|Leonardo dying in the arms of Francis I, by Ingres (1818)|
In the summer of 1516, Leonardo decided to leave Italy for good. He evidently spent months wrestling with the decision whether to accept an offer from the twenty-one-year-old king of France, François I, after meeting the young monarch the previous December. Leonardo's final journey was also his longest, and since he sensed that he was unlikely ever to see his homeland again, he brought his entire oeuvre with him when he headed out over the Alps just before the onset of winter. The ever-loyal Francesco Melzi, his assistant Salai, and the servant Battista came with him.
Leonardo had apparently suffered a stroke in Rome, as we know from a visitor's remark that Leonardo's right hand was paralyzed. The artist himself complained about his maladies in letters without going into details.
The next dated sign of life was a sheet with geometric studies dividing the circle, marked May 21, 1517, which was Ascension Day. A note indicates that the sketches were drawn at Amboise on the Loire, in the little castle of Cloux, which the king had made available for the exclusive use of Leonardo and his staff.
|Château du Clos Lucé|
Just inside the entranceway is a hall with a large open hearth adjacent to a tiled kitchen. Above this hall are the rooms Leonardo seems to have used as a studio and bedroom. A canopy bed decorated with elaborate carvings may be the one in which he died. A tablet on the wall bears a remark Leonardo made during the turbulent years following his first flight from Milan: "While I thought I was learning how to live, I was really learning how to die."
|Studio and bedroom of Leonardo|
Evidently the ruler made ample use of this setup: "King François, being extremely taken with [Leonardo's] great virtú, took so much pleasure in hearing him reason that he was apart from him but a few days a year... He believed there had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo [and] that he was a very great philosopher." These words were written by the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who was also employed at the French court and had obtained this information directly from François I. At the manor house in Cloux Leonardo finally had the freedom he had sought. His only duty was to be visible at court. The monarch assured him that he could pursue his interests wholly unconstrained by other obligations, and he paid Leonardo an annual salary of 1,000 ecus – an enormous sum of money. The governor, who received one of the top salaries, earned only 100 ecus. This money enabled Leonardo to devote himself exclusively to the matters that captured his interest.
Leonardo subscribed to the logic that "iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigour of the mind." He remained active to the very end of his life. Leonardo travelled fifty miles to the town of Romorantin, where the king was planning to have a new palace built, and furnished designs for a palace with parks, plotting out an extensive system to drain the marshes and render the tributaries of the Loire navigable. He also organized several splendid pageants for which he sketched the costumes. And his mechanical lion took the stage again on October 1, 1517.
|Leonardo's mechanical lion|
On Midsummer Day, June 24, 1518, Leonardo was in his manor house, puzzling over geometry problems as he had for so much of his life. Then he evidently heard a voice – probably the voice of his housekeeper Maturine – calling him for dinner, and he wrote these words at the bottom of a page filled with triangular diagrams: "etcetera. Because the soup is getting cold." It is Leonardo's last written note to have been preserved.
But it was not until April 23 of the following year that he sent for a notary to dictate his will in the presence of Melzi and other witnesses. The young Francesco would get all his books, writings, and paintings; Salai and the servant Battista were each bequeathed one half of Leonardo's garden outside Milan. To his half brothers who lived in Florence, he left a sum of money with the treasurer of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, where he had once begun his research on cadavers, and he left his housekeeper Maturine a fur-trimmed coat. Leonardo also ordered three high masses and thirty low masses to be celebrated in his memory, in accordance with his status as the king's painter. For the funeral he stipulated that sixty poor men bear sixty candles and "receive money for this". And he commended his soul to God.
Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519. Melzi remained in Amboise for another year so that he and his father, Girolamo, who came in from Milan to help his son, could sort through the papers. Then he left, Leonardo's legacy in hand.
Melzi lamented in a letter to Leonardo's family, "nature will never have the power to create another like him." He was right in speculating that no one else would create an even remotely comparable oeuvre. But was it really nature's doing? According to the Law of Large Numbers, many similarly gifted children ought to have come into the world by now. More than twenty-five billion people have been born since Leonardo's death, and a good 6½ billion of them are alive today. There should have been men and women with talents of a Leonardo many times over – and there ought to be more than ever today.
So what was so special about Leonardo? No one can be understood completely, and most certainly not someone as multifaceted and contradictory as Leonardo. The best way of gaining insights into Leonardo is not to focus on the anecdotes and legends that others have circulated about him, but rather to study his own writings.
