Raphael (1483-1520) was twenty-six years old when he started to paint The School of Athens at the Vatican. To represent Plato arguing with Aristotle at the center of the fresco, Raphael depicted him as Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), who, at the time, was fifty-seven years old. He is making a gesture characteristic of Leonardo: his right index is pointing up to the heavens.
Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-1511
Detail: Leonardo da Vinci as Plato (left)
Five hundred and one years after Leonardo’s death, the heavens have fallen upon Planet Earth with a virus, COVID-19, commonly known as Coronavirus. What would Leonardo have done if he had to confront such a pandemic?
Leonardo’s areas of interest included drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, engineering, literature, scenography, paegentry, astronomy, botany, paleontology and cartography. The meaningful importance of immersing himself into such a wide range of subjects is in bringing the experiences in one field into another.
Leonardo’s self-portrait at 50, 1512
Vitruvian Man, 1490
Studies from dissection of woman
Fetus in the womb
Studies of bones
Studies for a building on a centralized plan
Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, 1505, lost in c. 1560, as painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1603
Cartoon of St. Anne, 1498-1510
Ginevra de’ Benci – c. 1478
La Bella Ferroniere – c. 1490
Cecilia Gallerani, 1493
La Bella Principesa – c. 1496
Annunciation, detail, 1472
Mona Lisa – 1503-1517
His skills as an artist allowed him to draw the human anatomy that he learned through dissections, and his learning from anatomy allowed him to express muscles and gestures on the surface of his subjects. Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile could not have been painted without his understanding of how the lips muscles function. He designed flying machines after observing how birds fly. His observation of rivers helped him to conceive a new capital for France, Romorantin, which included two palaces and waterways for outdoor spectacles, irrigation, street cleaning, flushing out horse stables and carrying away rubbish.
Leonardo was a genius, but he was not the only one navigating multiple subjects. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) studied and wrote about physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. Renaissance men include Michelangelo (1475 – 1564,) Galileo (1564 – 1642,) Franklin (1706 – 1790,) Jefferson (1743 – 1826,), Goethe (1749-1832,) Einstein (1879 1955,) Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1955,) and more recently, Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983,) ( Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) and Calatrava (1951.)
Aristotle, 384 BC-322 BC
Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1499
Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, 1504
Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512
St. Peter’s Basilica, 1547, completed in 1590
Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642
Galileo’s notes on Jupiter
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
Dr. Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1955
Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, with Tagore
Einstein playing Mozart
R. Buckminster Fuller, 1895-1983
Buckminster Fuller’s studies of a geodesic dome
Learning from Leonardo include being relentlessly curious, seeking knowledge for its own sake, retain a childlike sense of wonder, observe details carefully, get distracted, find time to loaf, let the perfect be the enemy of the good, think visually, wander across all the disciplines of the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities, indulge fantasy, create for yourself, not just for patrons, collaborate, take notes, be open to mystery. Practicing mental mapping and lateral thinking may help.
There is some good news from having to get secluded in our home. We learn that much of the work we do can be done without having to spend hours driving and burning tons of carbon. We may learn from China’s capability of building two hospitals in two weeks by developing methods to accelerate the construction of housing.
Coronavirus won’t be the last cataclysm that humanity will have to confront. As the world population continues to grow towards 10-12 billion people by the end of the century. We are challenged by colossal problems such as sustainability, climate change and increasing urbanization. We must change our lifestyle, and to do that, we must change our way of thinking. The renaissance way of looking at reality offers us an important path.
Despite all the fear that the Coronavirus is spreading in the world, perhaps there is also good that will come of this, perhaps this is the time to rethink our value systems, to reunite with family members and even wit ourselves.
Maybe a little perspective of what really matters to us is a lesson that it takes a pandemic to teach. Maybe it takes an “excuse” like Covid-19 to create.
Last Supper, 1490