Channeling da Vinci - Part II
"All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions." ~ Leonardo da Vinci
Last week I dove into da Vinci's Values as outlined by Michael Gelb in his 1998 book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. I talked about Curiosità and Demostrazione. This week I’m going to talk about the next two values, Sensazione and Sfumato.
Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.
Sfumato (“going up in smoke”): A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
I love the idea that cultivating our senses will open the doors of experience. This sentiment is truly at the heart of who Leonardo da Vinci was. Vision was top of mind for him, as was clear from his paintings and drawings. Next came music, which he called “the sister of painting.” Leonardo was known to play the lyre and sing like an angel. He reveled in the feel and smell of the world around him. Gelb tells us that Leonardo lamented that the average human “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.”
Most of us will never reach the level of Leonardo’s genius, but we can work on escaping some of these traps that humanity lays for us and try to enjoy more of the world we are in.
Let’s start with vision. I love looking at art and am drawn to many forms, but I particularly love contemporary art because of its surprising nature. It fills me with wonder and sparks my curiosity. It often makes me immeasurably happy—or fills me with sorrow. I’m currently working on a book in which the theme of happiness is central, and I knew that visiting the Venice Biennale last fall was something that could enliven all my senses, and it did not disappoint.
One of my favorite exhibits was by Turkish artist Füsun Onur, who created a floating fairytale world in miniature out of paper and wire. It was fanciful, and utterly creative, and each little scene sparked a sense of wonder within me. There were several of these miniature moments, all floating on lighted-up pieces of paper hung by wire in a big dark room.
Speaking of sound, the Biennale also had a wild, violent-sounding experimental music exhibit in the Australian pavilion, titled Desastres by artist Marco Fusinato. The sound was so loud that I couldn’t even walk near the pavilion because I was terrified it might trigger my vertigo.
I could spend all day in museums and be perfectly happy, discovering all sorts of new ways of looking at the world. Ironically, I’m married to an artist, but he burns out fast in museums!
If you want to explore new ways of looking at the world through art, check out Google Arts & Culture, which has amazing exhibits online and 3D tours of some of the world’s best museums. Right now, the National Gallery in London has a beautiful online exhibit of one of the few women artists of the Renaissance, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Gelb describes that the Italian term meaning “going up in smoke” or “turned to mist” is often used by artists to describe the hazy, mysterious qualities that often show up in da Vinci paintings. But in the sense of a value, it applies more specifically to da Vinci’s ongoing exploration of opposition and paradox, ambiguity, the idea of infinity, and change.
There is no greater example of the concept of “mysterious” than the Mona Lisa and her smile. There are theories of who the woman might be, but one of the most interesting is that of Dr. Lillian Schwartz, who theorized that the Mona Lisa might just be one of the most elaborate self-portraits ever devised.
The concept of sfumato is really that of uncertainty and how good we are at dealing with it. I have to admit, the older I get, the less I find it easy to bend with the wind, so this is a good reminder to me to think about all the times that uncertainty and ambiguity ended up serving me well:
Dating online…and meeting my husband.
Every time I’ve been laid off in my career, it has led to better opportunities.
That time one of my writing partners suggested jettisoning the first half of my work in progress—and after some incubation of the idea, I realized she was right.
The many, many times in Italy that I attempted to speak with my halting Italian (although it’s far less halting now!) and was rewarded by kind people who opened doors to special opportunities for me, including access to food and history experts, their homes, special tours, and behind-the-scenes places tourists never get to see.
The entire publishing industry is one monster, ambiguous mess. This is one of those areas where I have to push through the ambiguity on a near-daily basis, reminding myself that it has worked for me in the past and will work for me again in the future. And if it doesn’t, I can take things into my own hands. You literally can’t be an author in today’s world if you aren’t able to handle ambiguity.
And, of course, every time I sit down to write a book, I’m working with some level of ambiguity. This is particularly true with this contemporary fantasy (with ancient Greek gods!) that I’m pantsing my way through right now. Who knows where it’s going?! But it flows on, and I’m along for the ride.
What types of Sensazione do you enjoy? How have you managed Sfumato in your life? Let me know in the comments!
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In a post earlier this year, I wrote about my love for Italo Calvino. The New Yorker had a wonderful piece about him that is worth a read. “Italo Calvino was, word for word, the most charming writer to put pen to paper in the twentieth century.” I agree! If you want a taste of Calvino, this video features Richard Gere reading from one of the books I really loved, the strangely fanciful story of a boy who climbs a tree to escape the demands of his father and ends up living his life as The Baron of The Trees. Gere is also in conversation with Calvino’s daughter Giovanna Calvino and Stefano Albertini, professor of Italian at New York University.
Last month I wrote about how Penguin/Puffin was doing extensive edits on Roald Dahl’s books to reflect the changing morals of our time. I argued against it for many reasons, but primarily because Dahl (despite the ass that he was) isn’t alive to condone it, nor was any family member or literary executor participating in the decision, rather it was a publisher trying to eke life out of books that didn’t fit the mold of what parents might want their kids to be reading.
Now Ursula K. LeGuin’s son is editing some of his mother’s books for kids, but he took a very specific approach, which you can read about here. This makes a lot more sense to me.
What’s Bringing Me Joy This Week:
The 1979 Disco Championships. This video has made the internet rounds a few times (it has 91M views!), but it really is mesmerizing. I rediscover it every few months and always end up watching it again.
A bit of ancient Greek humor.
If you ever want to cook an entire ox, now you can. This recipe is from a cookbook written in the 16th century by the master Chef of the Prince of the Court of Transylvania.
Congrats 🎉🎉to Samantha Morris and Lisa Wilk, the winners of last week’s book giveaway of Julie Carrick Dalton’s The Last Beekeeper and Jane Roper’s The Society of Shame! I’ll be doing more book giveaways in the future, so stay tuned.
Thanks for joining me this week! If you haven’t read THE CHEF’S SECRET or FEAST OF SORROW, click the links to learn where to buy your copy! 🍒🍗🍷
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Reading the recipe for an entire ox reminded me of Chapter 11 of one of the best food fiction books that I have ever read, High Bonnet by Idwal Jones:
“It would be a novelty.” I wrote on a pad. “Pleistocene banquet. Soup, a potage of musk-ox tail. Then a prime roast of musk ox, a double-rack, with King Edward the Seventh trimmings—garnish, sauce, and so forth. Vegetable, purée of fossil moss.”
Seeing the da Vinci show at the Louvre (just before the pandemic lockdown) was so inspiring (looking at his sketchbooks, his studies and then his finished works too) to see the process of a creative soul. He was making something from nothing, the image emerges from the obscurity and if that isn't what writers do, I'm not sure about anything else. Thank you for this post!