How to Think Like Da Vinci by Daniel Smith

Review published on December 16, 2016.

The title immediately begs the question of whether anyone knows sufficiently well how Da Vinci thought to enable them to teach others. However, the author has written books on how to think like Einstein, Bill Gates and Sherlock, so he is well-versed in this exercise of practical imagination. Perhaps he also might have wished to please his publishers if they had phoned and said, ‘It’s a year since How to think like Churchill, who shall we do next?’ Equally speculative is whether they considered the competition from How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, its companion workshop book and similar guides to genius and creativity.

Following a brief introduction, we are given a useful list of Da Vinci’s extant works and his CV, using the, to some, contentious historical present: 1452 Leonardo is born; 1508 Michelangelo starts to paint the Sistine Chapel, and so on. After setting the artist in the political and artistic context of the Renaissance, Da Vinci’s low birth status is used to disabuse us of our apparently well-entrenched prejudice that geniuses are either born into intelligent families or hot housed and, presumably to emphasise Da Vinci’s pivotal role in initiating the Renaissance, we are told that he wasn’t born into it, even though Petrarch had by then been dead over a hundred years and Brunelleschi for nearly ten.

The headings of the nearly thirty chapters are couched in terms of advice to any aspiring Leonardo: Study, Study, Study; Unite Art and Science; Play the Markets; and even Eat Like Da Vinci. Each of these chapters highlights a period of Da Vinci’s life, taken more or less chronologically, and is decorated with apposite extracts from his notebooks, quotes from other authors and interspersed with topic boxes on different aspects of his interests. This plan works surprisingly well, although it becomes a little strained towards the end, when Fight Your Corner is not about any personal conflict but about Da Vinci’s military engineering. By this stage in the book, the professed aim of helping us think like Da Vinci seems to have weakened and the author simply wants his readers to understand, admire and even feel affection for his chosen thinker. And we do.

We are led through the circumstances of Da Vinci’s illegitimate birth, his good fortune in being supported by his Uncle Francesco, his artistic and wider education in the studio of Verrocchio and on into his years of great personal achievement. There is a modest amount of psychoanalysis about the origins of his personality, but there the author is in distinguished company, beginning over a hundred years ago with Sigmund Freud. There are intriguing suggestions: did the absence of any attempt to correct his left-handedness allow him to develop mirror writing? Did Da Vinci’s limited formal education free him to explore areas outwith the classical curriculum? Did this also prevent him from erecting artificial barriers between the work of artists and scientists?

The style is casually conversational to the point of sounding patronising at times (‘what does this actually mean?’; ‘it just so happened’; ‘when the chips were down’), although opposing ideas about contentious areas of Da Vinci’s life are given a hearing, which allow a balanced view to emerge.

I didn’t learn to think like Da Vinci, but I did find the book a highly readable and enjoyable short introduction to the life, work and personality of one of humanity’s greatest artists and scientists.

James Rose 3/2

How to Think Like Da Vinci by Daniel Smith
Michael O’Mara 9781782434580 hbk Oct 2015

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