to data and few others who shared his own sense of curiosity, da Vinci was able to learn, apply his knowledge and invent entirely new ways of seeing the world.
His Unfettered Perspective Fueled Boundless Creativity
Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
Much can be said on an artist’s perspective. However, encyclopedias can be written on da Vinci’s perspective. This is not constrained to just his artistic ability or his knack for creating depth in a painting. Da Vinci maintained such a wide cross section of inquiry, he was able to think and reason in ways unique unto himself. A brilliant example of this is his use of wax to inject into a heart so he could understand its full anatomical properties. It is posited that through is use of wax in sculpture, he was able to do this. Again, he used his perspectives and knowledge of art to uncover the mysteries of science. He believed in an interconnectedness in all things. We are only scratching the surface today on uncovering the nature of our reality. 500 years ago, this man was asking the same questions.
His Career Is Defined By Fearless Ambition
Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
Distracted at times? Yes. Lacking resolve or bias for action? Absolutely not. In one of his journal entires, Da Vinci wrote his life’s purpose was to invent the machine that would allow man to fly. It took us several centuries later to actually build up the nerve to do it. If da Vinci just followed the rules, he wouldn’t have been able to produce such remarkable advances in understanding the human form. If da Vinci accepted his ‘place’ in society as an uneducated plebeian, he would not have dared explore the range of topics with such passion. It is remarkable someone of such humble origin went on to achieve so much.
He Recognized His Own Potential & Acted
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
Nothing sours the palate quite like wasted potential. Leonardo da Vinci has provided us so many reasons we should just get after it. Here’s a man who could have easily found comfort in a successful life as an artist. Instead, he thrust himself forward into the world and challenged himself to try to solve some of life’s greatest challenges. Art is not art without hard work. No one ever gave a shit about an artist, scientist or craftsman if they didn’t do the work. Was da Vinci blessed with uncanny ability and remarkable aptitude? Perhaps. We are all blessed with unique attributes, but so many of us simply lay idle and let life pass us by. Not Leonardo da Vinci. He is testament to the power of human potential.
Thank you for reading, folks. I try to keep my articles so they do not exceed the gmail size limit and have to be truncated. However, this week’s topic was… exceptional. The depth of Leonardo da Vinci’s work is quite overwhelming, so this was a challenging endeavor to distill down the immensity of his work and impact. I hope you’ve taken something away.
I’ve learned so much this week. I hope you did too. See you next week, friends.