I just finished reading Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Before that, I devoured Walter Isaacson’s, Leonardo da Vinci.
The former was about artist Clara Driscoll’s relationship with Louis Comfort Tiffany and his corporation. She was likely the creative force behind Tiffany getting into the lamp business. It was a fascinating look at what went into designing and manufacturing those amazing jewel-like windows and lights. The book also gave a glimpse of women’s lives in the early twentieth century.
Now I’m hoping to take a field trip to Winter Park Florida and visit the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. It houses the most comprehensive collection of the works by Louis Comfort Tiffany found anywhere.
The latter book was a 550 page, three and a half pound tome (yes, I weighed it) about the life, art, and genius of da Vinci. I learned so much. Did you know he only completed sixteen paintings in his long career as an artist?
Sixteen? Why so few? It seems he loved the thrill of conception. But long before the painting was finished his endless wonder had moved him to other projects, completion being something of a chore. Plus he was a perfectionist unwilling to let go. He lugged Mona Lisa around for years, adding one bit of glaze over another repeatedly. Hence the depth of color and nuanced shading.
He dissected thirty cadavers to understand the skeleton, muscles, and tendons under the skin.
He was endlessly fascinated by everything, making long “to do” lists of things to investigate. (One example: describe a woodpeckers tongue. Have you ever given thought to the tongue of a woodpecker? I haven’t.)
Da Vinci’s brilliance spanned many disciplines. His curiosity drove him to seek to understand all of creation and how we fit into it.
In the book’s conclusion, Isaacson made of a list of things we can learn from Leonardo da Vinci. A few are as follows:
Be relentlessly curious.
Seek knowledge for its own sake.
Retain a childlike sense of wonder.
Get distracted. (This one baffled me until the author pointed out that Leonardo’s willingness to pursue any shiny subject that caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.)
See things unseen.
Let your reach exceed your grasp.
Start with the details. After all, God is in the details. Whether the phrase originated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Aby Warburg, Gustave Flaubert, or someone else entirely, the point still remains – more often than not, when something goes screwy it’s because we forgot to pay attention to the details.
Make lists, take notes.
And finally: Be open to mystery.
As for the description of the tongue of a woodpecker, author Isaacson investigated. The tongue of a woodpecker can extend more than three times the length of its bill. When not in use it retracts into the skull. In addition to digging out grubs, it winds around the bird’s head and protects the woodpecker’s brain. Smashing his beak into tree bark exerts a force on the head ten times what would kill a human. The strange tongue acts as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.
Leonardo da Vinci had no need for this information. He just wanted to know. Out of pure and fabulous curiosity.