Leonardo's Prodigious Vision


Leonardo developed an exceptional ability to explore the idea of ‘knowing how to see’.

Leonardo da Vinci attributed many of his scientific and artistic discoveries to a principle he called sapere vedere‘knowing how to see.’ It's a term that has ingrained itself into philosophical and scientific domains we still practice today. Yet in more recent times, we often find it as a mere tagline for simplistic sloganeering.

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

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

Leonardo believed that his sense of sight and the ability to visualize and map abstract meanings marked one of the core principles in ‘seeing’ and learning itself. He states his understandings of 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, or image lovers, it remains somewhat difficult to rank these faculties of ‘seeing’ — a mere awareness of their curious tentacles can be enough of a reward for many of us, and that remains at the core of Leonardo’s explorations. His often misconstrued ideas on the different arts stir in us visual maps and memories that become the bearers to other states of mind. And yet, to those of us who devote ourselves to these kinds of pursuits are often met with a type of apathy or boredom when sharing them with others. Thoughts and reflections about domestic, political, or philosophical life can appear as too intense, too obscure, or too sensitive to what is familiar and obvious.

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Unfortunately, there remains something in these hurried acts of ‘seeing’ and their inherent biases that can unknowingly shape our social, political, and societal outlooks for the worse. For many of us, it remains quite difficult to recognize the visual biases we harbour, and their abilities to dissolve and divide our ways of seeing. It's through an act of saper vedere that we might begin to recognize the follies in these overbearing views. These types of explorations become more like our primal screams, pushing us further into the spirit of another inner world, and testing our knowledge of observation beyond that of the immediate appeal. 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 full state of our being. This notion has sometimes been described as a state of empathy, and lacking it is not just an act of selfishness, but determined unawareness. For those who are unempathic, we remain unwilling to venture into new parts of our conscious lives, leaving our current states as untested and sufficient. We all contain multitudes within ourselves that we often don’t care to understand. Disengaging these hidden sides of ourselves (or others) is not just the opposite of empathy, but a deliberate act of narcissism. And it relies on the most convenient and often biased ways of seeing instead—be it good or bad, it remains a bias nonetheless.

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.” He managed to maintain a fearless curiosity about the world, exploring far beyond the typical 'ideals' of beauty. This curiosity held no real bounds, unafraid to explore anatomies and structures of all kinds. For DaVinci, like countless other artists, scientists and thinkers across time, the task remains, "not to be constrained by present reality." 

michael graf