Leonardo's Prodigious Vision

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Leonardo honed 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 deep philosophical and scientific practices we still know today, yet in 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 its ability to visualize and map abstract meaning marked one of the core principles in seeing. 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." Yet 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. Despite his often misconstrued ideas on the different arts, they still stir in us the visual maps and memories to become committed bearers to other states of mind. And yet, to those of us who devote ourselves to these kinds of domains, we 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 sensitive to what is familiar and obvious.

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There does remain something in these natural reactions and their inherent biases that can unknowingly shape our social, political, and societal outlooks. For many of us, it is often difficult to admit to our many visual biases and their abilities to innately divide our thinking. It's through an act of saper vedere that we might begin to recognize the follies in our implicit and overbearing views. These explorations become our primal screams, that push us into the aura of another's inner world, testing our knowledge of observation beyond that a populist 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 state of our full 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 unempathetic, there remains an unwillingness to venture into new parts of our consciousness lives, leaving our current state as untested and sufficient. We all contain multitudes within ourselves that we often don’t care to understand. Not engaging with these hidden sides of ourselves (or others) is not just the opposite of empathy, but an act of narcissism, that relies on only the most convenient and biased ways of seeing.

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