Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

  1. Leonardo was the original Renaissance Man, excelling in everything from botany to athletics to engineering and, of course, art. Isaacson took on this project because Leonardo is the epitome of making connections  across disciplines which is the basis for creativity, innovation and genius
Key Takeaways
  1. What set Leonardo apart was not “genius” but extreme observation and curiosity – he ad a passion which was both playful and obsessive.
  2. He was the master of combining art and science. Separating the two is a man-made construct and a false duality
  3. The infinite works of nature are woven together in a unity with marvelous patterns
  4. Leonardo was more human than most people realize and we can learn from his intense curiosity and imagination. His formal education was minimal and most of his abilities were honed by practice rather than being God-given like many people assume. He knew how to marry observation with imagination which made him history’s consummate innovator
  5. Year after year his to-do lists were filled with things he wanted to learn and do as well as people he wanted to meet with. Leonardo’s journal entries are the most impressive compendium of curiosity in history. It shows his curiosity as well as his weirdness. He was gay, flamboyant and his acceptance in Florence at this time was what made Florence great. They allowed people to think and be different. Florence became the greatest cultural and innovative center and creative center in the history of the world as it allowed for mass mixing of different people, skills, cultures, etc. It was unique period of history in that they praised and rewarded those who could master many different fields
  6. Isaacson’s main learning is that deep observation and curiosity of our world leads to a deeper and more meaningful life.
  7. Leonardo questioned everything and was never satisfied with accepted wisdom
  8. Leonardo was fortunate to be born out of wedlock or else he most likely would have ended up as a notary like his father and grandfather. Another benefit was that he was not formally educated, relying instead on observation and experience
  9. By handling the richest people’s money, the Medici’s, without titles or royalty behind their name, became one of the most powerful families in history. Lorenzo and some other prominent figures in the family set up the patron payment system which bred creativity which has rarely been seen before or since
  10. Observing, analyzing, and trying to find better ways to do things became Leonardo‘s method of learning – this preempted the scientific method by several hundred years
  11. Leonardo apprenticed for Verrocchio and learned from him mainly the beauty of geometry. There is harmony in proportions and that is natures brush stroke
  12. One of the many skills that set Leonardo’s art apart with his ability to use light, shade and color to make a two dimensional canvas into a painting which looks three-dimensional. ‘Chiaroscuro’ and ‘sfumato’ were two techniques Leonardo developed to make his art more lifelike and 3D
  13. Reality and scientific observation should inform but not constrain your art
  14. At 24, Leonardo was still living with his mentor and hadn’t produced anything amazing yet and was known for a less than ideal work ethic because he often left projects unfinished. He seemed to enjoy the imagination and conception of an idea more than the execution. However, there was more to it than that, as he was a perfectionist and knew he would learn and observe things in the future which he might want to incorporate or add on in the future. This was seen in several paintings where his autopsies and observation of the human body got him to change his already finished paintings so that they would be more accurate
  15. Leonardo used a technique called ‘pentimento’ which means he used light brushstrokes over and over which created a light, layered and expressive feeling in his paintings and it also allowed him to revise and rework over a period of years and sometimes decades
  16. Leonardo autopsied many bodies in order to observe how the skeleton, muscle and organs were laid out. He believed an artist should draw a figure from the inside out, starting with the skeleton and finishing with the skin and clothes and these observations helped him create some of the most lifelike and moving drawings of all time
  17. Analogy is one of the best ways to appreciate and understand nature. Because of his close observation, Leonardo noticed connections between how the human body (micro) and the earth (macro) worked similarly and how they were connected. The interconnection of nature and the unity of its patterns is a constant theme in his work. He was able to observe similarities between how blood pumped through veins and capillaries, how water made its way through branches in plants, how water flowed from rivers and tributaries. His cross-field, multidisciplinary observations and connections were unlike anything the world had ever seen
  18. Salai was a pupil and lover of Leonardo who he often painted. They fought a lot as Salai tended to steal things and slack off and eventually there seems to have been an estrangement between the two
  19. Obsession seems to be a component of genius. In one entry, Leonardo took thousands of measurements of different subjects and made comparisons and generalizations about the dimensions of a human body. His ultimate goal was the universal measure of man and how he fit into the cosmos
  20. Shadows are the most important part in helping give a three dimensional feel to the painting and that is why Leonardo spent the most time observing thinking and practicing shading. Leonardo observed that there are no definite lines or boundaries in nature so he began blending his paintings (sfumato) which went against the traditional, linear approach common at that time
  21. Leonardo dreamed more of being a great engineer than a painter and though he eventually got a chance to engineer water works and war efforts for Cesare Borgia, he was of course a better painter than engineer
  22. Michelangelo had a great disdain for Leonardo. They were very different – where Leonardo was athletic and well dressed, Michelangelo was disliked, dirty and had a disfigured nose after a fight with a fellow artist. They had a bit of a feud and rivalry which elevated all artists and made the best among them superstars
  23. The greatest anatomical work Leonardo did was on the heart. He recognized patterns due to his multidisciplinary style that others wouldn’t recognize for several hundred more years. His love of fluid dynamics, eddies, branching of veins and more all helped him understand the heart better than anyone else up to that point. Leonardo transferred this to his now famous curls of hair seen in many of his paintings
  24. A mark of a great mind is the willingness to change and drop preconceived notions. Leonardo’s gift was to seek and find patterns, establish frameworks and apply them to various fields. But equally important, he wouldn’t let these patterns blind him
  25. He used drawings, models, sketches and thought experiments to help him think, establish ideas and questions and to find gaps in his knowledge or thinking
  26. Leonardo had an uncanny ability to capture movement
  27. No moment unto itself is self containing. The past is rolled up into the moment and this influences the future
  28. Declaring a work finished stunted it’s evolution and Leonardo did not like that which is why he worked on several projects for years on end and sometimes decades. Don’t get rigid, always be willing to change, learn, grow and improve
What I got out of it
  1. More than anything, I am inspired to simply be more observant and curious about things around me. Why things look the way they do, how they might have come to be, etc. Simple questioning, thinking, observation and synthesis can take you far…