Summer at Aspen: Da Vinci Celebration

October 1, 2017

A three-day celebration of Leonardo Da Vinci showed why curiosity about the world is an endlessly renewing principle in life.

“His curiosity and his quest to understand the world around him,” Walter Isaacson said, “are the virtues I hope can provide an example to all of us about how to love learning and seek a fulfilling life.”

Isaacson, the author of the new Leonardo da Vinci, was greeting guests at one of his last official events as Institute CEO—a celebration of the original Renaissance man. The three-day event, the first in a projected series of summer symposia staged by the Society of Fellows, delved into the life and world of Leonardo, his scientific and military inventions, his personal life, and the history of the Renaissance and its impact on our lives today. It brought together a cadre of the world’s leading scholars on Leonardo’s life, art, and science, many of whom are cited or acknowledged in Isaacson’s new book. Some had not seen each other in a long while—or met Isaacson, though they had corresponded. So the event served as a reunion of sorts for Leonardo scholarship.

Leonardo was an adept courtier, speakers explained, able to find patrons in the Court of Milan willing to support not only his works of art but also his ideas for warfare, including scuba-diving gear, a tank, and a helicopter. Some of those ideas were on 3-D display, in the form of remarkably crafted wooden models on loan from Da Vinci Machines, a touring and immensely popular international exhibition. Participants had the chance to see up close what astounding and, at the time, far-fetched ideas Leonardo dreamed up.

One was his attempt to achieve perpetual motion. Leonardo’s design was made with a simple wooden wheel and 12 tracks, each with a ball bearing so the weight was evenly distributed throughout the device. Though the movement of the balls along the curved tracks constantly shifts the center of gravity and thus the wheel, perpetual motion is never actually achieved: as the wheel rotates, it slows over time until it finally stops. Still, that a man with no engineering training, using just the natural materials at his disposal, could make such an elegant and clever attempt at an impossible feat of physics is testament to his creative genius.

Leonardo thought of himself first as a scientist and engineer and then as a painter and artist.

Ross King provided the historical and contemporary context for The Last Supper, a fresco that “has become so familiar to us that it has entered into our public consciousness and our DNA,” he said. “It’s as familiar as the boot shape of Italy.” The image has been replicated by numberless artists including Andy Warhol, who called it Leonardo’s “dining scene.” King said that its iconic status obscures the conditions under which it was made, and that the fresco, to be viewed by Milanese monks during their silent refectory dinners, was not designed to be seen by hundreds, let alone millions, of people. “I call it his accidental masterpiece,” he said. (As for the accidents and loss that Leonardo’s typically innovative painting methods caused, participants had the chance to try their hand at classic fresco painting on large plaster tiles, in a kind of summer-camp-comes-to-the-Renaissance experiment that showed them just how “fresh” and irreversibly instantaneous the technique must be.)

Combining technical study with artistic appreciation, Martin Kemp, a pre-eminent Leonardo scholar, demonstrated how Mona Lisa’s smile is both elusive and optical. Leonardo used his knowledge of the way the human eye perceives light and imagery to leave us constantly wondering: just what is she smiling about? The Mona Lisa, he said, “having begun as a commissioned portrait of a standard kind, has through both science and poetry become a perfect balance between the poetry of the spiritual world and the science of the material world.”

Leonardo indeed thought of himself first as a scientist and engineer, Isaacson explained, and then as a painter and artist. It follows, then, that outside The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, no work of Leonardo’s is more iconic than Vitruvian Man, the world’s most famous drawing and a focal point of the conference. The drawing pays homage to Vitruvius, the ancient world’s most respected architect and civil engineer. In De architectura, Vitruvius describes the human body as the principal source of proportion in architecture. Using extensive and ancient texts, Leonardo and several of his peers attempted to create the perfect image of proportion Vitruvius described. Only one was able to draw the image to exact proportions.

“It’s the most memorable drawing in human history,” Isaacson said. “It captures the essence of Leonardo and of ourselves—and of the humanist theme of the Renaissance that probes timeless questions by combining art and science.”

Excerpts from Leonardo Da Vinci

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa original and algorithmically color-corrected version

What began as a portrait of a silk merchant’s young wife became a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion, made memorable through the mysteries of a hinted smile, and to connect our nature to that of our universe. The landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined.

