Leonardo's Prodigious Vision


Leonardo believed that his sense of sight and its ability to visualize and map abstract meanings marked the core of his abilities.

Leonardo da Vinci attributed many of his scientific and artistic discoveries to one principle that he called sapere vedere — ‘knowing how to see.’ It's a term that is wrapped in deep philosophical and scientific practices, yet in recent times has often found itself as a mere tagline for sloganeering.

   Francesco Melzi  ,  Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci , c. 1510

Francesco MelziPortrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1510

Leonardo believed that his sense of sight and its ability to visualize and map abstract meaning marked a core of seeing. He states this very explicitly in his Notebooks — "The poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things, and far below the musician in that of invisible things." For music, word and image lovers, it is difficult to rank these faculties — a mere awareness of their curious tentacles can be enough of a reward. They all stir in us visual maps and memories that become the committed bearers to other inner states. But still, those who devote themselves to these kinds of observations are often met with a type of apathy or boredom when sharing them with others. Their thoughts about domestic, political or philosophical life can appear as too intense, too obscure or sensitive to what is familiar and obvious.

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Yet these innate reactions and their inherent biases can unknowingly shape social, political, and societal outlooks. For many of us, it is often difficult to admit to our many visual biases and their abilities to divide us. It's through a sort of saper vedere that we might begin to recognize the follies that keep such a commanding hold over implicit views. These become our primal screams, that push us into the aura of another's inner world, testing the knowledge of observation above that of just an audiences. This a crucial distinction that Leonardo's ‘knowing how to see’ maintains in us.

    Sir John Gilbert,   Cordelia in the Court of King Lear, c.1873

 Sir John Gilbert, Cordelia in the Court of King Lear, c.1873

Like many of Shakespeare's famous fables, (King Lear or MacBeth) it illustrates that through a type of unraveling of our other selves, we can paradoxically begin to see the state of our full being. This has at times been described as a state of empathy, and lacking it is not necessarily just an act of selfishness, but of determined unawareness. For those who are unempathetic, there remains an unwillingness to venture into new parts of a consciousness, leaving a current state to as untested and sufficient. Yet we also contain multitudes within our own selves that we often don’t care to understand. Not engaging these hidden sides of our selves (and others) is not the opposite of empathy or an act of narcissism, but engaging them in only convenient or biased ways can be seen as narcissistic.

 Study of the proportions of the head, c. 1488-9

Study of the proportions of the head, c. 1488-9

A Grotesque Head, c. 1504-7

In many ways DaVinci embodied a sense of being to its fullest, cultivating a refinement of all the senses. He frustratingly reflected that the average person “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.” DaVinci had an endless curiosity about the world, bound not only to the simple ideals of beauty. His curiosity held no real bounds and explored anatomies and structures of all kinds. For DaVinci, like countless other artists, scientists and thinkers across time, the tasks remains, "not to be constrained by a present reality." — mjg

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