Leonardo da Belichick

Book Review and Reflection

I speak of geniuses. That’s as good a way as any to review and discuss a book about Leonardo da Vinci.

So let’s start with Bill Belichick. He’s a genius of his sport, and he has a lot in common with Leonardo, a prolific, incomparable polymath who once finished a job application letter to the ruler of Milan with “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.” No kidding, as he later showed with Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

I’m not kidding about Bill either. Even though Joe Montana, the storied Notre Dame and San Francisco 49er quarterback, said that nobody in football should be called a genius because “a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”

Actually, no.  A genius is a guy like Leonard da Vinci and Bill Belichick.

A genius is made, not born. A genius is an imaginative synthesizer of art and science. A genius is a lifetime autodidact, because there’s always more to learn. A genius can draw analogies, discern underlying similarities, and apply lessons from vastly different fields to his own.  That’s my big takeaway from Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Leonardo.

Nobody in the history of the world did a better job of all that genius-making than Leonardo da Vinci. Though this post is primarily about that book and about him, I think a side trip into a brief comparison with Belichick is instructive.

The post-Super Bowl issue of Sports Illustrated had a lengthy piece on Belichick, as you might expect. One of its anecdotes immediately reminded me of several similar ones about Da Vinci. Their minds operated in exactly the same way.

In 2000, the reticent, grumpy Belichick had met Lenny Clarke, the loud and uncouth lowbrow comedian, on an airplane flight. They became buds, unlikely as that sounds. Four years and two Super Bowl victories later, Bill asked if he could visit the set of Clarke’s tv show, Rescue Me.

Belichick showed up at 5 a.m. and spent the entire day, notebook and Blackberry in hand, taking notes and asking questions like “When do the lighting guys come in? Who is the boss? How many guys work for him?”

At lunch, comedian and show co-star Dennis Leary asked Belichick why all the questions.  “Fascination,” was the answer. “It’s about the process.”

I don’t know exactly what lessons Bill Belichick learned that day, but I’m positive he found something about putting on a television show that he could apply to his work of directing a football organization. “Do your job,” remember? It’s not just the players on game day. It’s everybody, all year round. The process brings about the execution. Bill, like Leonardo, is a lifetime learner, an observer of the real world who looks for something of value wherever he goes.

Now to da Vinci’s biography. The book has so many examples of Leonardo’s relentless search for knowledge and his creative application of that knowledge, it’s impossible to list them all here.  I’ll just cite a few, after mentioning the many fields of scientific study that Leonardo da Vinci pursued almost obsessively throughout his life.

He did his learning mostly by observation and hands-on experimenting, but also by consulting with experts and by reading.  He was the perfect autodidact.

Those fields of study include: anatomy, the heart, birds, fossils, water flows, optics, geometry, botany, geology, geography, military weaponry, engineering, architecture, and flying machines.

The Ideal Man

Consider Leonardo’s drawing of “Vitruvian Man.” This spread-eagled, perfectly proportioned man rests within both a circle and a square.  His name comes from Vitruvius, a military engineer and architect who lived in the first century CE. Vitruvius once wrote that the layout of a religious temple should have precise relationships, exactly like those of a well-shaped man. So, what was a well-shaped man? Leonardo decided to determine that.

As it happened, Leonardo had also been working on the design of a bell tower for a cathedral in Milan. Squares and circles, from his favored discipline of geometry, both figured prominently in the design of the church’s floor plan. He used them in the drawing, in which the outstretched arms of the man extended to the ends of the church’s transepts.  As he worked on it, Leonardo brought in his own observations of anatomy; for example, Vitruvius thought that a man’s height was six times the length of his foot. Through his dissections and drawings of cadavers, Leonardo realized that the proportion was seven times, not six.

The drawing, in Isaacson’s description, “embodies a moment when art and science combines to allow mortal minds to probe timeless questions about who we are and how we fit into the grand order of the universe.  It also symbolizes an ideal of humanism that celebrates the dignity, value, and rational agency of humans and individuals. Inside the square and the circle we can see the essence of Leonardo da Vinci, and the essence of ourselves, standing naked at the intersection of the earthly and the cosmic.”

A rather flowery summation, but I like it.

The Penis

A bit more on anatomy – Leonardo celebrated both beauty and function. Vitruvian Man’s proportions also required that “The root of the penis (il membra virile) is at half the height of the man.” The man’s genitals are at the exact center of the square.  Il membra virile was apparently a favorite subject for Leonardo, as his little essay On the Penis indicates:

“The penis sometimes displays an intellect of its own. When a man may desire it to be stimulated, it remains obstinate and goes its own way, sometimes moving on its own without permission of the owner. Whether he is awake or sleeping, it does what it desires. Often when the man wishes to use it, it desires otherwise, and often it wishes to be used and the man forbids it.  Therefore it appears that this creature possesses a life and intelligence separate from the man. Man is wrong to be ashamed of giving it a name or showing it, always covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony.”

Such an assessment had to come from both observation and experience. Another thing about the handsome, dashing Leonardo…he never had a lady friend, but unlike his rival Michelangelo, who was also gay, he was not ashamed of his own sexual desires. Rather, he was amused by them. Like his relentless quest for learning, they were a source of joy, insight, and satisfaction.

