What Leonardo da Vinci Can Teach Us About Curiosity

Leonardo da Vinci is hot right now. CBS News recently did a special report on him. Another Leonardo (DiCaprio) is planning to produce a bio pic about him. And Walter Isaacson (biographer of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein) just published an epic new biography, Leonardo da Vinci, which creates a portrait of the great Florentine master that focuses less on his final product and more on his process. Isaacson certainly pays homage to masterpieces like The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa, but the book centers on Leonardo’s notebooks, which allows us to peer behind the curtain and steal a glance at how this incomparable genius did it all. The theme that runs through this constantly fascinating book is Leonardo’s endless store of curiosity.

Leonardo was above all else an observer who was dedicated to getting nature right. He famously dissected human cadavers to better understand musculature and skeletal structures. He was so devoted to accurately depicting the human figure that he went back to one piece years after he first painted it to correct an anatomical mistake he had made in the depiction of a neck muscle.

Leonardo fixated on the unity of nature—how, for instance, a curl of human hair related to a swirling eddy of water. He drew analogies between the tributaries of rivers, the branches of trees and the blood vessels of the human body. He was not satisfied, however, with facile comparisons. He deployed these observations in scientific experiments, in his paintings, and in designing a system for managing sewage and flood waters, which was hundreds of years ahead of its time.

Leonardo famously refused to paint stark, dark outlines around characters in his paintings, as his contemporaries did, for one simple reason: that’s not how figures appear to us in real life. He constantly studied light and the way the human eye perceives it, which led to breakthrough artistic techniques in representing three-dimensional space on two-dimensional canvases.

When reading Isaacson’s book, it struck me that Leonardo’s curiosity—his drive to observe and understand the world—may be exactly what our culture needs right now. More than any other time in history we are separated from the physical world. For a century, we have slowly fled farms and ranches and settled in cities, which has cut us off from the process of birth and growth, decay and death. As the industrial age has given way to the knowledge economy, we work more and more with productivity-enhancing computers and less and less with physical objects. With Amazon delivering and Netflix streaming we can cloister ourselves almost completely in our houses, and if we do decide to go somewhere, Waze or Google Maps can get us there without our having to notice our surroundings.

It’s rare nowadays for anybody to deeply study a topic. We no longer require our children to memorize vital facts about history, nature or our system of government. Why would we?! If they want to know, they can just Google it, right? That may be fine if the sources we all relied upon were drawing their observations from the real world. All too often, however, we get our stories eighth hand, after they’ve been accidentally distorted or intentionally spun.

We were not built for this world of constant comfort and digital distraction. We need to learn from the master: put down the iPhone, go out into the real world, and take note.

When I was a little boy, as my family took evening strolls through our neighborhood, my dad would teach us the names of trees. He would pluck the leaves and point out the unique qualities of each species. There was nothing practical about this, of course. It was pure curiosity. Pure fascination with the world. Today, as I walk with my kids and wife around our suburban Dallas neighborhood, I still notice the live oaks that never lose their little leaves and the weeping willows that sulk to the sidewalk. My hands are usually occupied nowadays by pushing a stroller as I walk, so I rarely pick the leaves, but I don’t need to. I can still feel the texture of the waxy magnolia leaf—and my dad’s enthusiasm.

You don’t have to care about trees to exercise your curiosity: you could have a neighbor over and ask him his life story; rebuild an engine with your kid (especially if you don’t know how), learn a language or a musical instrument; read a periodical you don’t agree with and keep an open mind; learn something—anything—until you’ve mastered it. We can’t all be creative geniuses, but a little more curiosity about the real world – and the events that happen in it—could enrich our inner-lives, enhance our work, and elevate our public discourse.

Image: Flickr/Alan Levine

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