Simply put, Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the midwives of the Renaissance and Italy was the nest of this movement that has ushered the world into Enlightenment. Of course, there are more to it than simply that.
Last October, I received from a beloved friend a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography authored by Walter Isaacson for my birthday. Isaacson is a University Professor of History in Tulane who wrote biographical accounts of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, amongst many others. His biographical account of Leonardo da Vinci is quite accessible to unspecialized readers like myself who are nonetheless intrigued and fascinated by history, and more particularly the history the renaissance Italy, a period in which high creativity is at peak and its surge has ushered us out of darkness and slumber.
I was very happy to receive the book as a gift and I could thank my friend enough that day. This is a kind of book that I do not only like to passively read but also actively study. But I was not able to commenced with my active reading of the book about this fascinating genius named Leonardo da Vinci who midwifed the birth of his new time, because I was still in the middle of reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Once I have started to read a book, I really do want to finish it before starting to read a new one. So Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci was parked on my book shelf for quite some time.
Until few weeks later upon the recipient of the gift, Christie’s auction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi took place in New York. The world was astounded by the amount of money by which the painting was procured, namely 400 M USD taxes and miscellaneous fees not included. I have mixed emotions that day while reading the paper: on one hand I was fascinated and even thrilled by the value of Leonardo da Vinci’s work is able to garner. It was like reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci’s code once again. On the other hand, I was also taken a back of the amount buyers are willing to pay for such painting which reflects the disparity of wealth in this unfair world. On the top of that, I felt quite guilty for being thrilled while reading about the auction.
While in that complex state of mind that day, I grabbed Walter Isaacson’s book on Leonardo Da Vinci, placed it on my desk, and started reading the introduction. While I was reading the first few page, I knew instantly that this will not be a passive reading the way I read novels. I will do more than just reading. It will not be reading for the sake of reading, but for the sake of studying and reflection. I refer to this activity as active reading. I grabbed my notebook and pen because I knew that this will require taking notes. Speaking of notes, the image of Leonardo da Vinci that Isaacson construct is not based on his finished works that are celebrated and canonized, but based on a more mundane and immediate materials, namely, Leonardo’s notebooks that contains his notes and sketches. Isaacson writes:
My starting point for this book was not Leonardo’s art masterpieces but his notebooks. His mind, I think is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our won tweets likely won’t be (Isaacson 2017: 4).
Is that amazing or not? The author has already hooked me there, because like Leonardo da Vinci, I love taking notes. It is my compulsion. I am taking notes while reading his work. I always take note about almost everything and at the same time, nothing in particular. I wish I could draw like Leonardo, so I could also fill my notes with sketches. I cannot stress enough how I disdain the fact that I could not draw. When I come to think of it, I cannot even write. I do not have talents like Leonardo and yet at the same time, because of the narratives of him based on his notes, I feel quite connected with him. What the author did is that he humanized and de-mystified this genius. Although his masterpieces are divine, its processes and the journey towards it is a human endeavour. What we see on his masterpieces are his brilliant success, but they do not cast light to the failures, struggles, and provisions that have all lead to that success. His notes certainly reveals what his ‘almost’ finished works have concealed.
His notes have revealed that before painting his Mona Lisa, he first studied the movements and contractions of facial muscle in order to depict a facial expression between not smiling and smiling. Indeed the Mona Lisa is one of the best illustration of how meticulous Leonardo, a kind of discipline that can be clearly discern the ways in which he took notes. The video above was recorded by yours truly while I was in Paris few years ago. As it is already known, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is displayed in the Louvre in Paris and this work of art attracts many people from around the globe, including myself.