Tag Archives: Da Vinci

Writing Lessons from Da Vinci

Having been to the National Gallery’s Da Vinci exhibit, one of the things that struck me is the number of works he left unfinished. St Jerome in the Wilderness. The Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. They weren’t interrupted by illness or death; they were abandoned.

Da Vinci is often used as an example of the polymath, someone who has a number of different, often unrelated skills. As a child, he would show impatience, wanting to move into another field of learning rather than focus on the task at hand. At first I thought this might explain his incomplete works; a lack of focus.

I spend a lot of time searching for information about writing and publishing. I always have. And the advice being given has changed a lot. It used to be “write”. Now it’s “write, network, build a platform, be a brand”. Writers are now required to be polymaths: writers, marketers and sales people in one.

You probably expect me to launch into something about my deciding not to divide my attention, that it’s more important to focus on my writing than try to be a writer cum marketer cum networking guru. But you’d be wrong.

A lack of focus may have not have helped Da Vinci, but being a polymath didn’t mean that he failed to finish works. It meant those he did finish were all the better. Yes, they started with paint, but then folded in Maths and anatomy and engineering. There’s no point in a platform with no book, yes, but the reverse is equally true. Trying to combine many different skills into one endeavour is not only fun but, I think, a recipe for success if it’s tempered with focus.

It’s debatable whether a jack of all trades is a master of none. But it’s certainly true that he can knock up a good painting while designing an ornithopter.

Leonardo Leads: Da Vinci at the National Gallery

I’ll be honest. Prior to The Da Vinci Code, my knowledge amounted to “he’s a Renaissance painter and he had a ninja turtle named after him”. The novel taught me a lot more but, with fact mixed in with fiction, it was difficult to know exactly what was true and what was not.

With this in mind, the Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition seemed like an excellent idea. In fact, as my girlfriend is an artist and the exhibition included items that would probably never be seen together again, it seemed necessary! But the tickets sold out in two days, so we were left with queuing for one of the 500 day tickets that were on sale.

I tweeted my experience of the queue, inspired by Betsy Transatlantically. We beat Betsy’s time. We got in the queue at 7:00am and got our tickets at 12:30pm. That’s five and a half hours of queuing!

But it was worth it. It was truly fascinating, a chance to see some of his great works alongside the sketches, studies and doodles that went into their composition. It was enlightening, too, to see some of his students’ work. It’s no exaggeration to say that none of them caught their master’s talent, though they were good in their own right.

My favourite room, though, was dedicated to The Last Supper. The original, of course, was not there; it’s far too fragile to move. Instead there was a print on show and a copy made by one of Leonardo’s students which has survived in much better condition. It was this copy that was used as a reference for the original’s recent restoration. The copy was surrounded by the sketches and doodles that went into the original’s creation, and it allowed me to truly appreciate what a great work it is. And why so much fuss is made over it!

(It was fascinating, too, to learn that the original’s decay is due to Leonardo experimenting with a new form of painting, one which would allow him to make as many revisions as he wanted but that ultimately was unstable and ill-suited to longevity. Even the masters make mistakes.)

The only downside was the attitude of other visitors. Too many of us were crammed into the exhibit and it seemed like the order of the day was selfishness. People would stand in front of exhibits and prevent anyone else from seeing it. Droves of audio-guide wearing cattle lumbered into each other, unaware and uncaring of their neighbours. My temper was quite frayed before the end and some of my internal grumbling did escape to the shock of some.

But if you’re thinking of going, go and go now. The exhibition closes on 5th February! But, if you’re going to go, you must do the following:

Hundreds of people queue to get into the Da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery• Get there early; as the exhibition comes to a close, I’m sure more and more people will try to get in. We got there at 7:00am and the queue had reached quite a length behind us by 7:30am
• Wrap up warm; it’s so cold at the moment! Wear thick socks, hats, scarfs, multiple layers. Our neighbours had a blanket that I was very jealous of.
• Be friendly; you’ll never make it through the five hour wait if you don’t chat to your neighbours. Everyone seemed very friendly and positive about the experience!
• Check your coats; because there’s so many people in the exhibit, it gets hot fast. Take all the layers you wore for the queue and put them in the cloakroom!

If you go, let me know what you thought. Personally, though my still-cold feet may never forgive me, I found it to be a fantastic and enlightening experience.