Da Vinci’s Code to Become a Lifelong Learner—7 Timeless Principles
Learning from the unwritten strategies of the Renaissance Man.
When it comes to having a curious mind, I don’t think there’s a better example than Leonardo da Vinci. He has explored more disciplines than many of us even know of or have heard about.
One of his disciples, Francesco Melzi, wrote about Da Vinci after his death:
“The death of such a man is mourned by all, for it is not in the power of Nature to create another.”
Many of us know Da Vinci as the painter of the Mona Lisa. But he is so much more than that. And it was not until 1911, anyways, that the painting of the Mona Lisa got famous because it was stolen from the museum and didn’t return for two years.
I got interested in Da Vinci after watching a video on why he is called the Renaissance Man. And I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that he was nothing like what I had thought; he was way more than that.
Art critic Bernard Berenson writes about Leonardo:
“Everything he touched turned to eternal beauty.”
So how was he able to do all that he did? Though Leonardo never talked a lot about himself in the thousands of pages of his notebooks, we get to learn a lot about the 7 underlying principles that Leonardo consciously or unconsciously used in almost all of his creative endeavours from the book How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb.
Da Vinci in brief
Here is Leonardo da Vinci from the frame of some of the diverse disciplines he pursued with innate curiosity.
(I am planning to write a full-fledged article on the personality of Leonardo da Vinci in the future. Stay tuned.)
Renaissance artist: painted Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Vitruvian Man.
Anatomist: drew and catalogued the entire human body; did tens of autopsies to better understand every aspect of the human body.
Architect: designed prototypes for grand cities, buildings and bridges that were both futuristic and revolutionary for his time.
Astronomer: studied the night sky and created designs for one of the first telescopes.
And he was also a botanist, cartographer (created some of the first contemporary maps), engineer, geologist, mathematician, hydrodynamicist, musician (even designed several musical instruments of his own), theatre producer, scientist, and inventor.
Do you need more? I don’t think so. That is already more than enough to wrap my head around.
This drawing has a very interesting explanation, by the way. I think most of you might know about that. If you do, comment below.
How to think like Leonardo da Vinci?
Let’s get into the 7 fundamentals of Leonardo’s approach of learning (to come close to Da Vinci’s stature).
These are taken from the book How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb. So, if you want to know more about these principles alongside reading about the incredible happenings of Da Vinci’s life, and a fabulous commentary upon it, I’d highly recommend you read this book.
Let’s get into it.
1. CURIOSITÀ (Curiosity)
If you look closely into Da Vinci’s life, you will see that nothing would have been possible had he not been innately curious about everything.
He was born as an illegitimate child and did not receive a formal school education. And because he was an illegitimate child, he was not bound to pursue a career as a notary, like his father. He used this to his advantage and discovered his love for painting and art early on.
But he did not stop there. His curiosity took him to places that he would have otherwise never discovered. From questioning the science behind the flight of the bird to the instruments of war, he studied everything.
The former led him to design the earliest prototypes for a flying machine.
And the latter, his interest in war, made him design the earliest version of the armoured tanks we see today.
So, you see how, just by being curious, he kick-started his journey of lifelong learning. And so can you.
A side note: the weekly newsletter I write every Sunday, Be Curious, is inspired by this very principle of Da Vinci.
2. DEMOSTRAZIONE (questioning conventional wisdom)
In his search for truth, Da Vinci insisted on questioning conventional wisdom. Like, the modern-day equivalent: first principles thinking.
He used the word demostrazione to express the importance of learning for oneself, through practical experience and the mistakes one makes.
In 1482, Leonardo writes a letter to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. It’s like a resume where he tells him what he can do, and why he should get a job. But what’s so unique about it?
It talks almost nothing about his artistic skills but goes in great depth on his military skills and designs.
In his letter, he talks about how he can build light and strong bridges, a mechanism to cut off water from trenches, etc. and finally gets the job, too.
He drew multiple prototypes of his armoured tank and lingered with other aspects of winning a war.
Most of them were too futuristic for his time. And that could not have happened had he not questioned conventional wisdom.
3. SENSAZIONE (Continual refinement of the senses)
“The five senses are the ministers of the soul.” —Da Vinci
Da Vinci put special emphasis on using the senses with care. He believed we learn through our senses, i.e., through smelling, seeing, touching, listening and tasting.
And refining those senses means that we can better capture the nuance of things we observe or learn from. And that will play to our advantage, as we will get insights into anything like no other.
We learn best through observation and having a refined sense of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste is a big edge.
So whether you want to learn to cook or make a beautiful painting, start by observing the depth and width of the craft. It will give you an unfair advantage in learning the craft faster and better.
4. SFUMATO (literally “going up in smoke”)
Oftentimes, the path of curiosity will lead you to nothing, a dead end. Show persistence.
This has happened to Da Vinci himself, and it happens to all of us. He did not make the perfect designs in one go. It took iterations. And some took years to complete, like the Mona Lisa, which took 4 years to come to life.
Can you believe it? It’s just a 77cm x 53cm piece of canvas-textured paper with archival inks and oils on it. And yet it took 4 years to make!
To meet his level of perfection and subtlety, Leonardo added over 40 layers of glaze over the long course of 4 years (which many claim can be even longer, both the layers of paint and the time it took to paint the Mona Lisa).
Have the grit to walk that might lead you to nowhere. That’s how to discover new and interesting territories.
(balance between science and arts, logic and imagination, “whole-brain thinking)
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science.” —Leonardo da Vinci
For balance and creativity to emerge from uncertainty requires the principles of whole-brain thinking. Or through the lens of Leonardo as the knowledge of art and science.
This is crucial because often having inter-discipline knowledge helps solve the problem very easily.
Da Vinci used his mastery of art in many fields, including mathematics. He designed prototypes for a telescope and designed theatre props. None of them would have been possible if his curiosity didn’t span beyond disciplines.
(the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, and poise)
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo da Vinci
Corporalità is “the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise”. Leonardo had an amazing physical ability that complemented his genius in science and art.
Through this Leonardo talks about the importance of having a fit and healthy body, as according to him, it is a prerequisite to living a productive life.
In these times, when our physical health stands last on our priority list, this advice should not be taken lightly.
(a recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena, system thinking)
There is nothing more marvellous a feeling than realising two distant things you have learnt connect seamlessly to make logic and reason for a situation. Is there?
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”. —Leonardo da Vinci
We often forget the bigger picture of learning a craft or a skill—to be a better version of ourselves. Or, as Leonardo would argue, to find the meaning of life.
And to understand the vastness of knowledge that’s available in front of us, we should first start to look at it as a connected entity. Everywhere leads to somewhere.
Appreciate this connection and keep learning. Go where your mind takes you, follow that rabbit hole, confuse yourself, and ultimately you’ll have insights that might look obvious to you, but for the world, it’s not the case.
Having this approach also helps in system thinking—looking at things in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts.
Leonardo was a true genius, according to me. He left behind a legacy and a philosophy for embracing curiosity, for following your interests. He was a true polymath and, in the modern language, a generalist.
These 7 principles are merely a small part of his bigger personality, still a linchpin each. It made Leonardo who he is known for. An imperfectly perfect man. And we can learn a lot from him, apart from these principles, too.
Some of these principles might not be applied to our lives as they are. Change it, modify it to fit your needs. After all, change is the only constant.
Or abandon it altogether. But make sure the insights you take with you from this article are the ones that truly impact your life.
So this was The Da Vinci Code, in one sense.
I hope you learn something new from this article. I am deep-diving into the life and tales of Leonardo da Vinci and his creations, so expect a couple more articles dropping on this topic.
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