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Habits of a Renaissance Man: Learning How to Learn from Leonardo da Vinci

Adopt these habits to enhance your learning process.

A few days ago, I finished reading Leonardo da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book is easily the best 30 bucks I’ve spent in lockdown. Such an amazing read! My mind was absolutely blown.

I’m sure you know who Leonardo da Vinci is (or at least have heard his name before), but I’ll refresh your memory anyway: With expertise spanning virtually all fields known to man — arts, science, engineering, humanities — Leonardo is an Italian polymath who has been dubbed the “Renaissance Man.”

He is, arguably, history’s most creative genius.

How is it possible to become an expert in so many fields? And no, not in a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of way, but to actually become a master of all those trades. The answer is intricate, of course, but if I were to boil it down into one thing, I’d say it’s this: Leonardo is a master of learning.

That is essentially the skill that makes polymaths like Leonardo shine so brilliantly: They have mastered the art of learning. I know, it’s a bit meta — but that’s exactly why it’s amazing. After all, once you’ve learned how to learn, you can replicate that process to whatever subject you want and ultimately become a master at it.

Here, I’ll outline seven habits that I’ve identified in Leonardo. While I encourage you to read the full book to get the whole picture, you can use these seven takeaways as a starting point.

1. Relentless curiosity

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” Leonardo wrote in his notebook.

Did you know that the tongue of the woodpecker can extend more than thrice the length of its bill? And when it’s not used, it retracts into the skull and wraps itself around the brain, thus becoming a cushion for when the bird does what it’s known for: Smashing its beak repeatedly against tree bark.

That’s amazing, isn’t it? Another one of Mother Nature’s magic.

But you don’t really care, do you? Me neither. Why should I know about a woodpecker’s tongue? It won’t affect my day in any way. In fact, I can go about my entire life without needing to know about it in the slightest.

But that’s the trait that defines geniuses like Leonardo: They’re ridiculously, painfully curious. They just ought to know everything. Every little object or occurrence piques their interest and leads them down an inquisitory rabbit hole. When they have a question, they have to answer it no matter what.

But weren’t we all like that when we were children? Everything we see fascinates us. We bother adults around us with questions they deem unnecessary and at times comical. Sadly, we lose that behavior as we grow up, once we’ve learned that the world isn’t as forgiving as we thought it to be.

But there are some like Leonardo, who maintained that childlike sense of wonder well into their last breath. And that relentless curiosity has made all the difference — it shaped them into peerless learners, able to process all sorts of raw data into extraordinary insights.

As Albert Einstein, another one of history’s greatest geniuses, once said:

“I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.”

2. Sharp observation

Sherlock Holmes, another renowned (albeit fictional) polymath known for his deduction skills, once said to his friend John Watson:

“You see, but you do not observe.”

Geniuses don’t just see, they observe. Leonardo certainly embodies this habit of keen observation. He proves to be an incredibly acute observer, as shown through the woodpecker example before, and more:

  • He noticed how people’s facial expressions relate to their emotions
  • He watched how light bounces off different types of surfaces
  • He identified birds who flap their wings faster in their upswing, and others who are faster in their downswing

Furthermore, we know that Leonardo is a man who acts on his curiosity.

When something catches his eye, he doesn’t just think “Oh that’s cool,” and carry on. He actually tries to understand why and how it works—and ultimately, he emulates the findings into his creations, like his exceptionally realistic paintings and sophisticated mechanical devices.

Leonardo notices patterns where others didn’t even glance twice. In other words, geniuses like him see things unseen.

As said by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

3. Emphasis on experience

While Leonardo is famous for his extraordinary intellect, not many people know that he had barely any formal education. He went to an abacus school when he was young, and that was it.

A substantial part (if not all) of the brilliance we know him for is not the product of institutionalized learning — they’re the result of Leonardo’s own efforts. More specifically, his observations and experiments.

When it comes to learning, Leonardo puts a heavy emphasis on experience. He doubts people who like to cite experts but spend no independent effort on becoming experts themselves. He said:

“They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of, but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words. And [experience] has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will cite her in all cases. Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their masters.”

