Da Vinci Today

History’s most creative genius, Leonardo da Vinci, was not superhuman, and following his methods can bring great intellectual rewards to anyone writes Walter Isaacson. Here’s how he begins his piece about the inventor and innovator:

Around the time that he reached the unnerving milestone of turning 30, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons why he should be given a job. In 10 carefully numbered paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons and armored vehicles. Only at the end, as an afterthought, did he add that he was also an artist. “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible,” he wrote.

Yes, he could. He would go on to create the two most famous paintings in history, the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and engineering, pursuing studies of anatomy, flying machines, fossils, birds, optics, geology and weaponry. His ability to combine art and science—made iconic by “Vitruvian Man,” his drawing of a perfectly proportioned man (possibly a self-portrait) spread-eagled inside a circle and square—is why so many consider him history’s most creative genius.

Fortunately for us, Leonardo was also a very human genius. He was not the recipient of supernatural intellect in the manner of, for example, Newton or Einstein, whose minds had such unfathomable processing power that we can merely marvel at them. His genius came from being wildly imaginative, quirkily curious and willfully observant. It was a product of his own will and effort, which makes his example more inspiring for us mere mortals and also more possible to emulate.

More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks still exist, and there we find plenty of evidence that he was not superhuman. He made mistakes in arithmetic. He had a deep feel for geometry but was not adroit at using equations to codify nature’s laws. He left many artistic projects unfinished and pages of brilliant treatises unpublished. He was also prone to fantasy, envisioning flying machines that never flew and tanks that never rolled.

Want more? You can read the full piece here