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July 04, 2019 Thursday 04:15:00 PM IST

Leonardo Da Vinci-The Life of Multi-Faceted Genius and His Thinking Principles

Creative Living

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 – 1519), continues to puzzle the world with his masterworks, which surpasses boundaries of disciplines and unites them in a grand manner. Italy, the country of his birth and France, the country of his death, may continue to fight for his billion-dollar legacywhile the wholeworld struggles to decode the mysteries of his life and works. His story, heralded with amazing twists and turns and encrypted with mysteriousblanks, continues to attract creative minds, even after many failed attempts to decipher the da Vinci Codes! Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are but two prominent entrepreneurs among them. The current article is a tribute to this monumental master mind and is an attempt to elucidate some of its typical characteristics,on the occasion of his 500th death anniversary.


1.     Conceived by Fire

Leonardo was born as an ‘illegitimate’ child to his father, Piero da Vinci, a rich notarywho lived in an Italian town called Vinci in Florence; Caterina, his mother being an ordinary peasant girl working at his ownestate, his ‘noble’ father refused to marry herin an apparent attempt not to compromise his social status.The stigmaas an ‘illegitimate child’ was sufficient to cripple the life and career of young Leonardo;the doors of reputed schools remained shut in front of him and he was denied any formal education. Leonardo was abandoned in the hands of Andrea del Verrocchio,a reputed sculptor, painter and goldsmith in Florence.Suchhumble and humbling life experiences have madeLeonardo a poster-boy of the self-taught and self-made individuals. He was born in the fireplace and would not wither away under the heat of burning sun!


The fire of knowledge that he kindled within himself followed him all through his life.Just like aflame, which does not distinguish what it devours, Leonardo consumed information from whatever he encountered anddeveloped them into his masterpieces. Ideas and concepts occurred to him just like flames of fire, which know no specific direction of movement.


Leonardo madesubstantial contributions to almost all fields of human activity, including astronomy, anatomy, architecture, botany, engineering, science, music, mathematics, language, literature, geology, cartography, paleontology, ichnology, painting, drawing and sculpting and so on. He conceptualized helicopter, parachute, wings of airplane, sewing machine andframed concepts for extraction of solar power, double-hulled ships,armoured military tanks and robotic knight at war zones.He drafted sketches for musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank machines and a steam cannon. A wild fire!


According to Leonard Shlain, an expert neurosurgeon, the synergy skills of Leonardo has foundations in the very structure of his brain. Leonardo possessed a well-integrated brain, seamlessly connecting its left and right hemispheres, surmisesShlainin his famous book Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius.This perfect integration of brain enabled Leonardo to perceive universal interconnectedness in everything and elevated his mind to a higher state of consciousness.He had direct access to the art forms and mathematical equations and perceived the ‘World of Forms’ of Plato in front of his eyes, which rendered him unique‘in-form-ation’ about things. Leonardo perceived the simplistic beauty in the Lady with an Ermine, the anatomical analogy in theVitruvian Man, a geometric complexity in theRhombicuboctahedron, mysterious melancholyinMona Lisa, geometric symmetry in the Last Supper, the rustic innocence in theVirgin and Child with Saint Anne, the immaculate peace in the Virgin on the Rocks.It was an open access, without any need to educate his senses!


Theunique structure of his brain alsorendered Leonardo a left-handed and ambidextrous genius, who could write with one hand and draw with the other in different ways at the same time. He also easily masteredthe ‘mirror scripts’in which he prepared his notes, which requires a plane mirror to read and understand them. Thanks to his large corpus callosum, which kept each hemisphere well informed as to what the other was doing, he could perform such ‘superhuman’ skills. Leonardo wrote mostly from right to left, which was foreign to European languages, furtheradding mystery to his otherwise encrypted texts. Leonardo bequeathed the ambiguities of an intermittent flame of fire!


2.   Carried by Winds

Leonardo preserved lightness of heart and a hilarious attitude throughout his life. He was not an ascetic like Michael Angelo; rather was a free bird, which moved around with childlike mirth, taking time to celebrate his life. All these, however, did not retard his inquisitive search for new knowledge. He was prepared to defend his personal freedom at all costs.He did not fear criticisms of others. This uncompromising attitude has often led to incomplete projects and open-ended works, often criticized by his contemporaries, including Michael Angelo. Leonardo was adamant to work out of passionand not for money or acclaims. Carried by the wings of winds he crisscrossed Europe, often shifting his place of activity. He wandered from Florence to Milan in Italy and finally settled down at Amboise in France, where he lived the last three years of his life. All through these years, he also freely shifted his areas of interest from art to science and to engineering with amazing ease.

Leonardo was a self-defined person. He remaineda pacifist in an era that glorified war. He used to buy caged birds, just to set them free!An expression of his insatiable quest for freedom. He also sketched a unique machine to open a prison from inside and another one to tear the bars of prison windows!He remained a vegetarian in a mostly carnivorous Europe. He was a resolute left-hander in a milieu that considered left-handedness as devilish. 

All these, however, did not forbid him from depicting brutal war scenes in the Battle of Anghiari. Under the tutelage of Ludovico Sforza, the then Duke of Milan, he designed murderous war machines, including a chariot fitted with enormous whirling blades, slicing men in half or cutting off their legs, leaving pieces scattered. He sketched guns with multiple barrels arranged like organ pipes to increase the speed and intensity of firing and a colossal missile-launching crossbow.He was one, who was carried by winds!

Leonardo was fascinated by the flight of birds through air and spent more than two decades carefully analyzing it andcreated large number of sketches based on the same. He even outlined a flying machine for humans, after their model. As evident, the pages of his notebooks the Codex Atlanticus, he even sketched a design for a mechanical wing, an airfoil, showcasing his insights into aerospace engineering.

