Today the kids and I set out to discover the man, the myth, and the legend himself: Leonardo da Vinci. I have been in love with da Vinci since I was a budding young art student, some two decades ago.
Clearly, da Vinci was extraordinarily gifted, but it’s not his amazing talent that draws me – it’s his relentless curiosity and insatiable thirst for knowledge. He sought discovery with a passion unmatched by the vast majority of humanity. And he wasn’t afraid to follow where curiosity led, whether it was mapping the whole of the Arno River Valley, studying and replicating the flight capabilities of birds, or pouring hot wax into a cadaver cranium to create a detailed model of the human brain.
I want to live – and think – like da Vinci. He was the best kind of explorer.
Our Da Vinci Day started in Florence, Italy, Leonardo’s old stomping grounds and heart of the Italian Renaissance, where we visited the Leonardo Interactive Museum.
As you probably know, Leonardo da Vinci was THE Renaissance Man – a genius in many different fields. He was an incredible painter (The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, among others), anatomist (he dissected and cataloged the inner workings of the human body), architect, sculptor, biologist, cartographer, geologist, and inventor.
Most of his inventions were unknown because they never made it beyond the pages of his notebooks. Fortunately, the Interactive Museum has brought many of da Vinci’s most extraordinary inventions to life. The kids and I spent hours playing with real working models, including his wing replica, tank, automaton, endless screw, hammering machine, and much, much more. It was incredible to experiment with the real-world manifestations of his creative genius.
But the most exciting part for me was seeing pages from da Vinci’s personal notebooks. If there wasn’t already extensive evidence of the man’s genius, these would be enough. Da Vinci was a prolific notetaker, filling over 7,000 pages (that we know of) with thoughts and sketches. Each is written in da Vinci’s unique script, not left to right, but right to left. It looks like a completely illegible code, but hold it up to a mirror and all becomes clear. Experts who have analyzed his script discovered that there are no natural breaks, as would be typical for quill and ink writing of the time. They believe da Vinci invented a fountain pen for his own personal use, over 300 years before its original “creation.”
He invented many things like this – quietly, for his own use, not for public acclaim or glory.
I love this man.
After the museum, we traveled to the little hamlet of Vinci, Leonardo’s birthplace (Leonardo da Vinci literally means “Leonardo of Vinci”). Here, we wandered the same cobblestone streets where young Leonardo would have played and visited the humble home where he was born. His parents were unwed, his father a notary and attorney, and his mother a 15-year-old orphan. Born a bastard, it likely seemed impossible that this boy would become such an extraordinary man. But it may have been because of these roots – not in spite of them – that he was able to fully realize his potential. Nothing is ever entirely bad or entirely good, after all. Silver linings abound in even the most difficult circumstances.
As an illegitimate child, da Vinci wasn’t expected to take over the family business (or share in its profits), so he was left to his own extraordinary devices. Fortunately, his father recognized artistic talent in young Leonardo and sent him to study under the famed painter Verrocchio. Back then, painting wasn’t an aspirational career so much as a practical one. It was a trade, much like being a plumber or electrician is today. Da Vinci elevated it to an entirely new level, often outshining even his own master. In this way, he became the incredible artist we all know and love today, and who was successfully renowned even in his own time (not always the case for artists).
Da Vinci could have relaxed and simply enjoyed the fruits of his success but his insatiable curiosity pulled him ever onward – and he followed where it led. He dove into human anatomy, attempting to find causes of death and the seat of the soul. He explored biology, deciphering the mechanism by which birds fly. He obsessed over new and unique devices of war, inventing a rudimentary tank, cannon, bridge and ladder. He became a cartographer and geographer, mapping and developing a plan for rerouting the famed Arno river itself.
He never stopped following his curiosity.
Da Vinci famously said, “Learning never exhausts the mind” and “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
His words remind me of another quote from creative genius Walt Disney: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Da Vinci kept moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things. No matter what, he followed his curiosity, which kept leading him down new paths. What an incredible way to live. He was (and is) an incredible inspiration.