To become a master at any trade, one has to actually experience that trade. Everyone can read books about engineering, for instance, but not everyone can become an engineer. They have to actually practice the craft.

Change “engineer” with any other profession and the lesson will still apply.

School can be a solid source of enlightenment, but no one can become a master unless they move beyond the classroom and into the real world.

4. Seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake

When you eat ice cream, do you eat it because of its nutritional value? I would say no, otherwise, you would’ve gone for a salad instead. One reason for that could be because we associate ice cream’s taste with “happiness” and salad’s nutrition with “usefulness.”

Many of us have a similar association with playing and learning. Playing equals happy, and learning equals useful. We only learn when we think it’ll help in our career, or when we need a good grade to pass a class in university. Or, worse yet, only to look smart in front of others and garner their praise.

But why does it have to be like that? What if you indulge your curiosity like you indulge your appetite? What if you learn whatever you want to, not just what’s useful or what’s demanded of you?

As we see in Leonardo’s observation on the woodpecker’s tongue, a piece of practically useless knowledge can also be a source of joy. Sometimes, seeking knowledge for its own sake is enough. Maybe you’ll find a use for it later, but even if you don’t, at least you’ve enjoyed the process. That’s already a win.

When you associate knowledge itself with happiness, not just usefulness, it becomes almost impossible to stop learning — you’ll crave it like ice cream.

5. Purposeful procrastination

This one might sound weird at first. After all, do I need to tell you to procrastinate? If you’re like me, you already procrastinate so much it’s become a problem. If anything, you want to get rid of this habit, not adopt it. But Leonardo can give us a different perspective.

He once said:

“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”

Sometimes, when Leonardo is struck by inspiration, he doesn’t immediately act on it. Instead, he dwells on that inspiration and lets it shapeshift and evolve. Once he knows for sure what form he can give it, only then he started creating.

When painting The Last Supper, for example, sometimes he stares at the canvas for an entire hour, makes a single stroke, and that’s it. He leaves and continues another day. But now we see how magnificent that painting is.

If you do it purposefully, procrastination can be a powerful tool.

Think of it like this: A steak that’s marinated for 30 minutes, and another that’s marinated for an entire day — which one do you think tastes better? Honestly, it depends, but you’ll have a better chance with the second one, simply because the seasoning has more time to seep into the meat.

Creativity is kind of like that. When an idea comes to you, sometimes you shouldn’t act on it right away. Let it marinate in your mind. Play around with it, imagine what strange things can you do with it. If you do it right, the resulting idea will be far more interesting than its initial form.

6. Timely perfectionism

Still related to the previous point, this one is also a bit controversial. Isn’t perfectionism bad for learning?

“Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously said. What matters more than creating one immaculate art is creating a hundred good-enough ones, because the process will teach you many important lessons. But he underwent a long process before he arrived at that conclusion.

Jobs used to be a perfectionist, not wanting to release a device unless its motherboard looks beautiful — a motherboard, mind you, not a screen or a logo. Who sees a motherboard? Almost no one. You have to crack the device open to see it, after all. But Jobs wanted every aspect to be perfect, even the ones not visible from the outside.

Leonardo is the same. To him, an artwork is not finished until it’s perfect. That’s why he often leaves his work unfinished. “Finished but imperfect” is not in his vocabulary, so he’d rather they stay unfinished forever. Examples of this are The Battle of Anghiari and Adoration of the Magiwhich are both paintings that Leonardo left unfinished until his passing.

Often, perfectionism runs contrary to improvement. Your obsession with perfection can hinder you from making mistakes and reflecting on the lessons. The main goal in learning is to do your best even if it’s imperfect, improve in the process, then move on to the next work and do better with it.

Yes, that’s true. But learning is not a static process.

There will be times when your goal is to create the best work — not “the best you can possibly make,” but “the best, period.” And during those moments, there is no greater virtue than perfectionism.

7. Connecting everything to everything else

This is my favorite quote from Leonardo:

Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

Perhaps, the biggest fallacy of modern education is that we’ve put knowledge into separate boxes when it’s supposed to be a unified entity.