A gifted musician, Leonardo also researched acoustics, sang, and improvised melodies on his lira da braccio. He also designed a range of musical instruments, including drums, bells, and woodwinds and developed ideas for a keyboard-string combination, known as a viola organista.

Leonardo also contributed heavily to cartography, the art of developing maps. He was commissioned to design maps of regions in Tuscany for civil and military purposes. Leonardo took care to make excellent communication of the geographic information through artistry, providing bird’s-eye views of cities and landscapes.

Fascinated by the principles of engineering, Leonardo devised plans for bridges, buildings, and military equipment. He also worked to design an ideal city for France at nearby Romorantin, which remained one among many unrealized projects of the polymath.

3.   Touched by Water

Leonardo was fascinated by the flow of water. He associated the movement of water with the movement of human hair in air and illustrated in great detailmany invisible subtleties of water in motion. His observations in this regard led to the discovery of the Law of Continuity, one of the key axiom of modern physics of fluids.Leonardo also studied vortices, floods, cloud formation and developed realistic sketches of them. Famous among them are the sketch on the movement of water when disturbed by a barrier and when falling from a sluice into a pool forming vortices. He also wanted to apply his insights into fluid mechanics in developing plans to divert the river Arno between Florence and Pisa. 

The Codex Leicester, whichwas compiled during circa 1506 to 1510 while he was in both Florence and Milan, and currently in the proud possession of Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, contains musings on development of a submarine, which was never built in his lifetime.

Leonardo was a genius touched by the amazing patterns of water, which remained a strong influence in the master pieces he created.


4.   Grounded on Earth

Leonardo was keen on searching for details of everything he wanted to sketch with an insatiable sense of perfection. This is clearly evident in almost 13,000 pages of notes and drawings he has left behind. He was a down-to-earth investigator, who would simply explore and discover. His notebooks also bear witness to hismultiple revisits to them to add or subtract new and renewed ideas and to connect, reconnect, and group the related facts and observations.

In order to depict the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa, Leonardo conducted anelaborate study of lip muscles, which he dissected, and drew, alternately, with skin on and skin off. Determined to understand every fibre in the body, Leonardo often dissected animal and human cadavers, which helped him to replicate the sinews and musculature of the body in minutest details. The emergent depictions of the heart, vascular system, genitals, and other parts of human body were in fact first-of-its-kind illustrations ever recorded.

Leonardo was not obstinate to his view of things. He was prepared to change his opinion, in the face of new findings. A typical example is provided in the Codex Leicester, which describes his investigations into the way in which water makes its way to mountaintops. He is found to correct his initial concept that heat draws water upward, in favor of a better explanation that water circulates through evaporation, clouds, and rain. Such honest and thorough investigation due to Leonardo contributed heavily in the development of the scientific method, which culminated in the definition of scientific method by Galileo Galilei later on. Many laws of physics including the Third Law of Newton, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory are foreshadowed in the works of Leonardo.

Leonardo’s notebooks also contained many a never-realized to-do lists, including an apparatus that allows divers to breathe underwater and glasses to see the moon larger. He also sought answers to a cascade of open questions including: What is the cause of laughter? What’s the distance from the eyebrow to the junction of the lip and the chin? Why are stars visible by night and not by day? How do the branches of a tree compare with the thickness of its trunk? What separates water from air? Where is the soul? What are sneezing, yawning, hunger, thirst, and lust? An incessant seeker, with his two feet on earth!


5.    ProjectedintoSpace


Leonardo dared to tread the unchartered spaces of knowledge by developing a unique methodof creative thinking. It consists of hunting for recognizable patterns or images in scattered images like ashes in his fireplace and stains of walls.While thinking of new ways to transport people, Da Vinci is said to have thrown a paint-filled sponge against the wall to produce a scattering of irregular shapes, from which he identified two wheels, which led to the conceptualization of a bicycle!

Once he was standing by a well and noticed a stone hit the water at the same moment that a bell went off in a nearby church tower. He noticed the stone caused circles until they spread and disappeared. Associating it with the sound of the church bell, he concluded that sound also travels in waves. A sporadic insight, which stood the test of times. 

For Leonardo, human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them.His uniquely integrated brain aided him in his creative projections into uncharted space or vacuum.

Leonardo da Vinci was born to all five elements of the nature, namely fire, air, water, earth, and space and he would remain a creative mind par excellence for ages to come. 

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

Dr Varghese Panthalookaran, the founding Director of Rajagiri Media is a Professor of Engineering (Dr.-Ing.) at Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology (RSET) in Kochi, India. He is an author of four books in three different languages, Malayalam, English and German. His drama book in Malayalam titled: “Buddhan Veendum Chirikkunnu” (translated: “Buddha Laughs Again”) has won the Endowment Award of Kerala Sahitya (Literature) Academy in 2000. His book in German language, “Die Lehre Jesu als Schluessel zur Lebensfreude” is published in 2007 by LIT Verlag, Münster, Germany. His thesis “CFD-assisted characterization and design of hot water seasonal heat store” in published by Shaker Verlag, Aachen, Germany in 2007. His book on creative thinking skills and entrepreneurship, “Condemned to be Creative” is published by Pallikkutam Publications, India in 2019. It is a useful resource for students, teachers, academicians and management professionals to develop the skills of creative thinking in daily life. He has also recently developed a new pedagogy, named Pallikkutam Pedagogy, integrating the educational legacy of India with the requirements of imparting the 21st century skills that make next generation learners to render them future-ready.
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