Leonardo da Vinci was the king of creative research, apparently

So recently I was looking for something to read and I happened to come across a recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I am not someone who is typically interested in art or art history but I do love well-written biographies about interesting people and I knew that Isaacson is particularly excellent in this respect, so I decided to pick up a copy from my library out of idle curiosity.

It turns out that telling the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s life is a bit difficult because while he left behind a lot of notebooks and writings, he almost never wrote about himself in any detail. Isaacson does a great job of filling in the blanks based on the historical evidence that still exists but the biography of Leonardo(1) in many ways ends up being a biography of the work he left behind, both finished and unfinished, more than a biography of the man himself and how he lived his life. Because while Leonardo didn’t write much about himself, he did write a great deal about things that sparked his curiosity. And much of what he was curious about ended up informing his work in the various artistic and scientific realms that he worked in.

Basically, what I’m saying is Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of what can be understood now as creative research.

Not only that, Leonardo’s most famous and beloved work—the Mona Lisa—is in a lot of ways a product of creative research. Or, at least, what makes the painting such a great work would not have been possible without research.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Mona Lisa. Not because I don’t think it’s a great painting but because any appreciation I might have for its beauty has always been drowned out by the fact that it kind of freaks me out for reasons I’ve never been able to name. You might think it has something to do with Lisa herself—either her ever-changing smile or the eyes that follow you. And that might be part of it. But weirdly enough, I think it’s actually the background of the painting that disturbs me the most, the rocky landscape behind her. I don’t know why, but that landscape has always looked somehow apocalyptic to me. The same is true for the background in a lot of Leonardo’s paintings. He liked to use his knowledge about geology to paint these kinds of rocky landscapes, some of which are accurate to the locations he’s trying to portray and some of which came from his imagination. For some reason, seeing people in the middle of these rocky landscapes, which often seem so out of place, freaks me out.

So the Mona Lisa was always a painting that I understood to be important and intriguing while not necessarily understanding what it made so great (though I believed the people with the qualifications to judge these things when they said that it was).

In his biography, Isaacson devotes an entire chapter to the Mona Lisa, including speculation about why Leonardo painted it and who the subject of the painting was. But he also talks a lot about how Leonardo’s research informed the aspects of the painting that make it great, including the most famous element of the work: Mona Lisa’s smile.

Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by how things worked. When it came to art, he apparently felt that painting a person was not possible without understanding the skeleton and the muscles and how all the parts of the body affect each other. So he spent a lot of time dissecting dead people. One of his goals in doing this was to learn how smiles are formed.

According to Isaacson, “At the time when he was perfecting Lisa’s smile, Leonardo was spending his nights in the depths of the morgue under the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, peeling the flesh off cadavers and exposing the muscles and nerves underneath. He became fascinated about how a smile begins to form and instructed himself to analyze every possible movement of each part of the face and determine the origin of every nerve that controls each facial muscle. Tracing which of those nerves are cranial and which are spinal may not have been necessary for painting a smile, but Leonardo needed to know” (p. 489).

Isaacson also points to a set of anatomical drawings Leonardo did around 1508 that show him playing with trying to portray different mouth expressions. These drawings are informed by his studies of dead bodies. In the margins of these pages is a sketch of a smile that, according to Isaacson, is likely “the makings of Mona Lisa’s smile.”

You might think that knowing that Leonardo based the Mona Lisa smile on what he learned by studying dead people would make the painting more disturbing to me. Instead, it helps me understand and appreciate the painting a lot more than I did before, as does Isaacson’s discussion of how Leonardo used his knowledge about how light hits the eye (gleaned from research) to create the light and shadows in the painting in a special way. Research even seems to have gone into how he portrayed her eyebrows, which were apparently quite beautiful before (according to Isaacson) they were probably accidentally erased the first time the painting was cleaned.

This is actually an aspect of creative research that I haven’t considered before. A lot of times, in the context of fiction writing, I think writers don’t want to talk about their research because they’re worried that if their readers know about the research they did, it might somehow ruin the magic of what they created. For some readers, that may be true. But learning about Leonardo’s research actually helped me better understand and appreciate the significance and greatness of his work. Like, I still wouldn’t hang the Mona Lisa in my living room because it still freaks me out. But now I know that that “freaked out” reaction was more or less intentional on Leonardo’s part. He painted his work the way he did so that the viewer would have an emotional reaction to it. He succeeded in large part because of the research he did to render his subject in a specific way.

It helps that in his biography, Isaacson portrays Leonardo as a charming man full of wonder and curiosity. I’ve been saying for a while now that most research is not primarily driven by a need for information, as the ACRL Standards and other documents might suggest, but instead by curiosity. It seems that even without access to libraries as we know them now or the internet, Leonardo da Vinci was able to follow his curiosity through research that helped him not only create some of the greatest art in history but also to make important scientific discoveries.(2)

So, after reading his biography, I am now crowning him the unofficial king of creative research.

Now to find a queen…


(1) Referring to him as “Leonardo” makes me feel like I’m talking about a ninja turtle rather than a great painter but that’s how Isaacson refers to him throughout the book because, he explains, “da Vinci” wasn’t so much a last name as a designation to indicate where Leonardo was from (it literally means “of Vinci”). I assume Isaacson is correct in this, so I’m following him even though it feels kind of overly familiar to talk about Leonardo da Vinci that way.

(2) Most of which he never shared or published, even though he apparently intended to do so. Because of this, a lot of what Leonardo knew in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had to be essentially rediscovered by others, sometimes centuries later.

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