Bruce Wayne vs. Leonardo da Vinci

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One of my favorite year-end exercises is looking back over the books I’ve read and reflecting on what I’ve learned.  (In case you missed it, over the holidays, I posted a discussion of Viktor Frankl’s powerful memoir Man’s Search for Meaning.)

Typically, my own curiosity (i.e. lack of focus) leads me to jump around from one subject to another, but last year’s book list is heavily tilted toward creative thinking.

My obsession with creativity and the investment process began with this paper on architecture and investing and has gradually evolved into several presentations on the topic (more on this later).

Leonardo da Vinci is probably the greatest historical example of the type of cross-disciplinary learning that I’ve only recently truly begun to appreciate. And consequently, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, is the best book I read in 2017.  Perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Leonardo pursued curiosity for its own sake. And it was this curiosity that fueled his scientific inquiry. He became interested not only in how things work, but why.  He studied human anatomy primarily to improve his art.

Da Vinci's Anatomical Sketch of a Male Shoulder

Da Vinci’s Anatomical Sketch of a Male Shoulder. Web Gallery of Art

According to Isaacson, Leonardo’s notebooks have been called the most astonishing testament to the powers of human observation and imagination ever set down on paper.

While rummaging through Leonardo’s notebooks and Isaacson’s biography, I’d try to share my excitement with Lucca through stories that he might enjoy.  On the way to school every morning, I’d tell him about all the things Leonardo had done and how he did them.

He invented this. He drew that.  He built this. He actually thought  by sketching!  Isn’t that cool, Lucca? Drawing helped him understand things.

And some of the things he dreamed up in his wildest imagination were actually built hundreds of years later! Things like scuba gear, flying machines and helicopters. And suction pumps to drain swamps. They actually do that now! Your fantasies can become your path to reality. Dream big.

Da Vinci actually dissected the face of a person and a horse with his own hands. Can you imagine what that was like?  Do you know why?  Because he wanted to see if the muscles that move their lips are the same ones that raise their nostrils.  What do you think? Were they the same?

He studied tree branches and compared them with the arteries that carry blood through our body. He thought about how they might work like rivers of water. He wondered how the size of each tree branch might relate to the size of its trunk.  And if our bodies might work the same way.  And he just sat and drew all this stuff in his notebooks!

In one of his drawings, he starts with the branches of a tree, but then draws them turning into a man’s body, then into different geometric patterns, and finally into the mountains. He let his mind wander from one thing to the next.  To whatever interested him. So don’t worry about trying to stay focused all the time. Let your mind wander. Daddy’s does all the time!  Just ask Mom.  :  )

Leonardo was obsessed with spirals, like swirls of water, wind currents, or even curls of hair.  And this weird fascination helped him figure out how blood flows through our hearts and even how the heart’s valves close. He had six pages of notes on this one idea! They were crammed with twenty drawings and hundreds of words on hearts and spirals. Can you imagine?!

He wrote everything in his notebook (just like Daddy).  He let his mind jump from one thing to another (also like Daddy). And he made himself crazy to-do lists. Lists that only a kids imagination could even begin to understand. He listed everything he wanted to learn every day. He might start out wondering about, “The measurement of Milan and its suburbs.” Remember when we went to Milan, Lucca? How big do you think it was? How would you measure it?  On the same list, he might also have written himself a reminder to: “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.” Then, “Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled. . . . Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders. . . . Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner. . . . Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” The measurement of the sun!  How would you even do that?! And your Dad’s favorite: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” What do you think that’s like? Know why? What do you want to learn about today, bud?

He learned by drawing, but he also learned just as much from experimenting. He explained how to do this in his notebooks. Before you decide anything, test it two or three times and make sure you get the same results. These types of experiments and this type of thinking are now called “the scientific method.” More on that later, bud. You’re going to love it.

He studied things very, very carefully. Just like you squat down on the ground for hours staring at one or two bugs. He looked at every little detail very carefully and tried to look at each one separately. “Deep observation must be done in steps: If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Here’s a super cool example. He noticed that the dragonfly flies with four wings, and when the ones in front are raised the ones in the back are lowered. Have you ever noticed the wings on the dragonflies around our pond?  Imagine how hard it was for Leonardo to watch a dragonfly carefully enough to notice this! He even wrote down the best place to watch dragonflies in his notebook!  It was the moat surrounding a castle. Can you picture him walking out at night time, in his robe, standing at the edge of a moat, just to watch the dragonflies?!

Lucca’s sitting in the back seat very quiet and half asleep while I’m going on like this for weeks.  It’s a lot for a four-year old to take in. I get very little feedback during our da Vinci rides.

Maybe Dad is expecting a little too much from a toddler to appreciate this?  Come on, Dad.  Give the kid a break. He’s four.

Then one night, a week or two later, we were wrestling and playing superheroes before bed. And Lucca says: “Dad, you be Batman, and I’ll be Leonardo da Vinci!”

Incredible!

Da Vinci is now on par with Superman, Spiderman and Batman in Lucca’s mind.

Score one for Dad!

We’ll be publishing the entire Broyhill Book Club in the coming weeks.

Subscribe to The View from the Blue Ridge to be sure you receive it!

Until then, you can access our 2015 piece here and our 2016 piece here.

And one of my favorite excerpts from Isaacson in full . . .

The juxtapositions can seem haphazard, and to some extent they are; we watch his mind and pen leap from an insight about mechanics, to a doodle of hair curls and water eddies, to a drawing of a face, to an ingenious contraption, to an anatomical sketch, all accompanied by mirror-script notes and musings. But the joy of these juxtapositions is that they allow us to marvel at the beauty of a universal mind as it wanders exuberantly in free-range fashion over the arts and sciences and, by doing so, senses the connections in our cosmos. We can extract from his pages, as he did from nature’s, the patterns that underlie things that at first appear disconnected. The beauty of a notebook is that it indulges provisional thoughts, half-finished ideas, unpolished sketches, and drafts for treatises not yet refined. That, too, suited Leonardo’s leaps of the imagination, in which brilliance was often unfettered by diligence or discipline. He occasionally declared an intent to organize and refine his notebook jottings into published works, but his failure to do so became a companion to his failure to complete artworks. As he did with many of his paintings, he would hang on to the treatises that he was drafting, occasionally make a few new strokes and refinements, but never see them through to being released to the public as complete.

Da Vinci sketch of skull

Da Vinci’s 1489 drawing of a skull. The Royal Collection.



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