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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.

Recent Restoration

450 Years of Caravaggio Tandem Obtinet

A brutal example of the relationship between art and justice

Judith Beheading Holofernes — Caravaggio (1598–1599 or 1602)

A truly worthy artist knows how to paint well and imitate nature.
Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio.

In the history of Western painting, Caravaggio occupies a unique place. Few geniuses had such an influence on the later development of the visual arts without, yet, leaving a school of their own.

Master of the chiaroscuro technique, Caravaggio anticipated modern painting by nearly three centuries, by bringing to the center of art the reality of human drama as experienced by common people. As the result of his turbulent life, Caravaggio’s art unveils the intricate relationships between creative genius, law, and diplomacy.

Born on September 29, 1571, in Milan, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio experienced human suffering early. In 1576, his family was forced to move to the city he adopted as his surname — Caravaggio — to escape a pandemic that devastated the Milanese population at the time.

We can only imagine what he went through. He lost his father and grandfather on the same day in 1577. The boy was only five years old. Less than ten years later, at the age of thirteen, Caravaggio would lose his mother, in the same year of 1578, in which he would begin his apprenticeship in the studio of Simone Peterzano, a pupil of Titian. We can say that a tall tree takes root in hell.

And that tree didn’t take long to grow and bear fruit. Fruits full of thorns. Caravaggio had a bohemian spirit, irascible and violent. He made history for his notorious inability to control his aggression. In short, dear reader, Caravaggio was arrogant, short-tempered, and a troublemaker.

He didn’t take shit home. He was the perfect type of indomitable genius, which led him to develop an intimate relationship with the court system at the time. The first trouble that is known is that, in 1592, at the age of twenty-one, Caravaggio would have attacked a policeman in Milan. This would have forced him to flee to Rome, with the clothes on his back.

Some evils come to the good, the saying goes. In Rome, a miserable Caravaggio found shelter with a stingy fellow, known as “Monsignor Salad”. The name exists because of the lousy provision he offered his guests. Caravaggio has a falling out with him and ends up homeless. So strong was Caravaggio’s genius and character that a few months after the incident he was already working in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite painter. It was the beginning of his conquest of Rome.

Before long, Caravaggio fell in the favor of one of the leading diplomats of the time, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627), who became his patron. In 1599, influenced by the cardinal, Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the Contarelli Chapel, in the Church of San Luigi Dei Francesi, and presented two masterpieces: “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” and “The Vocation of Saint Matthew”.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew -Caravaggio (c. 1599–1600)

Those pieces made Caravaggio the most famous artist in Rome.

From them, in an impressive procession of artistic genius, Caravaggio painted one masterpiece after another until he died in 1610. His success, however, was accompanied by growing brutality. His life was full of gambling, women, and unhealthy habits. But Caravaggio’s unlimited freedom would be the very mark of his art.

Hence its symbiotic relationship with the Italian law and judicial system at the time. Rome’s police archives are still being researched to reconstruct Caravaggio’s story. Yet, it is known that he was present in at least 11 legal proceedings, most of them for assaults and illegal possession of weapons. This one is particularly valuable.

Caravaggio’s fame and his unique style of unprepared painting — he painted directly on the canvas, without doing preparatory studies –, attracted some imitators. Caravaggio hated them. He even circulated offensive verses, in which he ridiculed Giovanni Baglione as a plagiarist. Baglione, who would later become his first biographer, sued him for libel in 1606, offering Caravaggio an opportunity, not realized, to record for posterity the principles of his theory of art.

The reader can imagine the historical importance of such a well-conducted and recorded court case. The State Archives in Rome contains the most vivid history of that artistic period, without which it would not be possible to understand the motivations, alliances, and relationships that spawned some of humanity’s greatest works of art.

Caravaggio wrote nothing, neither about himself nor about art. But, in judgment, he gave immortal statements like the following: “being a man of value is to deeply understand painting, as I do, is to be able to reproduce reality, the natural (…) I leave the arrogance of empty words to others, I let my works speak for me”.

Caravaggio invented the humanization of art, reproducing saints and biblical characters in the most brutal nudity of their most sincere and true humanity. And this was unheard of and scandalous until then.

And it is at this point that we are able to realize the immense diplomatic impact of Caravaggio’s work. It was the period of the Protestant Reformation, a time when the West had been fragmented with the wars of religion, which broke out, among other reasons, because the Catholic Church had alienated itself from the daily lives of common people.

In reaction to the Protestant revolts, the Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a movement of rebirth and restructuring, which aimed to bring Rome closer to the human experience as we lived in this world. The clash turned into a veritable culture war, in which no one understood and represented the Counter-Reformation worldview better than Caravaggio.

In his work, the saints are portrayed in the fragility of their most human aspect, creating such a strong identification with the viewer that many, at the time, could not even look at their canvases. Caravaggio was the absolute genius of Counter-Reformation cultural diplomacy.

There is an extra point, which connects Caravaggio to the legal world in an ever-current theme. Due to gambling debt, on May 28, 1606, Caravaggio involved himself in a duel with Ranuccio Tommassoni, which ended in his death. The episode forced Caravaggio to flee to Malta and then to Sicily, where he was commissioned to make many other masterpieces.

The case went to trial, and Caravaggio was sentenced in absentia to the death penalty, which in his case would have been by decapitation. Caravaggio, then, in search of mercy, paints the masterpiece “David with the Head of Goliath”, in which the biblical hero is portrayed with a look of mercy at the extracted head of the giant, which is, in reality, an autoportrait of Caravaggio with the mark of the damned on his forehead. The work is perhaps the greatest manifesto in art history against the death penalty. For Caravaggio, death is not a punishment, but a release.

