A 30-year old man with a reputation for leaving things unfinished sets out to find a job in a new town. He has recently served a prison sentence for sodomy, perhaps fallen out of favour with the city’s most important patron, and become estranged from his father. He gives “my most illustrious lord” Ludovico Sforza of Milan 10 reasons to hire him as a military engineer. The reasons betray a flair for the fantastical and not a little embellishment.
He has plans for bridges that are sturdy and can survive fire or battle, yet easy to lift and fit. He can make safe and unassailable covered vehicles that would break through enemy ranks, uninjured and unimpeded. He can construct secret winding passages completely without noise, even underneath rivers and moats. He can assemble rare instruments of wonderful efficiency, such as catapults, mangonels, and trebuchets.
Oh, and— he mentions almost parenthetically— he can also sculpt in marble, bronze, and clay, and he can paint.
He offers to demonstrate the practicability of his engineering marvels, should they appear impossible to execute.
They were at the time, some 500 years ago. And still are. Many designs that appear in more than 7,000 surviving pages of his notebooks contain descriptions of assorted mechanical devices that continue to confound engineers.
Regardless, he was hired. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the employer made a good call. For Ludovico Sforza came to be immortalised as the man who commissioned one of the world’s most recognisable paintings: The Last Supper.
The Renaissance Man
In a 2017 biography, Walter Isaacson makes a case against approaching Leonardo da Vinci’s brilliantly executed art and inexecutable physical contraptions in isolation from one another. Drawing primarily on his notebooks now dispersed across the cultural citadels of Europe—Florence, London, Madrid, Milan and Paris, and Windsor Castle in Berkshire— Isaacson marvels at his subject’s “ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination,” which is “an enduring recipe for creativity.” In doing this, Leonardo resembles the biographer’s other muses: Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, and Alan Turing.
The notebooks are penned in Leonardo’s characteristic “mirror writing”—left-handed and written from right to left. They are arguably the finest examples of doodling in history: complete with to-do lists, studies of reflections from concave mirrors, life sketches of birds, beasts, and human cadavers.
Leonardo was fortunate to have lived in the pulsating centre of Renaissance Italy, home to prolific artistic, philosophical, and scientific activity, and unparalleled advances in human knowledge. Among many notable contemporaries was the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, whose work challenged the long-held geocentric view of the universe. The Earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun, Copernicus, trained at the Italian universities of Padua and Ferrara, heretically argued. Another contemporary was Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa in the centre of the Italian Riviera, whose transatlantic voyages opened the way for the exploration and consequent colonisation of the Americas.
The eastern connection
The economic and cultural commerce also extended eastward. Novelist Angelo Paratico has explored these influences in Leonardo’s work, even making the contentious claim that his mother was a Chinese slave who might have been the inspiration for the masterpiece Mona Lisa. Other claims have put his mother’s ancestry closer home. Researchers at the University of Chieti concluded from forensic analyses of a single complete fingerprint from his left index finger that Leonardo might have been half Arab.
But Leonardo’s eastern connection is not based on genetic make-up alone. Paratico has also argued that Leonardo knew many Europeans who travelled to Asia. The explorer Andrea Corsali is believed to have been an acquaintance. Corsali was the first to describe the constellation Southern Cross (Crux), which he observed in Cochin. In a letter to Giuliano di Lorenzo of the influential Medici family of Florence, Corsali described peoples further up the western coast of the Indian peninsula: the “pagans called Gujarats, great merchants,” who do not feed upon anything that contains blood, nor harm any living thing, “like our Leonardo da Vinci.”
A more circuitous connection is through Francesco Corbinelli, married into the family of a trade partner of Francesco Giocondo, the cloth merchant who commissioned a portrait of his wife, Lisa del Giocondo, widely believed to be the Mona Lisa. Corbinelli moved from Florence to Portugal to Cochin, and finally to Goa, from whence he sent back an account of the second voyage of Vasco de Gama.
‘Describe the tongue of a woodpecker’
While the jury might still be out on the provenance of some of Leonardo’s work, that he was indiscriminate in sourcing his influences is amply evident in the notebooks. Preoccupations range from the anatomy of domesticated beasts to the navigation of maritime routes and the movement of celestial spheres. Philosophical musings too, and almost nothing autobiographical.
Isaacson’s biography mentions ways in which Leonardo cultivated curiosity and made it a daily practice. One of these was to keep to-do lists. Entries included “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men”. And, “inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width”.
In a striking coda, Isaacson emphasises that the master’s curiosity wasn’t limited to finding out things that had a practical function. An item on his to-do list one day was to “describe the tongue of a woodpecker”.
Curiosity for curiosity’s sake has been the saddest casualty of our times. An amateur study of Leonardo’s notebooks has injected some of it back in my own work as a reader, a student, and a teacher. Put simply, I doodle. And encourage students to do the same. Here is an exercise for my history class, admittedly not quite in the same league as Leonardo’s woodpecker: “At the beginning of every class meeting, you will be given a worksheet with a short primary source on one side, and blank space on the other. Please fill this out actively. Drawing, underlining, putting question and exclamation marks, arrows, writing on the margins, and notes to self are all forms of engaging with the material. Submit a picture of the worksheet at the end of class.”
Leonardo instructed us to go directly to the source: the fountain, and not the water jar.
What might that entail in our search-engine age?
I would start by doodling in a respectable leather-bound notebook with a sturdy, mildly-sharpened lead pencil— to mine ideas unattempted, unfinished.
(Swati Chawla is a historian and fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies)
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