Celebrating Da Vinci; Curiosity & The Art of Noticing

Da Vinci

By the early 1400’s, and even before then in Italy, something was stirring in Europe, a new spirit…social, political and cultural change, obviously reflected in profound change in art, literature and philosophy, the Renaissance. A period known for being a fundamental turning point in human history. A period associated with Italian artists like Giotto di Bondone, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, with the writers Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and with great thinkers like Machiavelli. And of course the period of the ultimate Renaissance-man. It’s been 500 years since his death, but he remains the most idolised artist that ever walked this earth, an absolute giant in the history of human thought and culture, Leonardo da Vinci.

The jubilee of his death is reason for numerous cultural celebrations, movies, exhibitions, theatre productions, books. It has been cause for serious political dispute between Italy and France, arguing and fighting over parts of his legacy and the right to put them on display. Bit silly when you think of Leonardo as the ultimate  “Homo Universalis” , but apparently this doesn’t safeguard from being geographically claimed. But very understandable, when you think of him as still being one of Italy’s best export products in the cultural field. And he really is, Leonardo da Vinci is a name known to almost everyone, you don’t have to be particularly interested in art, culture or history. Leo is high and low culture, he can be found on t-shirts, fridge magnets and coffee mugs just as comfortably as in museums, high-end art books and scientific studies.

But going through the vast agenda of the celebrations, in whatever form, I can’t suppress the been- there-done-that kinda feeling. The focus is on his life and his finished works, the end-result. Millions of people will be visiting exhibitions showing his most famous pieces, traveling to the town where he was born, or to the chateau where he died. And of course even more people than usual will be waiting in line to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, one of his few finished paintings but the Mona Lisa itself is of little value if you don’t contemplate what it really is; a result, the accumulation of many questions asked, answers sought and found, knowledge gained and eventually put into form. In this case a painting, but the form is not the real art, the real genius is in the knowledge! And in a world where somehow ignorance is rapidly becoming a virtue, I want to celebrate what, for me, is the real genius of Leonardo da Vinci, a legacy we may need now more than ever; Curiosity and The Art of Noticing.

Leonardo was deeply fascinated by the world, by humanity, by nature and found beauty in it all what he saw triggered his imagination, but also his deep desire of understanding. As Emanuel Kant once said; “aesthetic delight is the free play between the imagination and the understanding.” Da Vinci was never content with representing the mere outward appearance of the beauty he found in nature, animals or the human form. More than anything he wanted to move beyond the boundaries of aesthetics to get to the why.

Leonardo never thought of himself as a scholar or a theorist, he couldn’t emphasize enough that he was a student of practical experience, he learned from the greatest book of all, the one of life and nature. A mind not fixed by the strict rules of scholarship, the division of labour or one-sidedness, the fact that he never received a formal education might be what allowed him his lifelong curiosity and his multi-disciplinary approach. Modern scholarship seems to conspire against our (natural) curiosity, our ability to notice, but Leonardo observed, he noticed, he saw the divergent, layered and conjoined projects that make up the world, the universe. “Learn how to see, realise that everything connects to everything else.”

Renaissance humanism was all about seeking humanity’s natural place within the universe and Leonardo saw humanity as part of its environment, not separately. He strove for a harmony between civilisation and its environment, even more than 500 years ago when advising city planners and engineers he would suggest working with nature, not against it. An environmentalist avant-la-lettre. Leonardo thought of nature as a resource to expand human knowledge.

His inquiring spirit and his insatiable curiosity were what drove him, made him wonder, question, this is the art of noticing, keen observation and tireless experimentation provided answers & solutions. He wrote: “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is, to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate reason.” And in that quote, we find the essence of all modern science. Da Vinci was one of the first to work with this scientific method. One of the most important parts of his legacy, and one we do not cherish enough, even tend to forget! An open view, not being afraid to question the status quo, daring to go against the stream. Testing theories with experiments is something we have been doing for almost 500 years. But now society is changing; fake news is everywhere and more and more often we seem to confuse opinion with fact. People seem to make up their minds and dig themselves so deeply in their own “truth” that neither reason nor scientific proof can lead to reconsideration – even in the highest political ranks. The world could really use people with limitless curiosity, the ability for keen and critical observation and the guts to oppose the accepted state of affairs!

So whether you deliberately plan to visit one (or more) of the events or stumble upon one by accident while visiting Italy, France or any other place and by all means, please do visit the exhibitions, watch the movies, read the books, buy the darn coffee mug if you want to. This year is all about Leonardo. But in this changing world, let’s also celebrate his legacy by staying curious, let’s try to re-ignite wonder, care and responsibility, let’s collaborate more, share knowledge, let’s look for boundaries and try to cross them, let’s ask questions and look for answers, for solutions, let’s celebrate the failures and unfinished projects. Let’s not only celebrate the result but also the process, not just the form but also the essence, let’s celebrate knowledge. Let’s just be a bit more like Leo.