What is genius? Is it an innate talent a person is born with, a great skill that develops through life or a combination of the two?
Is true genius always accompanied by a driving obsession, a willingness to sacrifice everything in pursuit of perfection? A list of brilliant historical luminaries would not contain many couch potatoes, that’s for sure.
(Unless, of course, you count Sir Isaac Newton who was dozing under a tree in his orchard when the apple hit him on the head.)
A couple of years ago I thought I was a genius after getting an A* in my Spanish GCSE. All those dark wintry nights of traipsing over the valleys to Holmfirth Adult Education Centre had finally paid off.
For a week or so I was walking on air, marvelling at my own towering intellect. I started an online application to join Mensa and even splashed out on the Times crossword. What a waste of 90p that was, I couldn’t get a single answer. Then reality dawned as I admitted what I had suspected all along – that exams nowadays are nowhere near as hard as they used to be.
Last weekend I went to see the works of perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibition was on at the National Gallery and tickets were like gold dust.
Three of us got the £16 tickets for the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience and shortly afterwards prices on the black market soared. Tickets were fetching £400 on eBay.
This raised an interesting moral dilemma and at a meal with friends in Longwood the week before, the question came up after a few bottles of wine: “Would you sell your ticket for £400 on eBay?” The two of us present with tickets abstained and, this being Yorkshire, five out of the other six said they definitely would.
Well, we didn’t and smugly set off for the National Gallery last Saturday. The exhibition only covered Leonardo’s period in Milan from 1482 to 1499. Presumably this was because our old – and judging by the current Euro discussions, current – sparring partners the French would not lend us the Mona Lisa.
Although the London exhibition focused on his art, Leonardo was originally taken into Milan as a musician. He was accomplished on the lyre; he could play any stringed instrument on first sight and composed music spontaneously.
His brilliant mind ranged unfettered over numerous disciplines: art, music, architecture, the sciences, mathematics, engineering, anatomy and cartography, to name but a few. He was also a writer and inventor.
He drew concepts for the helicopter, tank, calculator, solar power and even developed a theory of plate tectonics.
The mind boggles at how Leonardo found time for all of this. Clearly he didn’t spend much time sitting around painting his toenails. According to his friends, the Renaissance man was driven by his “unquenchable curiosity and feverishly inventive imagination.”
He was also a perfectionist and easily distracted. At times he would paint from morn till night for three or four days at a stretch, forgetting to eat or drink. Then he would contemplate the canvas for long periods, returning occasionally to make a single brush stroke. How many paintings do you think he made in his lifetime – 100, maybe 200? Amazingly, he only ever made 20 and most of these were incomplete.
Wandering round the exhibition marvelling at Leonardo’s unparalleled drawings and paintings and the way he captured emotion or painted the subtlety of soft light falling on to a face or hand, the man seems unreachable on a higher plane; a god.
But then you read the notes alongside. He was a terrible procrastinator, he hardly even finished anything , he was left handed and wrote backwards from right to left, he was useless at freelancing, he experimented disastrously with eggs and other unsuitable substances which destroyed some of his work – most notably the iconic Last Supper – and suddenly the centuries and aura fade away and he becomes human again.
I think I would have liked Leonardo. He was handsome and generous, a humanist and vegetarian, he bought caged birds to release them. Above all, whatever he did – even when he made mistakes – he did it with passion and continued unfailingly throughout his life to pursue perfection.
I left the exhibition feeling inspired. I might have a crack at art classes this winter after all.