Why Can’t I Be Leonardo?

1:09:00 AM

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.
Giorgio Vasari, in the enlarged edition of Lives of the Artists, 1568,

Leonardo's Ornithopter
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Ingenuity of Leonardo’s thoughts and work have fascinated his contemporaries and people throughout centuries. He was a true polymath, a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In his notebook diaries that he was keeping during his entire life he left us amazing drawings, technical and scientific sketches and observations that prove that he was indeed a man before his time. As human civilization progressed our knowledge expanded but the number of polymaths like Leonardo decreased. Why is it so? Why is it so difficult for a modern person to become a Leonardo?

There are numerous factors which made Leonardo - Leonardo. Here are some of them.

Lack of formal education

Leonardo was a bastard child, his father was a legal notary and mother a peasant girl, and was therefore denied formal education. He did get some informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics but most of his knowledge he started to receive upon entering the art studio of Verocchio, a famous Florentine artist, at the age of fourteen. The initial educational drawback, proved beneficial to Leonardo’s creativity because his thinking did not get boxed into specialized segments. Instead, Leonardo developed a holistic approach in everything that his intellect was occupied with. This and the diversity of his interests led him to undertake all kinds of different projects which intrigued his mind and imagination.

Lack of formal education helped Leonardo develop cryptic thinking – willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty, something that modern educational system usually does not encourage.

Lack of professional expertise

Leonardo was a professional painter but he was not a professional doctor, engineer, mathematician, geologist, cartographer, botanist... Yet it did not prevent him from doing serious research on human anatomy, constructing machines, studying perspective and earth’s tectonic plates, drawing maps and detailed cross sections of plants... In Leonardo’s time one did not need specialized knowledge in a particular area to be able to do scientific research.

Leonardo often experimented with painting techniques and that did not always work well. This is the reason why many of his works were lost during time. Although he was a master painter, it seems that he was not such an expert in developing new painting techniques.

In 2003 a British television station Channel Four commissioned a documentary Leonardo's Dream Machines, and they built and tested Leonardo’s machines in the computer program. Some of them worked well while many failed to work when practically tested.

It is doubtful that a modern man could gather enough knowledge to be able to make major discoveries in different subject areas. Or even if he did try to do so, he would probably get discouraged because most of his inventions would not be good enough, they would not work properly and would need time to develop. It is obvious that Leonardo was creating without having to worry whether his designs would ultimately work or not. In the abundance of ideas and designs that he left us, there were some that were unsuccessful but also some that were simply ingenious.

Innate curiosity

During Leonardos’s time there were so many things that were unexplored and undiscovered. Leonardo would look at the world around him and ask questions - and there were no answers. There were no public libraries to go to, no Google to consult. To find answers, Leonardo had to work things out for himself. His curiosity and his unrelenting quest for knowledge led him to think of ideas that were unusual for his time and to invent machines that were impossible to construct, either because there was no technology that would allow their production or readiness to recognize their practical use.

Availability of information can kill curiosity.

Rubbing shoulders with the best

Leonardo lived in the time when there was a strong culture of new thinking. He was surrounded by people who supported creativity and had great appreciation for new ideas.

In his lifetime Leonardo was able to make friends with the most prominent people of his time. He spent his childhood in Florence, the town which was at that time the centre of Christian Humanist thought and culture. Leonardo received his artistic education in the workshop of Verocchio, the same workshop where other famous artists were educated: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi. While he was living with the Medici family, Leonardo was working in the Garden of the Piazza San Marco in Florence - a Neo-Platonic academy of artists, poets and philosophers that the Medici had established. He got to know Marsiglio Ficino, famous Neo-Platonic philosopher; John Argyropoulos, teacher of Greek and translator of Aristotle; Pico Della Mirandola, young poet and philosopher and many other artists and free thinkers.

Leonardo worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan; he lived at the courts of Venice and Bologna; rendered his services to Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. Later in his life he lived in the Belvedere Pallace in the Vatican in Rome and his last years he spent at Clos Lucé, a home given to him by Francis I, the king of France.

Being near and around the greatest intellectuals of his time must have influenced Leonardo’s thinking and motivated him to constantly create new ideas.

Having strong persistence

In the past people did not live comfortably like we do now. People struggled to survive, they had to sustain numerous difficulties that life imposed on them. This persistence can also be found in the style of Leonardo's thinking. He was willing to experiment and learn from his own mistakes. For him, failure was not a setback but a step toward success. It always offered a new insight into what should be improved.

Modern person does not waste time on endless trials and errors. We live too fast and have no time to be persistent even if we wanted to. In modern society, failure is not permitted - if something does not work, we rather give it up than work on its improvement!    

Analytical skills

Leonardo was most famous as a painter, but his thinking was essentially logical and the empirical methods that he used in his work were rather unusual for his time. He possessed great analytical skills that were best put to use in his studies of anatomy. Both his medical and artistic drawings show how observant he was of the subject that he was studying. These skills helped him get interesting insights and reach conclusions that many before him did not make.

Nowadays most people do not stop to think and analyze things surrounding them. We expect things to be obvious and we tend to overlook important information that could lead us to interesting insights which can inspire new ideas.      

No noise in the brain

Leonardo lived in a world that was much different from the world that we are living in. Living at that time was much slower. There were no traffic jams, no TV and radio, no smart phones and other things that would distract people from thinking about things that were important to them.

One of my readers, Nelly, wrote to me about an interesting event that is celebrating the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci:
'Since 2002, people in businesses, homes, organizations, schools and communities (106 at last count) in over 46 countries spend the week beginning April 15th (Leonardo da Vinci’s Birthday), ending on April 21st to enliven, encourage, enjoy and express their creative spirit. This period of time is known as Idea Week.'
To find out more information about the event, please visit http://www.creativityday.org or http://worldcreativity.wordpress.com

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If you wish to further explore this topic, you can check out the selection of my favourite books about creative thinking.

Key words for this blog post:
Creative thinking, Leonardo Da Vinci, think like Leonardo, cryptic thinking ...

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