Science, art, history, philosophy — they’re all supposed to work in tandem. They inform and expand on each other. They fill each other’s gaps. After all, they have the same purpose: To help us make sense of the universe.

By separating knowledge into silos, we’re breaking the universe into fragments, and this way we will never understand it in its entirety.

Geniuses like Leonardo, however, know that a fragmentary approach is incorrect. There is a science to art, just as there’s an art to science. Everything is connected to everything else — and we should learn to see that connection.

Final Thoughts

Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

To recap, here are the takeaways I’ve learned from Leonardo’s biography:

  1. Be relentlessly curious
  2. Don’t just see, observe
  3. Don’t just study, experience
  4. Seek knowledge for its own sake
  5. Procrastinate (purposefully)
  6. Be perfectionistic when you need to
  7. Connect everything to everything else

I have tried implementing these seven habits in my own life (that’s habit no. 3: Experience!) and I honestly think they’re worth a shot.

Some of them already come naturally anyway, like no. 4 — I learn because I enjoy it, I’ve always been like that. Maybe you already identify with one (or more) of these habits as well? Good, then you won’t be starting from zero.

Lastly, a tiny note: I’m not a historian. While I did my due diligence when writing this piece, I encourage you to do your own. Although even if we dismiss the historical accuracy and remove Leonardo’s name from this article, these seven habits can still be useful to adopt.

What no one explains to the Artist

In very plain words:

The artist connects (mostly unknowingly) to other realms, other eras, other timeframes. The artist peers into the future, the artist repurposes the past; the artist walks with the greats, past, present and future, and learns from.

And for all her pains, for all that the artist brings back from these exotic escapades, very rarely does the artist get recognition. Very rarely does she get success. Very rarely does she get fame.

But this is not what no one tells the artist. She will come to find that out on her own. If she’s lucky. And even if she doesn’t, the real pain in her life will come from an entirely different source.

What no one really tells the artist is who she really is.

What no one really tells the artist is where all her creations really come from.

What no one really tells the artist is what her art is meant for.

And so the artist assumes. And pays a steep price for it. What began as elation and motivation soon becomes a burden when it is not understood.

What once a source of living soon turns into a prison of isolation and misunderstanding.

What once could be relied on as a source of inspiration soon becomes a horror channel of surreal information and nightmarish suggestions.

All because no one ever told the artist.

But if no one tells the artist, can the artist at least ask?

Sure. Of course. That is one of the things I can encourage. And I am not one to encourage anything.

One of the reasons I don’t this is because with the encouragement I have above, I expect a follow up question like the one below:

Who does the artist ask?

I submit that this is not a very useful question; there are few people you will meet in your life capable of answering such questions.

A better question would be, ‘what does the artist ask?’

Very good. Now we are getting somewhere if you are asking this question. You have some direction you can explore.

And, if you asked the question, you likely consider yourself an artist.

An artist is a person who creates. The field of creation doesn’t matter. What she creates doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the world is aware of the creation or not.

This is not meant to be an answer. It is not a definition. It is a direction to explore if you wish.

Here is one more.

An artist creates but she is not the creator.

What is Renaissance Architecture Symmetric Style?

It had an emphasis on symmetry.

Chateau de Chambord (1519-1547)

Symmetry is economy.
Symmetry is simplicity.

“The architecture of our brains was born from the same trial and error, the same energy principles, the same pure mathematics that happen in flowers and jellyfish and Higgs particles.” — Alan Lightman.

The Piazza del Campidoglio.

This style has an emphasis on symmetry, proportion, geometry, and the regularity of parts, as demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity.

Renaissance architecture is the European architecture of the period between the early 14th and early 16th centuries in different regions.

Renaissance architecture followed Gothic architecture and was succeeded by Baroque architecture.

Developed first in Florence, with Filippo Brunelleschi as one of its innovators, the Renaissance style quickly spread to other Italian cities.

Filippo Brunelleschi.

Italian, also known as Pippo 1377–15 April 1446 is considered to be the founding of Renaissance architecture.

