Updated: Aug 6, 2019
The whole world is celebrating the 500-year anniversary of Leonardo’s death– and nowhere more than right here in Tuscany, where he was born about 30 kilometers down the road from my house, in the little town of Vinci. Reams of words have been written about him this year, but one article in particular frames the essential elements of his genius in such a way that something becomes abundantly clear that one might have realized much earlier: Leonardo not only would have been a good GRASPer today, but he was arguably the original GRASPer.
There is so much to quote in Jonathan Pevsner’s essay The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci that the temptation is just to provide the link and be done with it. But let’s resist that temptation and take a closer look. Pevsner starts by observing that Leonardo was undisputedly a genius, but that genius can take many forms – and doesn’t always take the form of higher education or societal accomplishment. In fact, as Mike Lankford convincingly portrays him in Becoming Leonardo, Leonardo was quite the social misfit. Pevsner doesn’t go as far as suggesting or even recommending that Leonardo be viewed in terms of autism or some other similar condition, but he nevertheless observes that genius can come from uncomfortable places – something that GRASPers have also studied, such as my fellow GRASPer Guenter Koch’s exploration of art and dementia.
The sentence that really caught my eye, though, was this one: “Confronted with today’s world, no doubt Leonardo would have been brilliant at visualizing information.” This is pure GRASP. But how did Pevsner arrive at this conclusion?
He started by noting Leonardo’s preoccupation with unification. Traversing a line that started with Aristotle and continues today, Leonardo tried to unify our understanding of the world from the largest macrocosms to the tiniest microcosms. Long before we had settled upon the concept of the four fundamental forces of nature, he had come up with his own set of four – not bad for somebody working five centuries ago.
And he had no problem with a concept of the unity of art and science – something we have (unfortunately) moved strongly away from in modern times. Pevsner: “To Leonardo, painting was a science …” Vision was the supreme sense, the window into the world for the mind, “… and the creative act of painting is useful to visualize the world.” In particular, “… he emphasized ways to visualize knowledge …” It’s harder to get more GRASPian than that.
But there is more. Pevsner then notes: “… seeing also has the meaning of paying attention …” This was the theme of the GRASP Knowledge Huddle that took place in Mexico City in February of this year: we have eyes, but too often we choose not to see with them – we choose not to pay attention to the world around us.
Remarkably, we find ourselves once again reading about something that has become a leitmotif running through all of the blog entries of this past year in GRASP: the unity of mind and body. Pevsner quotes Leonardo at length on the importance of sensory experience: “To me it seems that those sciences are vain and full of error which are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, firsthand experience which in its origins, or means, or end has passed through one of the five senses.”
And yet, to his credit, Pevsner acknowledges that complete dependence on first-hand sensory experience is no longer really possible today: “… many of us studying genomes or otherwise using computers have encountered the limits of empiricism.” It is here where Pevsner reaches his conclusion that Leonardo would have been great at rendering even this invisible information visible.
Pevsner also touches on other concepts that are central to the GRASPian approach – for example, his observation that “… Leonardo’s thinking was interdisciplinary.” The essence of the GRASP Knowledge Huddle is bringing together people from multiple disciplines to generate new forms of knowledge from their interactions.
Above all, Pevsner is able to explain to us the special value of Leonardo’s capability of bringing art to bear on our understanding of what is happening around us: “For Leonardo, the artist’s creative, noble purpose is to depict the natural world. The artist must understand the entire world as a scientist would.” If there was ever an argument for the relevance of artful thinking to understanding the world around us, this is it.
Leonardo da Vinci - attributed to Francesco Melzi
As I said at the beginning of this post: how could we ever not have realized that Leonardo had already understood all of what we are trying to do in GRASP? Five hundred years later, he still has much to teach us. Pevsner: “As ever-increasing access to information and technology shapes today’s world, we as a society may reflect on Leonardo’s values of creativity, curiosity, talent and knowing how to see.”