We Have a Lot to Learn From Leonardo da Vinci
Jesse Richards - April 30, 1999

da Vinci drawing - man On one of his 14,000 notebook pages, in his trademark mirror-image Italian, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “The earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe.” That was 40 years before Copernicus.

Da Vinci observed that because “every substance presses downward, and cannot be upheld perpetually, the whole earth must be spherical.” He realized this before Columbus or Magellan. He wrote it 200 years before Newton.

And four centuries before Darwin, da Vinci wrote, “Man does not vary from animals except in what is accidental.”

There’s no denying da Vinci’s intelligence. It’s safe to say most people would place him on a list of the greatest geniuses in history. But after reading Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, I’ve bumped him up to number one. No one else even comes close.

A decade and a half ago, psychologist Howard Gardner revolutionized how we define intelligence. Dismissing the standard IQ test, which measures only verbal and math reasoning and implies fixed intelligence from birth, Gardner proposed the idea of multiple intelligences. The seven he came up with are: logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, spatial-mechanical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal-social, and intrapersonal (self-knowledge). Other intelligences such as outdoor skills and humor are also being tested but the seven are pretty much fully accepted today.

Da Vinci stands out as the greatest of all geniuses because he excelled in every form of intelligence. Yes, Michelangelo was a better artist, and Einstein a better physicist. But da Vinci was close behind, and also stood out any other way you measured it.

Gelb’s book emphasizes forgotten information about da Vinci. Few people today realize da Vinci was an accomplished athlete, as well as good-looking, physically strong, ambidextrous, and uniquely graceful. He had an uncanny understanding of his own body: He was a vegetarian, and in 15th century Italy, that was rarer than his paintings are today (only 17 exist.) He was an accomplished musician who played instruments he built himself. He was often hired to cater and host elaborate galas which included designing costumes, decorating, arranging food, and personally entertaining party-goers with jokes, music, and juggling.

The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are two of the most famous paintings in the world, but an understanding of da Vinci’s accomplishments shouldn’t stop there. Unfortunately, though da Vinci greatly influenced every aspect of western culture, most people today categorize him as a painter. Many remember that he invented a few things, too. da Vinci drawing - flying machine

But can you name anything he invented other than a failed flying machine? How about these: the bicycle, helicopter, submarine, armored tank, snorkel, machine gun, gear shift, crane, and locks for a canal system. His extendable ladder is still used by firefighters today. He invented the parachute and amazingly deduced the only proportions that work.

The only problem was, he never published his findings, choosing to keep them only in his journals. He couldn’t stop learning and discovering long enough to organize his findings.

According to Gelb, some scholars theorize that had da Vinci’s discoveries been made public, they would have jump-started civilization, skipping centuries of slow discovery. Others think he was too ahead of his time for the rest of the culture to have understood and implemented his work.

Da Vinci also excelled as a scientist. He discovered biology and physics through his drawings and invented the cross-section. Da Vinci pioneered modern comparative anatomy and was the first to study the child in the womb. In botany, he discovered that a tree’s rings correspond to its age and was the first to describe the system of leaf arrangement, laying down the foundation for modern botanical science. Da Vinci was also the first person to document soil erosion. According to Gelb, da Vinci’s approach to learning did nothing less than set the stage for modern scientific thinking.

He was respected as an artist during his life and was simply called Maestro. His drawings, including the famous Canon of Proportion and sketches of human anatomy, horses, water, flight, and flowers, are unmatched. While his paintings are few, da Vinci pioneered perspective and the use of oil paints and was the first westerner to treat landscape as a subject. da Vinci drawing - horse

Da Vinci was also renowned as an architect and a sculptor. His huge equestrian monument, titled simply Il Cavallo (The Horse), is considered the finest representation of a horse ever created. Never finished, the 24-foot high model was destroyed in 1499. In 1982, art collector Charles Dent started an organization to recreate the horse, based on da Vinci’s extensive notes. Requiring 80 tons of bronze for construction, the horse is five months away from an unveiling in Milan on the 500th anniversary of the original’s destruction. It is a gift from the United States to Italy in honor of the lasting influence of da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance.

Our culture is a direct result of the Renaissance’s influence. Yet the creative way of thinking that distinguished da Vinci and his contemporaries from medieval culture is used by only a few people today. Before the Renaissance, nothing significant had changed in the West in 800 years. There were no notable inventions, and barely an independent thought occurred in eight centuries. Most people were illiterate and didn’t know what year or century they lived in. Everyone assumed there was nothing left to learn in the world.

Thinking creatively, seeing the big picture, learning from past masters, crossing intellectual disciplines, and challenging authority were what made the Renaissance happen. They’re also the simple secrets of how to think like Leonardo da Vinci.

Though our culture is in no immediate danger of stagnation, we as individuals are. We too often get caught up in one job, one career, one discipline, without realizing that it’s often better to try everything than to excel in one thing. Specialization is for insects. Thinking like da Vinci is not an attempt to become smarter than everyone else. It’s just a lesson to love learning for its own sake, and to challenge ourselves creatively. To put it more relevantly, that’s why we’re lucky to be at Drew. da Vinci drawing - woman's hair

“Study the art of science and the science of art,” da Vinci wrote. That motto should be the heart of a liberal arts education like Drew’s. In a time when the booming economy is allowing unimaginative job-specificity, an average of six liberal arts colleges are permanently closing their doors every year. The prevailing thought is that people don’t need to cross disciplines; they pick the profession they’re best at, go to a professional school, and enter their profession.

Luckily, many corporations are simultaneously realizing the benefits of creative thinkers. People are switching jobs and careers more frequently. And rapidly changing technologies force people to adapt and compete — adaptation to change and grace under pressure were two of da Vinci’s strong points.

So relish your education. Don’t defeat the point of a liberal arts education by focusing in one discipline too much. Realize that your potential is unmatched and unique: e.g. Don’t pass on art because you “can’t draw.” Take up a new hobby. Don’t be afraid of mistakes — da Vinci relished them. Take time out to relax. And take time to study da Vinci’s life and incredible accomplishments. After all, as the Maestro wrote backwards in one of his notebooks, “The knowledge of all things is possible.”