He was an Italian architect, designer, and sculptor, and is the first modern engineer, planner, and sole construction supervisor.

The style was used in Spain, France, Germany, England, Russia, and other parts of Europe at different dates and with varying degrees of impact.

Renaissance style places emphasis on symmetry…

It was demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity and in particular ancient Roman architecture.

Systematic display of columns, pilasters, and lintels, as well as the use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes…

Plan of Bramante’s Tempietto in Montorio.

Plan of Bramante’s Tempietto in Montorio.

Raphael’s unused plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Raphael’s unused plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Brunelleschi’s plan of Santo Spirito.

Brunelleschi’s plan of Santo Spirito.

Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1546), superimposed on the earlier plan by Bramante.

Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1546), superimposed on the earlier plan by Bramante.

“But why are we attracted to symmetry?

Why do we human beings delight in seeing perfectly round planets through the lens of a telescope and six-sided snowflakes on a cold winter day?

The answer must be partly psychological.

I would claim that symmetry represents order, and we crave order in this strange universe we find ourselves in.

The search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the seasons and the reliability of friendships.

Symmetry is also economy.
Symmetry is simplicity.”
― Alan Lightman

The emphasis on symmetry is very much noted on all construction from that time.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi by Michelozzo. Florence, 1444.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi by Michelozzo. Florence, 1444.

Symmetry is also economy.

Symmetry is simplicity.

Symmetry is repetition.

Mona Lisa’s Pozzetto Chair

For centuries, our attention has largely been focused elsewhere in the small (77 x 53cm/30 x 21in) oil-on-poplar panel, which Da Vinci never fully finished and is thought to have continued to tinker with obsessively until his death in 1519 – as if the painting’s endless emergence were the work itself. A preoccupation principally with Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile is almost as old as the painting, and dates back at least to the reaction of the legendary Renaissance writer and historian Giorgio Vasari, who was born a few years after Da Vinci began work on the likeness. “The mouth with its opening and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face,” Vasari observed in his celebrated Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, “seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse.” He concluded: “In this work of Leonardo, there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvellous, in that it was not other than alive.”

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile (Credit: Alamy)

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile (Credit: Alamy)

The mesmerising mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile and how Leonardo magically leveraged it into creating “a thing more divine than human” and yet “not other than alive” would prove too intense for many to bear. The 19th-Century French art critic Alfred Dumesnil confessed to finding the painting’s paradox utterly paralysing. In 1854 he asserted that the subject’s “smile is full of attraction, but it is the treacherous attraction of a sick soul that renders sickness. This so soft a look, but avid like the sea, devours”. If legend is to be believed, the “treacherous attraction” of Mona Lisa’s irresolvable smirk consumed too the soul of an aspiring French artist by the name of Luc Maspero. According to popular myth, Maspero, who allegedly ended his days by leaping from the window of his Paris hotel room, was driven to destructive distraction by the mute whispers of Mona Lisa’s engrossingly gladsome lips. “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile,” he is said to have written in the note he left behind. “I prefer to die.”

Walter Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface

Not everyone, however, has been content to locate the centre of Mona Lisa’s magnetising mystique in her enigmatic grin. The Victorian writer Walter Pater believed it was the “delicacy” with which her hands and eyelids are rendered that transfix and hypnotise us into believing that the work possesses preternatural power. “We all know the face and hands of the figure,” he observed in an article on Da Vinci in 1869, “in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”. Pater proceeds to meditate on the Mona Lisa in such a singularly intense way that in 1936 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats found himself compelled to seize a sentence from Pater’s description, break it up into free-verse lines, and install them as the opening poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which Yeats was then compiling. The passage that Yeats couldn’t help co-opting begins: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” The portrait “lives”, Pater concludes, “only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands”.

