Dare to Be Different and Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

A MARINE LAYER RESTS above the ocean early in the morning and turns the surface into glass. A cold swim clears my mind; the water blends with the sky and dissolves the horizon.

I feel the waves gradually build and move past me to break on the shore. They’re powerful above the surface, although silent below; a peaceful force like our breath, giving life to the planet.

As man has a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls, as if the world breathed,

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in a notebook entry from the 1490s.¹

What do we think of when we hear the name, Leonardo da Vinci? Perhaps his paintings the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper, his drawing The Vitruvian Man, or even one of his imaginative ideas for an invention, such as the flying machine.

As one of history’s greatest polymaths and a student of life, there is no one creation or idea which epitomizes Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo was simply a soul who observed his environment and took notes — a copious amount of notes — to capture the magic of every day.

I find Leonardo incredibly inspiring, especially now.

This moment in history asks us to stop and honor our world, as if the planet has asked for a breath of fresh air.

When we allow ourselves to be still and truly respect the planet’s breath — the ocean tide and the crashing waves — we live as Leonardo did, in reverence of the life-giving energy of our home.

Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1452–1519 during the height of the Italian Renaissance. Yet, the way he lived is achievable to anybody from any age.

Leonardo didn’t merely exist in the world; he diligently studied it. He wondered how it works and stopped at nothing to pave his way.

By exploring the life of the great Florentine, Leonardo becomes more than just an idea. Through his sheer curiosity and imagination, Leonardo was a genius.

Yet, he questioned himself, just as we all do. Through his courage to be himself, Leonardo was a passionate, loving, and real human being.

“As a gay, illegitimate artist, he knew what it was like to be regarded, and to regard yourself, as different,” Walter Isaacson writes in his illuminating biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo wasn’t ashamed; he was proud of what he held in his heart. Being gay didn’t define him, nor being vegetarian, left-handed, an illegitimate son, or solely an artist.

When he was around thirty years old, he wrote a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, listing why he should have a job in the Sforza court.

In the first ten paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and public buildings,” Isaacson writes.

“Only in the eleventh paragraph, at the end, did he add that he was also an artist.”

Leonardo was engaged in a never-ending quest to fulfill what he felt in his soul, continually questioning what it means to be a human on this floating rock.

“His goal was understanding the causes and effects that rule our cosmos, ranging from the mechanics of our muscles to the movement of the planets, from the flow in our arteries to that in the earth’s rivers,” Isaacson writes.

Leonardo was enamored by nature’s patterns, especially how they relate to the human body.

Man is the image of the world,

he wrote

This idea that the human body is a microcosm of the earth and cosmos provided a force of inspiration for much of Leonardo’s interdisciplinary work; the most famous is his drawing The Vitruvian Man.

The Vitruvian Man “symbolizes an ideal of humanism that celebrates the dignity, value, and rational agency of humans as individuals,” Isaacson writes.

In 1487, the authorities of Milan were looking for an architect to build a lantern tower for their cathedral. Leonardo was eager to take on the challenge, as he wanted to establish himself as one of the great architects of Italy.

While on the assignment, he became close friends with Francesco Di Giorgio, “an artisan who combined art, engineering, and architecture — the Leonardo of Siena,” Isaacson writes.

The Vitruvian Man came from a trip Leonardo took with Francesco to Pavia to take a look at another cathedral being constructed at the same time as the one in Milan.

Leonardo would have been thirty-five at the time. I imagine them riding through the Italian countryside lost in thought, discussing architecture and concepts of meaning while pondering their day’s trivialities.

Vinci, Italy
Vinci, Italy

Francesco was revising a treatise on architecture at the time. In the castle in Pavia, there was a copy of the only surviving book on architecture from classical antiquity: De Architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.

Vitruvius was born around 80 BC and served under Julius Caesar in the Roman army. He later became an architect and worked on a temple in the town of Fano, Italy.

In his epoch-defining work, Vitruvius “gave concrete expression to an analogy that went back to Plato and the ancients: the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth,” Isaacson writes.

Vitruvius’s treatise applies the microcosm-macrocosm analogy to the layout of a temple, decreeing that it should reflect the proportions of the human body. This idea, of course, captivated Leonardo.

The proportions of the body act in harmony to construct a sound foundation, just as the dimensions of a temple, and in a broader sense, the macrocosm of the universe, Vitruvius wrote.

Leonardo and his friends attempted to draw Vitruvius’s description, although Leonardo’s drawing is a league above the others.

The man Leonardo drew lives on the border of beauty and science.

I see it as Leonardo looking into the mysterious void of space and time and asking: what is the meaning of our individual experience, from the smallest creature to the vastitude of the cosmos?

“As a painter who marveled at nature’s patterns, Leonardo embraced the microcosm-macrocosm connection as more than merely an analogy,” Isaacson writes.

“He viewed it as having a spiritual component, which he expressed in The Vitruvian Man.”

Where many others strove to challenge other men in battle or establish themselves amongst the societal hierarchy, Leonardo was amid an essential pursuit to discover the value of his spirit and his connection with nature.

The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485) Accademia, Venice
The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485) Accademia, Venice

What I love about the story is how Leonardo and his friends worked at the concept together. Leonardo was a collaborator and an example that it takes a team to achieve pure creativity beyond our means; it takes an open mind.

Imagining Leonardo in a heartfelt conversation with his peers purely to enlighten one another is a delightful concept.

Leonardo cherished his friends and generously shared his blessings. He sought wisdom for the pure sake of understanding our planet and brought that fascination out of those interested in learning.

Leonardo was not yet the sage-like philosopher with long white wispy hair; he was a young, charismatic man who doubted himself. But that doubt urged him on, to challenge the norm and to find his way.

“He was not motivated by wealth or material possessions,” Isaacson writes.

 “In his notebooks, he decried ‘men who desire nothing but material riches and are devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind.’”

We know of Leonardo da Vinci because of the work he produced. In the mystery and perfection of his art such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, we imagine Leonardo as his work personified, the quintessential Renaissance man, shrouded in mystery.

Yet, he was imperfect; he left much of his paintings unfinished, he displayed bouts of anger and jealousy, and he drew countless inventions but hardly ever created them.

Like the ocean tide which moves in perpetual motion, Leonardo’s attention was obsessive and would move on to his next thought before the last could take material form.

I find Leonardo relatable because of this natural tendency.

He questioned how a bird flaps its wings and how water changes shape; he was enchanted by the way our hair curls and the timeless question — why is the sky blue.

He didn’t act on every thought, for if he did, Leonardo would have broken ground in a multitude of fields.

He wondered for the pure sake of enjoyment, often nothing more; this is something we can all allow ourselves to do more.

We often consider figures like Leonardo as of incomprehensible genius. However, he was like many of us, trying to make sense of our time on this earth.

By being himself and doing what he loved, he makes someone like me five hundred years later stop and marvel at the moments we often take for granted.

We can learn from him — maybe not how to recreate the Mona Lisa — but how to not accept drifting through life without fulfilling what we hold within our soul.

Sometimes we must stop to look up at the stars or the ripples in a pond. 

These moments when we can appreciate simply being alive are everything. That is to be different —  that is to perceive our beautiful world like Leonardo da Vinci.


[1] Codex Arudenl, 156c; Notebooks/J.P. Richter, 1162

[2] Paris Ms. A, 55v; Notebooks/J.P. Richter, 929

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