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Leonardo da Vinci: In The Mind of a Genius

Leonardo da Vinci: In The Mind of a Genius

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest minds of all time, was a pragmatist. Unlike educated men of his time, he had not been to university and did not know Latin, which was published in the classics and humanities.

While he defined himself as an uneducated man, a man without letters, he refused to be disqualified by his lack of erudition. This deficiency, however, led him to develop a revolutionary way of thinking. A new study from his diary and his notebooks - called codex - reveals his curiosity, obsessions and personality. His notebooks, scattered in different collections, are six thousand pages, which, if they had been discovered earlier, would have resulted in much faster progress. Today, the value of one of the codex has been estimated at several million dollars. Arte presented an interesting documentary about the exploration of the "Codex Atlanticus" (1119 manuscript pages), the largest of its books are kept in the basement of the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. Thanks to the beautiful manuscripts, commented on by experts, we plunge into the mind of the Renaissance genius.

Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, a small village nestled in the hills west of Florence, the illegitimate son of a renowned lawyer, Leonard was raised in the country, by his grandfather. Once an adult, he wrote an average of three pages a day in his diary. Leonardo spent more time writing his books than painting. Most of the time, he wrote from right to left so that only he and some of his students were able to understand. This writing is natural for a southpaw like him. Even though he knew how to write  perfectly from left to right, the act of writing in the mirror and the use of many abbreviations made deciphering more difficult and helped to protect his many discoveries.


Leonardo was passionate about everything: engineering, geology, biology, anatomy. He queried everything he saw, felt, touched. For example, he observed that distant mountains appear blue, not green like the others painted them. He knew that in reality, they were not blue; he understood that this was the consequence of the reflection of the sun on water vapour.

His way of combining art and science was extraordinary. He defined himself as a philosopher painter. And for him to philosophize was to seek to understand the world. His first subject of study, water, fascinated him because it was very difficult to reproduce accurately in a drawing or painting. It raises the question "What is water?" His earliest known drawing, preserved at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is a representation of the Arno Valley, the central subject of which is a large waterfall. In his book, he writes that water is a continuous amount that ranges from the sea to the river, the river to the sea... Water breaks, springs, dives, squirts, whispers, falls, drips. Water is bubbly. Water gargles, crashe bangs...

Leonardo studied spirals and swirls of water. This inspired him to devise a revolutionary theory, questionable for the time - in which the movement of water is comparable to the movement of hair, which can move in two ways depending on the weight of the hair or the orientation of the roots. It analyzes water in terms of lines of force.


Leonardo da Vinci was haunted by the fear of failure, and obsessed by his desire to leave a lasting legacy. In his codex, he states very clearly the ambition that drove him to distinguish himself from ordinary mortals. He wanted to access to fame in his lifetime and posterity after his death.

Around the age of twelve, he left Vinci for Florence. Hired as an apprentice by Andrea del Verrocchio, the man in charge of adding the final touches to the Cathedral of Florence, Leonardo quickly learned to exceed the master. Legend has it that Verrocchio, after seeing a painting by Leonardo, stopped painting. From 1495 to 1498, he was commissioned by the Duke of Milan to paint the wall of the refectory of the monastery: The Last Supper, known as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Although he became famous  for this painting, at that time, the painters were not superstars. Architects and engineers held the top of the social ladder. Until his death at the age of 67, the project that he held closest to his heart and which he thought would make him more famous than Brunellschi was to enable humans to fly. His drawing made in 1494, The Vitruvian Man is now the most famous picture in the world. In his earliest memory, he wrote about having seen in a dream a bird of prey, descending on his cradle and opening his mouth with its feathers. It inferred that his destiny was to study the large birds. The memory of the dream of a bird with huge wings would be the trigger for his research.

It was a giant leap, the day he discovered that air reacts exactly like water. He then attempted to estimate the level of air turbulence made by a flying bird and how much it would take to a man to successfully fly. Again, after the famous physicists Einstein and Bohr, here's another genius, that was a lucid dreamer. His accurate description of what it would feel like for a man to fly what would feel a flying man is striking for its time. Since the feathered wings would be much too heavy, he tended more towards the wings of a bat and an eagle. His first prototype, nicknamed the helicopter did not work, but he continued to study with passion until the end of his life. About 1503, Leonardo da Vinci, as we know, applies the result of all his research on movement, nature, geology, atmospheric effects, distance, proportion, body language and human anatomy, everything is brought together in this single painting: The Mona Lisa.

What is beautiful in a man only lasts so long. Nothing is more fleeting than the lifetime of a man. But that time is enough to know how to use it wisely. Is it not a life wasted, a life without praise? The man who does not reach the fame, leaves no more fingerprints than smoke in the wind or in the foam in the ocean.
— Leonardo da Vinci


Whether it was the flight of a bird, the functioning of our body or mathematical patterns prevailing in nature, Leonardo da Vinci still had the same obsessive desire to know everything. His immense ability to understand the surrounding world and his passion for translating what he observed in nature in various innovations are simply breathtaking.

Attention to conformity. In wanting to imitate others, we lose our creative and inventive abilities. We need to re-learn how to see the world around us with new eyes as a child does. We must Invent our own codes. Several centuries after Leonardo da Vinci, nature continues to inspire. It is our best guide.

As I always advise: Keep a diary to note your feelings, your observations, your learning... and to draw your ideas.

The Dreams Logbook is the most valuable tool of creativity. Kept it close to your bed, a notebook of dreams is an unlimited source of inspiration and paths to follow.  


1. OBSERVATION (Cultivate a meditative look, attentive, deep.)
2. QUESTIONS (Wonder why-why-why and again why.)
3. DEMONSTRATION (Conformity is full of false beliefs. Identify the inaccuracies.)
4. EXPERIMENT (The "doing" is essential to see if it works and to discover how to improve the invention. Become a disciple of experience.)

One last thing: I would like to congratulate the director Julian Jones and the teams at Arte; They have produced the most extraordinary TV programs, on-going learning so well and creatively presented, an example to follow.


Think as Leonardo Da Vinci, download your interactive self-help tool and start documenting your work.


Source: ARTE Documentary. Leonard de Vinci, Dans la tête d'un génie, by Julian Jones (PDF in French)

Brain & Creativity

Brain & Creativity