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa's hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa’s hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Pater’s description still astounds. Unlike Dumesnil and the doomed Maspero before him, Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface. Contending that the painting depicts a figure suspended in ceaseless shuttle between the here-and-now and some otherworldly realm that lies beyond, Pater pinpoints the mystical essence of the panel’s perennial appeal: its surreal sense of eternal flux. Like Vasari, Pater bears witness to a breathing and pulsing presence – “changing lineaments” – that transcends the inert materiality of the portrait’s making. Key to the force of Pater’s language is an insistence on aquatic imagery that reinforces the fluidity of the sitter’s elusive self (“faint light under the sea”, “a diver in deep seas”, and “trafficked… with Eastern merchants”), as if Mona Lisa were an ever-flowing fountain of living water – an interminable ripple in the endless eddies of time.

Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time

Perhaps she is. There is reason to think that such a reading, which sees the sitter as a shape-shifting spring of eternal resurgence, is precisely what Leonardo intended. Flanked on either side by bodies of flowing water that the artist has ingeniously positioned in such a way as to suggest that they are aspects of his sitter’s very being, Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time. Pivoting her stare slightly to her left to meet ours, Mona Lisa is poised upon not just any old bench or stool, but a deep-seated perch known popularly as a pozzetto chair. Meaning “little well”, the pozzettointroduces a subtle symbolism into the narrative that is as revealing as it is unexpected.

By placing Mona Lisa on a 'little well', surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

By placing Mona Lisa on a ‘little well’, surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

Suddenly, the waters we see meandering with a mazy motion behind Mona Lisa (whether belonging to an actual landscape, such as the valley of the Italian River Arno, as some historians believe, or entirely imaginary, as others contend) are no longer distant and disconnected from the sitter, but are an essential resource that sustain her existence. They literally flow into her. By situating Mona Lisa inside a “little well”, Da Vinci transforms her into an ever-fluctuating dimension of the physical universe she occupies. Art historian and leading Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp has likewise detected a fundamental connection between Mona Lisa’s depiction and the geology of the world she inhabits. “The artist was not literally portraying the prehistoric or future Arno,” Kemp asserts in his study Leonardo: 100 Milestones (2019), “but was shaping Lisa’s landscape on the basis of what he had learned about change in the ‘body of the Earth’, to stand alongside the implicit transformations in the body of the woman as a ‘lesser world’ or microcosm.” Mona Lisa isn’t sitting before a landscape. She is the landscape.

Drawing from a well

As with all visual symbols employed by Leonardo, the pozzetto chair is multivalent and serves more than merely to link Mona Lisa with the artist’s well-known fascination with the hydrological forces that shape the Earth. The subtle insinuation of a “little well” in the painting as the very channel through which Mona Lisa emerges into consciousness repositions the painting entirely in cultural discourse. No longer is this a straightforwardly secular portrait but something spiritually more complex. Portrayals of women “at the well” are a staple throughout Western art history. Old Testament stories of Eliezar meeting Rebekah at a well and of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well went on to become especially popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, as everyone from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to William Holman Hunt tried their hand at one or other of the narratives.

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

Moreover apocryphal depictions of the New Testament Annunciation (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Christ) as occurring at the site of a spring were a mainstay among Medieval manuscript illustrators, and may even have inspired the oldest surviving visual portrayal of Mary. An endlessly elastic emblem, as Walter Pater intimated, Mona Lisa is doubtless capable of absorbing all such reflected resonances and many more besides. There is no one she isn’t.

But perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and pictorial precursors is one that can be drawn with the many representations of a biblical episode in which Jesus finds himself at a well, engaged in cryptic conversation with a woman from Samaria. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a distinction between the water that can be drawn from the natural spring – water which will inevitably leave one “thirsty” – and the “living water” that he can provide. Where water from a well can only sustain a perishable body, ‘living water’ is capable of quenching the eternal spirit. Notable depictions of the scene by the Medieval Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna and by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder tend to seat Jesus directly on the wall of the well, suggesting his dominion over the fleeting elements of this world. By placing his female sitter notionally inside the well, however, Da Vinci confounds the tradition, and suggests instead a merging of material and spiritual realms – a blurring of the here and hereafter – into a shared plane of eternal emergence. In Da Vinci’s enthralling narrative, Mona Lisa is herself a miraculous surge of “living water”, serenely content in the knowledge of her own raging infinitude