One sheet of his notes provides dazzling illustration of the special quality of Leonardo's thought process. It is a large piece of paper, almost the size of a newspaper, which at first glance resembles a puzzle, with nearly two dozen sketches, adjacent to and on top of each other. No two are the same. An exquisitely detailed plant grows into a geometric diagram of circular arcs. An elderly Roman gazes sternly out into the distance, his belly enmeshed with two trees, and his back to a mountain range, making him appear gigantic. Near the bottom, we can make out the axonometrics of a machine, and up top there are curlicues – or are they eddies? Light breaks through the clouds and falls on a church tower. And at the edge of the sheet are instructions in mirror writing for dying hair with nuts boiled in dye.
|Profile of old man, plants, geometrical figures, etc.|
The sheet, sketched in 1488, shows that Leonardo must have been pondering all these subjects at the same time. The viewer marvels at Leonardo's versatility, then starts to recognize a well-ordered whole in this apparent diversity of themes. Leonardo was juggling shapes, identifying their similarities, and transforming one into another, highlighting their unexpected connections. Things that seem randomly scribbled at first are actually well thought-out. The hatched arc segments, for example, are equal in size and facing each other. In the plant that just into this design, nature is transformed into geometry. The curve of a leaf continues in two parallel circles and reappears in abstract crescent shaped figures. But the little drawing of the Roman is a showpiece of Leonardo's ability to think in images rather than words. The diagram behind the Roman takes up the drapery of his toga, and the mountain chain reflects this geometry as well. And it is no coincidence that the man overlaps with the two trees. As though one could see right through the toga of the old man, the one bare tree seems to merge into the arteries of his body. Was Leonardo exploring the idea that branches and blood vessels open out in the same pattern? Clearly he envisioned the peculiar arrangement even before he began to draw. Leonardo did not even have to put pen to paper to tinker with highly complex shapes. This unimposing sketch reveals his extraordinary visual talent. Cognitive psychologists now associate this aptitude with spatial thinking.¹
Although his mastery and wealth of ideas in more than a dozen areas gave Leonardo the reputation of a universal genius, he was not universally talented. For example, he tackled mathematics for years without ever getting the hang of long division – not that failings of this kind stood in the way of his enormous productivity. Leonardo derived the greatest possible benefit from his extraordinary powers of imagination. A mathematician would describe the similarity between the ramifications of branches and veins using formulae and numbers. Leonardo instead compared the two patterns in an image, and developed a kind of thinking that suited his talent.
The analogies he kept finding everywhere he looked not only helped him to explain the world, but also gave wing to his creative genius. His world was like a set of building blocks, which he used to make evernew combinations. He let his thoughts roam and alight on ideas. His manuscripts explained "a way to stimulate and arouse the mind to various inventions" by staring at random patterns, such as those found on a discoloured rock, and discovering new shapes.² Leonardo used this method to hone his creativity.
Anyone can adopt strategies of this kind, and at least some people today ought to be blessed with a gift for spatial thinking on a par with Leonardo's. Perhaps we are not aware of any such amazing creative individuals because modern Leonardos tend to be invisible: They may be out there, but they work in highly specialized niches in a world that has been thoroughly investigated. It is incomparably more difficult now to delve into every conceivable discipline the way Leonardo did and to make a discovery that would make people sit up and take note.
But how likely is it that young people today would learn to use their talents as Leonardo did? What would become of Leonardo if he went to school today? He would have to pass the standard courses, and the teachers would educate him in a methodology based on language and mathematics. But this system is not designed for aptitudes that deviate from the norm. Leonardo's great visual talents would be of little benefit to a young Leonardo today, as must be the case for countless children with unusual abilities. They do not have much of an opportunity to employ their special gifts to learn about the world in their own way and avoid conforming to a rigid curriculum.
It was probably a good thing that Leonardo's formal schooling was limited and that he entrusted his development to an extraordinary mentor.³ Andrea del Verrocchio had a remarkable ability to turn talented youngsters into successful artists,⁴ and his wide-ranging expertise helped lay the foundation for Leonardo's achievements in a great many fields. Verrocchio was a painter, sculptor, restorer of artworks, goldsmith, metallurgist, curator of the Medicis' collection of antiques, and mechanical engineer. When he was commissioned to fashion a large gold ball for the dome of the cathedral in Florence, he worked with Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, one of the leading scientists in his city. Verrocchio also used cadavers to teach his apprentices human anatomy.
|Andrea del Verrocchio, portrait by Lorenzo di Credi|
|Lorenzo Ghiberti (self-portrait)|
His devotion was extraordinary. He could spend decades circling in on the same problem, even if it seemed hopeless. If despite his best efforts he could not arrive at a solution, he blamed his failure on his inability to sharpen his mind sufficiently. In a fable, he compared the mind to a flint that had to "endure its martyrdom" while being struck by a steel so that it could "give birth to the marvellous element of fire". Where does what Leonardo once called the "determined steeliness of will," a willingness to suffer for a self-assigned task, originate? Most renowned artists and scientists cite a mentor as having played a decisive role in their early years. The key element that a teacher communicates to a student is neither experience nor knowledge – it is enthusiasm. That is where Verrocchio excelled.