Light and Pictures

Leonardo’s fascination with optics and light led him to a correct surmise about why the sky is blue, and to the explanation of the “earthshine” glow on a crescent moon.  It also informed the precision of his painting of colors in artistic works; an object lighted by reflected light is different from one illuminated by direct light, for instance.

He also understood how the human eye works; and the pupils of his subjects’ eyes display that knowledge.  They seem to follow observers around as those observers change positions. His painting technique of “sfumato,” which slightly blurred outlines and mellowed colors, both left something to the viewer’s imagination and gave a more realistic perspective of three-dimensional depth.  Sharply defined outlines, like those of Michelangelo, make paintings look flat and two-dimensional. As da Vinci wrote to art students, “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines of borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air.”

Leonardo dissected literally hundreds of dead bodies over the course of his career. His drawings, which were unfortunately not shared widely or published, were every bit as good as those you see in the classic “Gray’s Anatomy” books.

He studied the structure of the lip muscles and used that knowledge in crafting Mona Lisa’s famous smile. He studied how the body’s joints moved the hands, arms, legs, and torso; with that knowledge he he imparted realistic action to the people in his paintings. He was acquainted with a man who happened to be a deaf mute; he studied how that man used his hands and his facial expressions to convey his inner emotions.  Check out how he applied that in The Last Supper. In that painting, Jesus has just announced to his followers, “One of you will betray me.” Note the many ways in which the apostles’ gestures and expressions tell what they feel about that bombshell.

Hydraulics of the Heart

To me, the most fascinating connection and discovery that da Vinci made was about how the aortic valve of the heart works. The heart pumps torrents of oxygenated blood out through the triangle-shaped valve opening, and somehow the little flaps of that valve immediately close up and don’t allow backflow into the chamber. How was this possible?

Go back to da Vinci’s close observations of flowing water. He took note of how river currents flow swiftly in the middle of the stream, but along the edges they flow more slowly, swirling back into little eddies and meanders.  Those swirls appear in his paintings, where streams appear in the background or flow as spiraling eddies around his subjects’ feet. They also show up as the luxurious curly locks of his subjects’ hair.

He also saw how water flowing out of a pipe moved faster in the center, but slower along the edges of the pipe because of friction and drag. Applying that to the heart valve, he wrote, “The middle of the blood that spouts up through the trials acquires much more height than that which rises up along the sides.  That slower-moving blood forms spiraling eddies, which causes the leaflets of the valve to spread out and cover the opening. He writes “The revolving blood beats against the sides of the three valves and closes them so that the blood cannot descend.”

Up until the 1960s, heart specialists thought differently.  They believed that the valve was simply pushed shut by the weight of the blood above it. Finally, about 450 years after da Vinci, researchers at Oxford used dyes and radiography to confirm that Leonardo’s description of the heart’s hydrodynamics had gotten it right. They found that “vortices produce a thrust on both the cusp and the sinus wall, and the closure of the cusps is thus steady and synchronized.”

One surgeon is quoted on the latter: “Of all the amazements that Leonardo left for the ages, this one would seem to be the most extraordinary.”

I’ll leave that decision up to you. But I do urge you to read the book. In addition to learning about da Vinci the man, you’ll discover a good deal about how life really was in Renaissance Italy, and about art history and techniques, along with many other items of interest.

Can We Ever Hope to Emulate Leonardo?

And now for a final thought and personal reflection. Isaacson closes the book with a section subtitled “Learning from Leonardo.” In it he gives several bits of advice, two of which are “Be curious, be relentlessly curious,” and “Retain a childlike sense of wonder.” To the latter he adds “We should be careful to never outgrow our wonder years, or to let our children do so.”

Amen to that. We’re never too old to learn, and we’re never too old to embrace and to love life, and to relish each and every day that dawns as a precious gift from God.

With Doris Matthews White, the “Queen Bee,” and many of her friends at Planting for Friends Day at Winthrop Cemetery, June 2010.

I’m fortunate to have many contemporaries who live with this attitude.  But perhaps the best example is my dear and now-departed friend Doris Matthews White. She left this earth just before attaining 100 years of age.  Her days she filled with online research and banter with her hundreds of fans and admirers. She dived right into computer technology, taught herself techniques of genealogy, and discovered the life stories of relatives. One of them died at the battle of Lexington and Concord; another was captain of a privateering vessel during the Revolutionary War; and still another was a member of the court of Edward the Confessor.

Doris remained relentlessly curious and open to learning throughout her long life. To herself, she brought a wealth of knowledge. To her many friends and admirers with whom she shared that knowledge, she brought joy, appreciation, and faith that somehow all would be right with the world.

Leonardo kept much of his vast knowledge to himself. But fortunately for us, many of his notebooks have survived.

And as for that other modern-day Leonardo, Bill Belichick, he doesn’t share a whole lot of what he knows either. But you have to admit that he puts it to good use. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs. Or Pete Carroll. Or Roger Goodell.

2 Responses to “Leonardo da Belichick”

  1. Joanne Doyle Kuzborski Says:

    You write so well! Blessed.

    I loved Doris as well! Amazing lady.

  2. Thomas Barrett Says:

    Thanks Tom . My mother (Doris White) was persistently relentless. Now that I have been playing with geneology on the computer, I don’t know how she did it in pre computer days. Many bus and MTA (I’m old school) rides to libraries and city hall records buildings.

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