Have a drink with: Leonardo da Vinci
Polymath, painter, engineer, left-handed gay underdog genius
Ask him about: flying psychic unicorn voyages of the mind
The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died less than a year later, just a week after finishing the manuscript for his book “Leonardo’s Brain.” Released late last year with the help of Shlain’s surviving family, the book purports to use what we know of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to tell us about the capability, potential and future evolution of the human brain.
Shlain starts with the premise, hardly arguable, that da Vinci stands alone in artistic accomplishment and diversity of skill. It is no exaggeration to claim that few if any humans throughout history have even begun to approach Leonardo’s explosively creative, integrative mode of thinking, and to execute on it so well and so beautifully. To suggest candidates – he tosses out Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Goethe, Freud – is only to drive home the achievement gap.
It’s one thing to say that every artist, ever, was influenced by da Vinci, to suggest that he presaged the discoveries of Newton and Bernoulli, or even to claim he discovered arteriosclerosis (all of which Shlain does).
But that’s small potatoes once you bring up the psychic flying.
Maybe we should back up a little.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a young local notary named Ser Piero. Leonardo was raised largely in his father’s custody, though he was neither treated nor educated as a legitimate child would have been; and he came to professional art through the Verrucchio painting workshop, from which he built his skill and reputation. When he was thirty, da Vinci sought and landed a job working for the Duke of Milan as court artist. He would spend eighteen years in Milan as court artist to the Duke Ludovico Sforza, completing the Lady with an Ermine, Virgin of the Rocks and the famous Last Supper there. Leonardo was for a while employed by Cesare Borgia, the cruelly noted son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military engineer; and over the remainder of his life spent time in Florence, the Vatican, Milan again, and lastly in France at the behest of the French king, in each place chasing his own interests and the possibility of viable commission. His notebooks and surviving third-party accounts tell us that da Vinci undertook and excelled in a staggering variety of work, from geometric design and architecture to cartography, anatomical study to mechanical engineering. He died in France in 1519, at the age of 67.
This is a simplified timeline but, in all honesty, not too much so. For all his current fame, Leonardo only completed some fifteen paintings in his lifetime. Some of his most compelling and noted works (e.g., the Battle of Anghiari) are either lost or unfinished. As he was an illegitimate child and largely self-made as a man and an artist, we know about his young life only what we can deduce from limited official records and what he chooses to say in surviving writing. The bulk of Leonardo’s output, and the source of most of our knowledge about his ideas, interests and actions, lies in notebooks and drawings, many of which were personal and do not have the presentation or the context that would go with public presentation. So there’s plenty of information, yet any history or biography of Leonardo da Vinci still permits a fair amount of speculation – which tantalizes us here in the present day (remember Bruno Schulz, about whom more words have been written than he ever put to paper himself…).
Back to Leonard Shlain, who decides to use the historical da Vinci narrative to tell us something about neuroscience, specifically the concept of the split human brain. Our right and left lobes have distinct tasks, responsibilities and aptitudes, and Shlain contends that their connection and integration are key to understanding human experience. Essentially, he speaks of the right brain as emotional, metaphoric, creative and capable of creative epiphany (space), while the left brain hews to logic, will and linear thinking (time).
Humans comprehend the world through four categories, Shlain states: matter, energy, space and time. Having a split brain, he says, creates “an X axis of space and a Y axis of time. Humans plot the “real” world on this graph. Natural Selection designed human brains to appreciate space and time as two distinctly separate domains. Their separation gave us the enormous advantage in the competition for resources.”
Let’s be honest here. I thought I was going to write a reasonably straightforward history essay on a newish biography of da Vinci, and before you know it I’m down a rabbit hole reading books about whether or not the U.S. government has ever used Fleetwood Mac played at moderate volume as an interrogation tactic. Which is to say this has not exactly gone to plan, but bear with me.
So what does this have to do with da Vinci? Shlain cites research that demonstrates structural differences in the size of the brain’s connective mechanism across the human population. Shlain basically says that the depth, breadth and caliber of da Vinci’s work argue in favor of an unusually integrated brain: he claims the artist’s homosexuality allowed him to bridge masculine and feminine modes of thought and emotion; his left-handedness and ambidexterity were strong evidence of a versatile non-dominant brain, and his vegetarianism and pacifism indicated a particularly holistic, interconnected worldview.
But wait, you say. You promised me superhero mind-flights. Are there capes? Can we call him Renaissance Man?
In contemplating the scope of Leonardo’s artistic vision, and wondering how he could produce travel narratives and maps of extraordinary detail and unusual perspective, Shlain finally goes for the big boom: all that talk about Leonardo’s life story was just a warm-up for the big reveal, that Leonardo was a “remote viewer” who used intuitive sight to do things like create accurate bird’s-eye maps or describe the topography of remote countries in detail. He asks the reader to entertain “…the possibility that perhaps Leonardo had the skill to enter a space-time consciousness, discard the rational left brain, and acquire a quantum look at the world.”
The alternative is far more pedestrian, but does nothing to diminish the magnitude of Leonardo’s accomplishments. As for the travel writing, biographer Richard Turner says the accounts which so delight Shlain are a mix of efforts – borrowing accounts from previous travelers and applying his own imagination; trying his hand at literary pursuits as he did so many others; and “projecting known natural phenomena onto the unknown, a way of extending his mastery of the world.”