That said, the painting became more than a portrait of a silk merchant’s wife and certainly more than a mere commission. After a few years, and perhaps from the outset, Leonardo was painting it as a universal work for himself and for eternity rather than for Francesco del Giocondo. He never delivered the painting and, judging from his bank records, never collected any money for it. Instead, he kept it with him in Florence, Milan, Rome, and France until he died, 16 years after he began. Over that period, he added thin layer after layer of little glaze strokes as he perfected it, retouched it, and imbued it with new depths of understanding about humans and nature. Some new insight, new appreciation, new inspiration would strike him, and the brush would alight gently on the poplar panel yet again. As it was with Leonardo, who became more profoundly layered with each step of his journey, so it was with the Mona Lisa.

Covering Lisa’s hair is a gossamer veil, worn as a mark of virtue (not mourning), which is so transparent that it would be almost unnoticeable were it not for the line it makes across the top of her forehead. Look carefully at how it drapes loosely over her hair near her right ear; it is evident that Leonardo was meticulous enough to paint the background landscape first and then used almost transparent glazes to paint the veil over it. Also look at where her hair comes out from under her veil at her right forehead. Although the veil is almost transparent, the hair underneath is painted to look a tiny bit gauzier and lighter than the hair flowing from underneath it and covering her right ear. When the unveiled hair cascades over her chest on both sides, Leonardo is back to creating the swirling curls he adored.

Depicting veils came naturally to Leonardo. He had a fingertip feel for the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception. Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, he wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything with a sfumatolike softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscape stretching out to infinity; it applies even to the outlines of Lisa’s fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.

Lessons from Leonardo

What made Leonardo a genius, what set him apart from people who are merely extraordinarily smart, was creativity, the ability to apply imagination to intellect. His facility for combining observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen. “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,” wrote the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Because they “think different,” creative masterminds are sometimes considered misfits. But in the words that Steve Jobs helped craft for an Apple advertisement, “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The fact that Leonardo was not only a genius but also very human—quirky and obsessive and playful and easily distracted—makes him more accessible. He was not graced with the type of brilliance that is completely unfathomable to us. Instead, he was self-taught and willed his way to genius. So even though we may never be able to match his talents, we can learn from him and try to be more like him. His life offers a wealth of lessons.

Start with the details. In his notebook, Leonardo shared a trick for observing something carefully: do it in steps, starting with each detail. A page of a book, he noted, cannot be absorbed in one stare; you need to go word by word. “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects,” Leonardo wrote, “begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Get distracted. The greatest rap on Leonardo was that these passionate pursuits caused him to wander off on tangents, literally in the case of his math inquiries. It “has left posterity the poorer,” the art historian Kenneth Clark lamented. But in fact, Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.

Respect facts. Leonardo was a forerunner of the age of observational experiments and critical thinking. When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it. And when his experience showed that a theory was flawed—such as his belief that the springs within the earth are replenished the same way as blood vessels in humans—he abandoned his theory and sought a new one. This practice became common a century later, during the age of Galileo and Bacon. It has, however, become a bit less prevalent these days. If we want to be more like Leonardo, we have to be fearless about changing our minds based on new information.

Procrastinate. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave. He told Duke Ludovico that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to gel. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” Most of us don’t need advice to procrastinate; we do it naturally. But procrastinating like Leonardo did requires work: it involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas, and only after that allowing the collection to simmer.

Collaborate. Genius is often considered the purview of loners who retreat to their garrets and are struck by creative lightning. Like many myths, that of the lone genius has some truth to it. But there’s usually more to the story. The Madonnas and drapery studies produced in Verrocchio’s studio, and the versions of Virgin of the Rocks and Madonna of the Yarnwinder and other paintings from Leonardo’s studio, were created in such a collaborative manner that it is hard to tell whose hand made which strokes. Vitruvian Man was produced after sharing ideas and sketches with friends. Leonardo’s best anatomy studies came when he was working in partnership with Marcantonio della Torre. And his most fun work came from collaborations on the theatrical productions and evening entertainments at the Sforza court. Genius starts with individual brilliance. It requires single vision. But executing it often entails working with others. Innovation is a team sport. Creativity is a collaborative endeavor.