For several months we've been discussing creativity, focusing mainly on the state and function of the mind. This month we consider the mind-body connection, and how Leonardo da Vinci tapped into it. Throughout his life, da Vinci cultivated what he believed to be the physical ingredient to creativity, corporalita, by practicing fitness, ambidexterity, grace, and poise, as author Michael J. Gelb explains in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci's notebooks contain many entries on health and wellness, especially exercise and nutrition. In one place he writes, “Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.” By all accounts, da Vinci practiced what he preached, maintaining an athlete's physique out of which radiated a most brilliant mind.
According to Renaissance biographer, Giorgio Vasari, people in Florence marvelled at da Vinci's mere presence, who Vasari describes as a man “rained down by celestial influences.” In his noted book Lives of the Artists, compiled between 1550 and 1568, Vasari writes, “Da Vinci's great strength could restrain the most violent fury, and he could bend an iron knocker or a horseshoe as if it were lead.”
It sounds to me like Leonardo must have spent some time pumping iron in the local gymnasium. He clearly understood how muscles work, and he must have known they could be developed through use. I imagine he experimented quite a bit, performing a range of movements (with resistance) to gauge their muscle-building effect, not to mention the creative boost that follows.
Since my college days, I've been a fairly active weight trainer myself. I started during the first week of classes and immediately noticed how it improves mood, memory, and mind — just like da Vinci says. Quite honestly, if it wasn't for lifting and running, I might not have had the energy or will to endure the rigorous coursework involved in engineering.
Now one area where my “corporalita” isn't what it should be is my diet. I'm trying to address it, though, by following da Vinci's advice to “eat only when hungry and sup light.” I'm also trying, as he suggests, to limit myself to “simple foods, well cooked and unspiced,” and to avoid eating before bed. “Chew thoroughly that it may do you good,” da Vinci recommends, “and keep upright when you rise from the table.” I actually paid a doctor to tell me that once.
On almost everything, da Vinci was ahead of his time. He believed that his health was his responsibility, not society's as some people seem to think today. He actually avoided doctors. “To preserve your health,” he writes, “you will succeed better in proportion as you shun physicians because their medicines are the work of alchemists. He who takes medicine is ill-advised.”
Long before others, da Vinci also saw the connection between creativity and ambidexterity. Toward that end, he learned how to play several musical instruments, including the lyre, and taught himself to paint and write equally well, forward and backward, with either hand. He also practiced the art of juggling, now recognized for its mind-balancing effect.
Da Vinci exuded balance as well as coordination, and he moved with remarkable grace and poise for someone his size. As a painter, he was aware of posture and poise, and what they convey. For him, they conveyed the image of a developed and disciplined mind, prompting Vasari to write, “This was seen by all mankind in da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of body, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.”