The remarkable aerial map of Imola is also explainable within the realm of mankind. The map is of very high quality, but modern cartographers see that it differs from modern images in ways that indicate the limitations of da Vinci’s measurement methods and aesthetic decisions: “the comparison shows that Leonardo did not always capture the shape of the plan, and that often when his survey differs from the plan on the ground, it has the apparent intention of improving the plan’s formal composition.” Moreover, there are surviving notes indicating the tools, plans and techniques Leonardo used in creating detailed maps.
So why would Shlain hew to the unusual even in the face of such information? His prior books view societal and scientific questions in the context of of art, mythology, language, gender and cognition – for example, the truly interesting suggestion that a society’s development of and reliance on alphabetic language directly correlates to a de-emphasis of women’s roles. Having spent a fair chunk of his writing career talking about the image-driven, intuitive feminine, he posits that the rigid human left brain is inhibiting access to consciousness beyond the visual world – one that da Vinci tapped into and that he believes we’re all evolving towards.
Look. In many ways, history is an act of running rope between whatever stakes we can manage to confidently drive into the ground about a given person or event. We hope there are as many stakes as possible, but even so it’s usually possible to take the rope in a few different directions.
Biographers generally cite the same formative large-scale influences and events in Leonardo’s life, for example, but where they go with that information varies. Leonardo was raised in his father’s home, away from his mother and wanting for the education and esteem that would have been accorded a legitimate son (or a child the parent wished to legitimize). He had a chip on his shoulder about the elite but yet eagerly sought commission work from powerful men. He was fashionable and flamboyant in an age of uneven tolerance towards homosexuality, and was at one point jailed on an anonymous charge of sodomy. He worked constantly but completed relatively little.
Shlain looks at Leonardo as a man of great sensitivity and supreme confidence: enlightened enough to choose vegetarianism and to walk away from military pursuits, so intelligent as to prioritize the scope of his vision over the completion of any one particular project; essentially, aware of his own powers. Paul Strathern, who studied da Vinci in the context of his acquaintance with Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli, comes to a different portrait from the same information: he sees the same sensitivity, but from woundedness. Having been separated from his mother as a child, Leonardo was slow to trust and perpetually scattered; once imprisoned because of his sexuality, he felt vulnerable as a man in society; shocked by Borgia’s violent schemes, he came to disdain violence and hold a very narrow view of human nature. Shlain says Leonardo left works incomplete because he was a futurist, bending space-time, but Strathern says he was a relentlessly curious scatterbrain at the mercy of Renaissance politics. Depending on your own personal proclivities you may find one of these (or neither) particularly resonant.
This isn’t about whether or not Shlain is right or wrong – heck, if anyone was capable of bending space-time, I’d put my money on the guy who was dreaming up helicopters in the 15th century, too – but about that resonance factor and how it affects the work of history.
It’s a long way of saying that if you’re a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Shlain may be a surgeon by training, but he’s all about the woo factor. That’s his thing. Other writers focus otherwise based on what grabs them from inside historical sources.
So here’s to history: the lively speculation that happens between facts. Plus, superheroes.
Shlain argues that da Vinci was essentially “remote viewing” distant places in order to produce his detailed images and descriptions. Remote viewing refers to the use of extrasensory / psychic ability to view and describe physically distant events, places or people. From the 1970’s through the mid-90’s, government programs examined the viability of remote viewing and other New Age techniques in warfare, motivated in large part by the post-Vietnam “First Earth Battalion” manual (which, incidentally, also inspired the Army’s successful “Be all you can be” slogan). Journalist Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare At Goats details the scope and history of these “mind warfare” programs and their adaptation to the War on Terror. The book was later turned into a movie starring George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, in a role that pretty much suggests what would happen if the Dude joined the military.
On that “fashionable and flamboyant” count, Strathern notes that young Leonardo was apparently tall and handsome, fond of knee-length tunics when fashion favored longer ones, and wore high leather boots and rosewater scent. (He once chose to dig on the younger Michelangelo, dismissing sculptors as no better than bakers covered in all that dust, while painters could wear whatever they chose.) In 1476 he was anonymously denounced to Florentine authorities on allegations of sodomy, and briefly jailed – the charges were most likely made by enemies of the ruling Medici family as a smear campaign, and while they were ultimately dismissed, Leonardo did some jail time.
An interesting suggestion for why da Vinci favored mirror-writing, beyond mere delight/eccentricity: lefties hate dragging their hands through wet ink.
How to Write a Cover Letter, by Leonardo da Vinci.
Years ago I escaped from the “are we there yet?” strain of my third year of law school by moving to London for a term abroad, a benefit of which – in addition to subsidized student-union bars – were the city’s museums. A da Vinci took me by surprise, a chalk and charcoal drawing known as the Burlington House Cartoon, displayed plainly in a gray alcove at the National Gallery. He drew a sweetly intimate portrait of the virgin Mary and her mother Anne with the young Jesus and John climbing on and over their knees, suitably dignified yet not unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever had to wrangle a pair of toddlers at snacktime. It was so luminously soft, so startlingly and unapologetically beyond the skill of even the best art of the era, that I got a little misty. I can barely make hamburgers with charcoal. How could he do this? Also, the Burlington House Cartoon was damaged BY A SHOTGUN in 1987. Really.
One of my personal favorite institutions, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, annually hosts an event called the Leonardo Challenge, at which the master’s creative ingenuity is co-opted to inspire contributing artists along a chosen theme. It’s awesome. I contribute every year, and if you’re local to the greater New Haven area you should come support the museum’s great work teaching kids to build things.
Charles Nicholl, Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind
Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats
Richard Turner, Inventing Leonardo
The da Vinci app for iPad