David with the Head of Goliath — Caravaggio (1610)

The 450th anniversary of Caravaggio’s birth, finally, invites us to reflect on the intricate relationships between art, law, and diplomacy.

Caravaggio’s work was so intense that it was removed from the general public for three centuries, having only been rehabilitated in the 20th century, from the moment when Picasso, when painting the “Guernica”, declared that he wanted to be able to portray the horse throughout. its animality, as Caravaggio had done in the “Conversion of São Paulo”.

Caravaggio acted as a bass continuo, influencing the artists, but away from the public. Time, as it is, did him justice. Tandem Obtinet (Justice triumphs ).

Call to Artists to Create a New World

Don’t be disappointed. Don’t be tempted to stay hopeless.This time marks the end of the world we knew, but also the beginning of a new world full of opportunity.

The current health crisis has made clear how precarious our jobs can be, but most importantly how essential our vocation and our passion is to the world. Without art, no one can survive this lockdown; nor can any artist survive not being creative for such a long time.

As artists we live for the constant disruption and questioning of old ideas; we hold in our minds and bodies the privilege of Creation. That is our purpose: To Create. Even when we interpret, we create. These are perilous times but perhaps no more so than a blank page or a blank canvas. Artists don’t shy away from reinvention.

Through our bodies run the energy that transforms intellectual and emotional energy into being. We enable people to connect to that energy. We hold a mirror so they can confront themselves, reckoning with their own humanity and their place in the universe. We remind them that they’re alive and why life is worth living.

We embrace the power of imagination, bringing it forth; one step closer to existence through representation. We tell them stories that will happen in 20, 30, or hundreds of years. We do not just create an immediate reality, we also create the future and we give it meaning.

Throughout history, art has been used to create and heighten the true sense of spirituality, and give meaning to those experiences. How can we leverage that power to unveil the boundless connectivity between nature and ourselves, and also between each other?

Through art, we confront our harshest realities and push through with passionate resilience.

Art is a vehicle for empathy and for solace through the communion of our higher selves.

Empathy, kindness, and generosity are our biggest assets. These three reigning principles also constitute the solution to any problem. Any system, any technology, and any art that has not considered these principles is doomed to fail in its greater purpose: to acknowledge and protect the intrinsic value of everyone and everything that possesses even the most basic level of consciousness.

Empathy, kindness and generosity are not abstract concepts. They are human words, constituting natural and universal principles. Humanity has an outsized power to damage our planet but our potential to save it through cooperation and altruism is likewise unmatched by any other animal.

One could ask how applying these principles would change or mitigate the catastrophes we have lived through and created as humanity during our time on earth. Would have we become a force for social and ecological healing rather than a force for destruction and harm?

Catastrophes, natural or human-made, are events that fundamentally and traumatically change the way things are. This is why we must use this current crisis to create and implement frameworks that address the issues that got us here in the first place.

The French Revolution was entirely a human-caused catastrophe. It also was the catalyst that expanded human rights and liberty through the principles of Enlightenment. Hardly all-inclusive at the time, these principles of human dignity have grown around the world, but have not reached universal implementation.

That’s why we must resolve now that life will not continue to be business-as-usual. We have a choice during this time of transformation: take action in order to make the world we want to live in, or do nothing while others continue to act against our common interest.

The suffering we go through now might have been avoidable. I do not believe that every experience that we live through has meaning, but it is in our power to give it one. The writer Pico Iyer proclaims that “one of the graces of suffering is that it cuts through all ideologies”. It is a great equalizer and a great powerful trigger for cognitive and affective empathy. As an artist, I cannot think of a greater opportunity than to help people give meaning to a total collective experience.

We’ve been forced to pause, to appreciate the beauty of what the world would be if we could give her space to breathe. We’ve been forced to confront ourselves with the devastating sadness of the damage we’ve caused based on ideologies that benefit only the few.

Collaboration with Tuedon Ariri and Brin Schoëllkopf

Poverty, racism, gender inequality, and the destruction of our environments stem all from greed and ambition for power.We could solve all of these issues if we wanted to. To begin, we must create cultural shifts.

I see art as the creation of Culture with intent. It is in the change of the zeitgeist that as artists we can embrace the powerful tool of culture in order to bring the advent of those cultural shifts.

The worlds dreamed by Yuval Harari, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, Kate Raworth, Mathieu Riccard or Jane Goodall can come to pass if we as artists infiltrate society with representations of these realities. We must help people see that nurturing ecological and social environments is the right, kind, profitable, and revolutionary thing to do.

It is time to sharpen our gaze and our minds. It is the time to bring change to our consciousness, and for consciousness to change. We can focus on the problem by focusing on its solution. We can start by creating. We can also start by sitting in silence and taking it all in. Most of all, we can start by asking questions:

If our systems of production are not working how can we reinvent one that renders the old one obsolete? If we scale it down how can you implement sustainable processes in your practice?

Can we imagine a system that procures wellbeing rather than profit? Or, to start smaller: How can you procure the wellbeing of your colleagues and the people in your artistic community?

How can you foster compassion, empathy, and conflict resolution through your art, education, and processes of collaboration?

I propose we unite in creating positive narratives for the future that the world so direly needs: the beauty and the kindness that counter the suffering we are going through. Eventually a vaccine might solve our current health crisis. Active empathy — for one another and for the natural world — is the antidote for the crises to come.

Inaction is not an option. Empathic creation is our gift and our privilege