How to live like Leonardo

Seven steps to becoming a real-life genius

Tiare Dunlap
September 15, 2011

Living in Fiesole, I had the privilege of hiking in the forest where Leonardo da Vinci used to hike, his apprentice carrying some complex feat of imagination, painstakingly crafted from wood and cloth. Making my way through dense thickets of cypress trees to cliffs that revealed a breathtaking panorama of Florence, I could almost feel the presence of the man said to be too much of a genius ever to love another human. I could also imagine his dutiful apprentice, struggling to keep up with Leonardo as he charged through the trees, blazing his own trail, as it were. As I reached the end of the trail to Piazza Leonardo, I imagined the two figures next to me, staring out at the city as it once was, before the red tile roofs became littered with antennas and great streets had been built for the buzzing traffic. I planted my feet firmly on the ground, I exhaled, and I watched Leonardo push the young man straight off the cliff. 

 

These are the hills where Leonardo tested his flying machine-manned by his assistant, who perished in the attempt. Although it seems a rather cruel thing to do, the fact that his apprentice was willing to test the dubious contraption shows that (a) internships have not changed and (b), more importantly, Leonardo's genius was so highly esteemed that he was trusted to achieve flight for man. Whether or not the apprentice trusted Leonardo even to the unfortunate end of his flight is something no amount of time spent in Parco Montececeri could tell me, but a book about Leonardo has taken unusual strides in postulating what exactly drove his creative genius. 

 

In How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb (Bantam Dell, 1998) breaks down the workings of the mind of one of history's most compelling geniuses into seven easy steps. Let me translate these steps so that they could be, if desired, easily put to use in everyday life in Florence. (A disclaimer: depending on where you stand in the nature/nurture debate, even with the instructions below, the Mona Lisa may not come so easily to us.) 

 

Step 1 is curiosità. Although it seems nearly impossible to achieve in a world in which every wonder has been dissected, photographed and uploaded to the Internet, Gelb insists that if we focus on observing the minutiae of our reality, much as Leonardo did, spending weeks and more painstakingly studying the way water falls, every moment can be a revelation in life's continuous quest. So, the next time you are stuck in a two-hour line at the post office, use that time to study the hands of the person next to you (just please don't ask to touch them). 

 

Step 2, dimostrazione, entails a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes. Gelb insists that to achieve like Leonardo we must persist like Leonardo and recognize that every obstacle can be broken through rigor. Furthermore, as da Vincis in training we must ask ourselves what we would be doing differently if we didn't fear making mistakes. This willingness to make mistakes is, I believe, necessary to a successful experience abroad. If we are not willing to accept mistakes past, present and future, would we ever dare to speak anything but our mother tongue? 

 

Step 3, sensazione, involves continuously refining the senses. What better place to do this than Florence? Perhaps next time you slice in to a particularly succulent tomato, give the task a few extra seconds to allow the experience to sink in. Should anyone give you a strange look while you are ‘experiencing' the tomato, simply explain that you are pausing to work on your genius.

 

Step 4 has practical applications in Florentine life. If you have been living in this city for any appreciable amount of time, it's likely you have already put considerable work into cultivating sfumato, the ability to thrive on ambiguity and uncertainty. To maintain one's sanity in Florence is to embrace the fact that there are no guarantees. Like Leonardo, we must see that the smoke that impedes our desire for clear vision is a beautiful feature of life's canvas; either that or revert to sensazione to enjoy the feeling of bursting blood vessels as street numbers change direction at random. 

 

Step 5 calls for the balance of Art and Science, lest we forget that Leonardo was an across-the-board genius. If we want to paint the Assumption of Christ and be accomplished scientists, we must use our whole brains. I know it's more comfortable to use just half, but trust me: wake up tomorrow and decide to make it a ‘whole brain' day. With any luck, by lunchtime you will be sculpting and by dinner designing war machines on your napkin. 

 

Which brings us to step 6, corporalità, the cultivation of grace, fitness, poise and, most frustratingly, ambidexterity. Next time you are writing someone a note, remember that true geniuses can use both hands. 

 

Lastly, step 7, connessione requires us to recognize and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. 

 

Embrace all seven steps and even if you don't achieve genius status, you may ace the ins and outs of living abroad, and more importantly living in Florence. 

 

 

 

 

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