Leonardo da Vinci’s biographer draws lessons from his life, summarized in the final chapter:
“Take notes on paper: five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us, Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start writing them, will be around to astonish and inspire or grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.”
To anyone who has written a few books, as I have, these words go down smooth. Time will tell how much the grandchildren will be wowed but the notion of transforming what is fleeting to what is lasting appeals. It’s good to create things.
The thing is, I have used Leonardo in introductory material for the talk, ‘Can You Live Forever? Will You?’ one of the public’s talks in the JW rotation. There’s probably upwards of 200, including special talks that enter the mix.
I would briefly highlight the fantastic contributions Leonardo made to diverse fields—all way ahead of his time, some of them not duplicated to this day. Yet, drawing on a National Geographic quote, toward the end of his life he supposedly begged God’s forgiveness for not using to the full all his resources and art. The underlying idea is how such ones would not be put off by ‘everlasting life,’ as though it were a sentence to repetitive boredom. Instead, they would embrace it.
Do you think I could track down that quote a couple decades later when I wanted it? Or even the Geographic article? It’s somewhere, but I didn’t want to spend all day searching. Yet, Walter Isaacson, in a final chapter, highlights not those exact words but ones showing the same same sentiment and the same regret. “Did any of it get done?” Leonardo lamented again and again over his many sketches, schemes, and projects that never got off the drawing board—and never did, not because they were no good, but because Leonardo was easily distracted; he’d leave a project undone to tackle what next caught his attention.
This included the Mona Lisa. Francesco del Giocondo, a silk merchant, commissioned Leonardo to paint his wife, Lisa. Why Leonardo even accepted the commission is a mystery, for he could barely be bothered to pick up a paint brush in those days—he’d moved on to other things—but he did accept it. Thereafter, he fussed with the painting for 16 years, eternally perfecting it one tiny stroke at a time, incorporating the minutest adjustment of how light reflected or how human anatomy displayed itself in the smallest detail. The painting was in his studio upon his death; del Giocondo never took delivery of it. Of another masterpiece, the Last Supper, this one completed in a blistering five years, Isaacson writes: "Leonardo would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave."
Isaacson the biographer overall takes this as a plus. He reverses the normal mantra, ‘Don’t let the perfect become an enemy of the good’ into ‘Don’t let the good become the enemy to the perfect.’ Leonardo released nothing that was not perfect and consequently, released little, including major paintings. He’d work on them awhile, set them aside, and work on something else. He liked the process more than the finish, says Isaacson.
Alas, I could use a bit more of this philosophy myself. I release a lot of drivel in my writing, cranked out to meet a self-imposed schedule before adequate development. By the time it hits book stage, it’s much better, but even there I have been known to withdraw entire books for rewrite. Not to worry. Like George Harrison, “with every mistake we must surely be learning.” And that gently weeping guitar in the background that nags we are not? Fugeddabudit!
The tweets come in handy, though. Especially back when there was a 140, then 280. character limit, they served to make the windbags concise, including me. There are numerous passages in my books that began as tweets. Then, feedback can add a conversational quality not to be had in just essay alone.
****** The bookstore