There are benefits of being curious just for curiosity’s sake instead of pursuing a higher goal—something I believe nobody can teach us better than Leonardo da Vinci. Here’s an example to illustrate my point.
At the time when he was perfecting Mona Lisa’s smile, Leonardo was spending his nights in the depths of a morgue, peeling the flesh off cadavers and exposing the muscles and nerves underneath.
He became fascinated about how a smile begins to form and instructed himself to analyse every possible movement of each part of the face and determine the origin of every nerve that controls each facial muscle.
This may seem reasonable for a perfectionist such as him, but the interesting part is that tracing which of those nerves are cranial and which are spinal were not necessary for painting a smile. But Leonardo needed to know.
He painted the Mona Lisa for fourteen years until his death in 1519. If he had lived another decade, he likely would have continued to refine it for that much longer.
Delivering a work, declaring it finished, freezes its evolution. Leonardo did not like to do that. There was always something more to learn, another stroke to glean from nature that would make a picture closer to perfect. For example, he updated Saint Jerome in the Wilderness after thirty years, when his anatomy experiments taught him something new about neck muscles.
Leonardo enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion. One of the reasons why very few of his paintings were finished.
Yes, he was wildly imaginative and creative across multiple disciplines, but none of these skills were innate. Leonardo had no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as an insatiable curiosity and intense observation .
His curiosity was often about phenomena that most people over the age of ten no longer puzzle about: Why is the sky blue? How are clouds formed? Why can our eyes see only in a straight line? What is yawning?
Apart from questions he wanted to explore, he also listed things he wanted to figure out. For example, he writes, “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.” Or, one quite eccentric, “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”
I mean who on earth would decide one day for no apparent reason that they wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like! It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture. But there it was.
Other topics he listed in his notebooks were more ambitious. “Which nerve causes the eye to move so that the motion of one eye moves the other?” “Describe the beginning of a human when it is in the womb.” Along with the woodpecker, he lists “the jaw of the crocodile” and “the placenta of the calf” as things he wants to describe.
His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused on things that the rest of us glance over. One night he saw lightning flash behind some buildings, and for that instant they looked smaller, so he launched a series of experiments to verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light and look larger in the mist or dark.
The trick for closely observing a scene or object, according to Leonardo, is to look carefully and separately at each detail. He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word.
“If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory,” instructs Leonardo.
Apart from things he wanted to observe, Leonardo also had the day’s list of things he wanted to learn, especially from others. “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle. Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled. Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders. Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner. Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” And so on.
The beauty of Leonardo’s notebook is that it indulges his provisional thoughts, half-finished ideas, unpolished sketches, and unrefined drafts. He occasionally declared an intent to organise and refine his notebook jottings into published works, but never did.
As he did with many of his paintings, Leonardo would hang on to the treatises that he was drafting, occasionally make a few new strokes and refinements, but never see them through to being released to the public as complete.
The trove of work that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history.
“I have no special talents,” Einstein once wrote to a friend. “I am just passionately curious.” Leonardo actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity.
Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do, every waking hour, just as Leonardo did.
And what about all of the scholars and critics over the years who concluded that Leonardo squandered too much time immersed in studying unrelated subjects and pursuing multiple disciplines? The Mona Lisa answers them with a smile.