The world finds polymaths worrying. Those who are good at everything are usually bullied, toppled from their pedestals, and criticised. Look at Socrates, Aristotle and Newton. All were criticised, even persecuted at some point in their lives. Aristotle once said, ‘to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’
The most famous polymath of all time has to be Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian Renaissance gave us a number of brilliant scholars, artists and sculptors, not to mention writers. It was an explosion of talent, the like of which we had never seen before. But even then, surrounded as he was by like-minded scholars and patrons, Leonardo had a hard time getting his point across.
Leonardo da Vinci is a name that leaves much unsaid. In full, it would have been Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, which gives information in the order of man, father and town. Born into a split family, Leonardo carried the stigma of illegitimacy with him all his life. Both his parents married apart. Tucked away as a child in the hamlet of San Pantaleo, an easy distance from his father, Leonardo would have felt excluded from society right from the start.
Obstacles cannot crush me
Every obstacle yields to firm resolve.
He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind
- Leonardo da Vinci
Known mainly for his paintings, he spent practically every moment that he had trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. Drawing these impressions and discoveries was just the end result, or the process of investigation. But even as an artist, Leonardo was the kind of person who ruffled feathers. Often accused of leaving a commission unfinished and moving on to something else, he was an easily distracted perfectionist, which makes for a busy working day.
What drove him on? I would say it was partly curiosity but also a profound sense of compassion, and his compassion almost cost him his liberty and his career. When finally he came close to excommunication for persisting with dissections on human subjects as a part of his ambition to understand the functioning of the human body, he became something of a liability for the Medici of Florence.
If you had been wandering the streets of Florence in 1480 you may have come across a cloaked figure slipping incognito through the crowds towards the hospitals of the city, in search of the dying and the dead. He would have been discrete, because performing dissections on a cadaver was not, at that time, considered as the motor of progress and research. On the contrary, it was butchery, profanity and quite frankly downright nasty. Artists did it though, because they wanted to understand the muscles of the limbs they sculpted and sketched. Leonardo may well have started out with that in mind, but his curiosity soon found a far grander impetus.
The greatest deception men suffer
is from their own opinions
- Leonardo da Vinci
He tells the tale himself of keeping a vigil beside a dying man, wishing he could save him. He dreamed of beating death, of lodging a spanner in its implacable wheel. Before long he was sweating in the back rooms of the hospitals of both Florence and Milan, surgical knife in one hand, sketchbook in the other, leaving no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored. What he saw, he drew. What he drew he thought about, read about, tried and tested. Picture him trying to cut an eyeball with a knife at four in the morning and you will have a good sense of his desperate mission, his frustration and ultimately, the hot water into which he waded, feeling the urgency of what needed to be done.
It was fortunate for him that he did not end up in the Alberghetto, Florence’s prison in the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, as the crazed friar Savonarola later did (although for very different reasons). Instead he ended up in Milan, in the clutches of the Duke, with his endless requirements and demands, his warfare and his errors. Nevertheless, Leonardo being Leonardo, he still managed to produce a masterpiece. The Last Supper, which he painted on the refectory walls of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, would have been carted off by invading French armies if they could have removed it. Instead it stayed put, slowly rotting on account of the experimental concoction of materials he used to fix it there.
Nothing strengthens authority
so much as silence
- Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo’s passion and compassion made him a polymath. His obsessive determination to understand, while the majority around him were happy with half-truths, often made him enemies but it also made him a name that has endured for over five hundred years. It will doubtlessly endure for five hundred more.
Read more about the life of Leonardo; buy a copy of Gioconda