Leonardo’s Eye in Modern Times


Walter Isaacson’s musings on the interests and methods of Leonardo da Vinci in the Wall Street Journal give the impression that da Vinci’s style might be difficult to replicate in modern times:

Leonardo knew that true observation requires not only the discipline of looking very closely at something but also the patience to process observations and patterns. While painting “The Last Supper,” he would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave. He told the duke of Milan that creativity requires time and patience. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”

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To be sure, such a mindset has always been easier for those of means and those with fewer other responsibilities.  It seems self evident, however, that an era in which entertainment was sparse and labor and living generally were more tedious, the mind had more opportunity to wander.  Of course, nothing stops us, these days, from taking the time to observe and think, but there are so many distractions.

Isaacson goes in a different direction, toward professional focus:

Today we live in a world that encourages specialization, whether we are students, scholars, workers or professionals. We also tend to exalt training in technology and engineering, believing that the jobs of the future will go to those who can code and build rather than those who can be creative.

About this point, I’m not so sure.  After all, we are talking about Leonardo da Vinci, a singular man in history, and there are surely plenty of people with the inclination and smarts to pursue diverse interests.  Perhaps the bigger challenge is that “Leonardo’s passion was to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known” was a more feasible goal in his day.  There is so much more to know, these days; da Vinci’s waves of brilliance more readily crashed against the rocks of the unknown.

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  • Christopher C. Reed

    Spurning the craft skills of fresco, the great genius painted with oil on plaster, which turned out to be not so great.