Where would the young Leonardo get an incentive of that kind today? What teacher would impress on him that effort is its own reward? In fifteenth-century Florence, being an outsider presented an opportunity. As an illegitimate child, Leonardo da Vinci had no family tradition to pin him down, and he was spurred on by a strong desire to rise above the milieu into which he was born. Would this boy, born on the margins of society today, have the opportunity and the aspiration to rise above his circumstances?
After graduating from high school, he would have to find his way in a highly regulated world. Professors, bosses, and coworkers would reward him for specializing in one field and penalize him for branching out beyond the narrow confines of this field. The intelligent Leonardo would soon learn how to solve problems easily on paths that others had paved long before him. But could he figure out how to define his own tasks, how to pose new questions, how to find answers to questions using unconventional means?
|Portrait of Young Musician, by Leonardo (1490), possibly a self-portrait|
Above all, however, Leonardo demonstrated how far a person can take research that has no set goal. Driven by curiosity, he worked for the sheer pleasure of understanding the world. His very lack of objective enabled him to advance to more horizons than anyone before or since and left him free to opt for the most interesting rather than the quickest route. Leonardo da Vinci showed us what man is capable of when liberated from the constraints and apparent certainties of the world. This is his true legacy.
(Most notes for this extract are omitted, except for the last four reprinted hereafter)
- Juggling images and shapes in the mind places high demands on the perceptive faculty. Neuropsychological research has shown that mental imagery and perception are essentially based on the same brain functions. They are almost like two sides of the same coin. Careful perception sharpens the ability to think in images, and vice versa.
Experiments by Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler provided the first substantiation for spatial thinking. These two cognitive psychologists showed subjects illustrations of several contraptions that looked like a cross between a Rubik's cube and an IKEA wrench. Some of these shapes were dissimilar, others were identical but in different orientations. The more twisted the shapes, the longer it took the test subjects to figure this out. Evidently the rotation in their mind's eye functioned exactly as though the subjects were actually holding the objects in their hands and watching them rotate. Since then, many experiments have confirmed an extremely close link between perception and mental imagery in other arenas. When it comes to colours, shapes, sounds, or faces, the brain uses the same regions when processing sensations as it does when indulging in flights of fancy.
- "If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones... you will be able to see in it a resemblance to a variety of landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see diverse combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms." Leonardo's Manuscript BN 2037 22 v, Paris Manuscripts (Mss 2172-2185).
- Modern longitudinal studies substantiate the importance of an early teacher-student relationship in the lives of people who have made significant contributions to their disciplines. Cognitive psychologist Benjamin Bloom made an exhaustive analysis of this issue in 1985 when interviewing the 120 top young American pianists, sculptors, mathematicians, and brain researchers. There was little in their early childhood to indicate their spectacular gifts and likelihood of future success apart from their dogged determination – and the degree of support they had from adults. Their parents were typically willing to make great sacrifices of time and money for their children's careers; sometime they even moved to a new town so that their children could have better teachers. Strikingly often, the young people who achieved fame in their fields reported that they had a strong bond with their mentors. Great achievements thrive in a climate of emotional closeness. Bloom summarized his findings with the statement that he had sought out extraordinary children, but had found extraordinary circumstances.
In any case, great accomplishments cannot be explained solely on the basis of a high degree of giftedness. Longitudinal studies have also shown that the vast majority of the highly gifted do not demonstrate unusual achievements at any point in their lives. By the same token, extraordinary success in life does not necessarily imply extraordinary intelligence. The majority of those who stand out in the sciences, as artists, or as chess grandmasters have above average IQs ranging between 115 and 130, but that is not a very high bar, because 14% of the population falls in that range. Surveys of the most gifted artists and scientists and of top-ranked athletes consistently show that they worked much harder to foster their talents from an early age than their less accomplished peers. They consistently take on challenges that lie beyond their current capabilities, and do not give up until they have surmounted any hurdles. Their success ultimately depends on this tenacity. No matter what the field of endeavour, people nearly always overestimate the role of talent and underestimate the extents to which training determines success. Without tireless effort, the best talents never amount to anything. [Several studies by eminent Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson offer extensive data on this subject. In Ericsson's extreme, but influential and well- founded view, the quantity and quality of practice are the sole crucial factors in determining the standard of performance that people achieve. Cf. his relevant publications.]
- Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and several others who were able to make names for themselves on the competitive Florentine market did their training in his workshop.