FIVE hundred and forty years ago this year, the Florentine studio of the great Renaissance artist Andrea del Verrocchio produced another masterpiece of painting.
It was called ‘The Baptism of Christ’, featuring the adult Jesus being baptised by his cousin. Religious iconography that adorned most contemporary artwork depicting biblical scenes were abundant in the painting — God’s hands poked down from above; a dove with spread wings hung above Christ; rays of light fanned out like sparks of electricity, to convey the significance of the moment.
And kneeling on the river bank off to the left were two angels. Even at first glance it is obvious that the two heavenly creatures were created by two different artists. The one on the right was painted by Verrocchio; the other was painted by his pupil, one Leonardo da Vinci.
The story goes that once Verrocchio laid eyes upon Leonardo’s angel he immediately vowed never to pick up a brush again, such was the obvious talent of his 23-year-old pupil. The master’s angel is no shoddy depiction — there is nothing entirely wrong with it. It suffers only when it is compared with its mate, who is, of the two, the only one who looks angelic. Viewed alongside Leonardo’s angel, Verrocchio’s cherub bears more resemblance to a doe-eyed schoolboy saying his prayers. And if there wasn’t the telltale halo above his curly locks then it would require an art historian to reveal that the character was not of this world. In contrast, Leonardo’s could have gone without the halo and lost nothing of its identity.
The tale of Verrocchio retiring from painting is more than likely fictional, but the difference between the two angels reveals the ability of the genius polymath who is still revered for his works of art and science more than half a millennium later. Indeed, it is a foregone conclusion that you have heard of da Vinci, but I doubt you have ever heard of del Verrocchio.
The latest book to put the words ‘da Vinci’ on its cover comes with an intriguing though flawed thesis. Intriguing because it looks just like a self-improvement guide with its blockbuster title of How to Think Like Da Vinci.
It even has short chapters such as ‘Be a Renaissance Man’, ‘Keep Things in Perspective’, ‘Imagine the Impossible’ and ‘Capture Your Subject’, which could offer someone a way of bettering themselves with fortune cookie wisdom even if they weren’t gullible to think that they would learn to see the world the same way Leonardo did.
Other chapters grasp at straws, particularly ‘Read Like da Vinci’, which ‘gives a taste of the breadth and range of da Vinci’s reading’. Unfortunately, that breadth and range was somewhat limited to texts concerning religion, history, and science. Living so soon after the Dark Ages starved him of many learned tomes. The average literate person today reads so many texts on varying subjects that it would make Leonardo’s head spin.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen a book offering us insight into da Vinci’s mind. Michael Gelb’s similarly titled How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day’is of a more spiritual and life management persuasion.
Closer inspection of Daniel Smith’s book reveals the same flaw. Despite the extensive notes Leonardo has left us — which detail his thoughts on everything from philosophy to engineering, relationships to death — it becomes obvious that we can never understand how Leonardo thought, only what he thought about certain subjects.
Da Vinci was a maelstrom of curiosity and cleverness, who happened to be born in the right place at the right time to become one of the giants — if not the giant — of the Renaissance. His ability to master anything he set his mind to coupled with a burning passion for perfection led him to invent, innovate and better. Where he followed others, he gained new insights; where he led the way, he advanced so far ahead that today’s experts still gasp at his works.
That he lived and worked well into his 60s is a true gift to humanity. Here is the man who soaked up the knowledge of the time, observed the world around him and created unique representations of man and nature. Imagine what more he could have achieved had he been taught Latin and mathematics as a young boy.
If anyone needs inspiration to overcome their disadvantages then the fact that Leonardo overcame his disadvantaged beginnings as the bastard son of a notary and a peasant girl brims with encouragement.
The path to becoming a wealthy notary like his father was not available to a young man born out of wedlock. He received no money or encouragement from his cold father. His illegitimacy also barred him from a university education and a professional career. Instead, the young artist seized his opportunities by getting an apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s studio.
After years of study and toil, he was let loose upon paintings, mesmerising everyone with his skill and mastery of perspective, realism, and emotion. Commissions soon came, he set up his own studio, and before long he was rubbing shoulders with dukes and kings, imagining flying machines, vast engineering feats, and painting some of the most beautiful and literary images of all time.
So yes, Leonardo is inspiring to those who wish to overcome financial or class barriers, or even those who have been snubbed by wealthy parents. However, having the intellect of a Renaissance genius would help. Just imagine a modern-day Leonardo’s LinkedIn profile.
Once you put aside Daniel Smith’s book’s flimsy notion of life coaching and embrace it as a concise — if one-sided — biography, the sheer brilliance of his subject shines through to make it an entertaining read. I would imagine the same must be said of the author’s other How to Think Like… titles, with Einstein, Mandela, Steve Jobs, and Sherlock all getting the New-Age treatment.
After reading the book I didn’t feel any wiser. I felt no boost to my sense of perspective. I did not sketch futuristic flying machines or write backward notes. What I did do was marvel at the achievements of one of the most brilliant minds in history.
I watched YouTube videos of art historian’s explaining the geometry of the Last Supper and the mathematical structure of the Mona Lisa. Smith’s book did not make me think like da Vinci — it made me think that I like da Vinci even more.
No one’s mind can be captured by an author, dissected like Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and laid bare for all to see. No matter how many biographies you read on Leonardo, you could never think like the man. The best anyone could ever hope for is to be an obviously lesser counterpart — just like Verrocchio’s agreeable angel next to da Vinci’s divine drawing.