Until today, I hadn’t quite wrapped my brain around how amazing da Vinci’s works were. My husband and I went with the Godchildren to an exhibit called “Da Vinci’s Machines,” which is a woefully inadequate title for it. After the first hour or so of wandering around, turning in circles, my mouth agape at the wonder of it all, I started feeling that familiar feeling of inadequacy. I was suddenly comparing myself and my achievements to his. Could my art have been as striking and revolutionary? Might I have been able to make work more efficient with gears and cams? Could I have designed this or that? Would I have been able to compute the width of wing necessary to lift a man? Surely his life’s dramatic productivity somehow means my existance is somehow lesser.
The little demons in my brain were working overtime.
But there is always another way to look at things…
As I read the exhibit labels, I began to feel better. Apparently da Vinci never finished one of his largest paintings because a rain storm destroyed his oil paints. Really? One of the greatest men of all time gave up on one of his greatest works because his paint got washed away? He couldn’t make or acquire more? His “The Last Supper” was basically a cluster f@%. He used tempera paint on some sort of incompatible gesso, and one of the most famous paintings of Christ and the disciples was so moldy and pockmarked that within 50 years it was considered virtually destroyed. Still it is one of the most reproduced paintings of all time. That beautiful equestrian sculpture you see reproductions of occasionally? Da Vinci spent 16 years perfecting it, but only ever completed the clay version. It never made it to the magnificent statue that it was meant to be. The French overtook Milan, and used the clay precursor for target practice.
Somehow my incomplete projects sit on the shelves or the desk or in the easel and mock me, but da Vinci apparently just kept trucking on.
He lived 67 years, certainly not a short lifespan in the late 15th century. He started his apprenticeship when he was 14. In 53 years, this one man built one of the first robots, designed, among other things, a parachute, a hangglider, a prototype of a helicopter, a SCUBA aparatus, and a tank. He revolutionized both defensive and offensive movement during war. He completely changed the way artists look at light and composition. And he painted what are considered to be some of the greatest paintings of all time. At first I thought surely he must have never slept, but then I realized he was paid to innovate. He was paid to sit around and paint and think of wonderful things. He didn’t have to make a living then steal time in the wee hours of the morning to create on the side. Creating was his living.
After thinking about it a little, I came away from the exhibit with what was likely an entirely different impression from the majority of people. All the incomplete works, the 16 years of sculpting falling to the French military, the moldy Last Supper–they sort of gave me permission to leave a few things undone, to make mistakes, to spend time on projects that might end up being pointless, and to continue to soldier on in the wee hours regardless.