Leonardo da Vinci is humanity’s greatest genius. His wisdom is needed, now.
The Black Death gives birth to the Renaissance
Humanity’s greatest pandemic, thus far, The Black Death of 1347–1351, spread across Asia and Europe with devastating consequences, especially in Italy. Estimates of the Eurasian death toll in that four-year period range from 75 to 200 million. The population of the city of Florence was reduced by 50%. Outbreaks of varying severity continued in Europe for the next 400 years.
Born just outside Florence in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci lived through a series of pandemics including one when he lived in Milan that killed about 30% of the population. Leonardo’s life and work can’t be fully appreciated without an understanding of the effects of this scourge on the consciousness of the time. Many scholars posit that the Black Death was the critical catalyst that gave birth to the Renaissance. As we face what is, in our lifetime*, an unprecedented public health crisis, let’s focus on his urgent and important guidance for our well-being.
( * Unless you are more than 102 years old and were alive when the Spanish Flu of 1918–20 infected almost thirty percent of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people.)
Our contemporary understanding of pathogens, sanitation and epidemiology can now help us limit and contain the damage done by infectious disease. Humanity is much safer thanks to the pioneering work of Barton, Bassi, Lister, Nightingale, Pasteur, and Semmelweis, et. al.
Hundreds of years before those scientific and practical stalwarts, Leonardo championed the notion of hygiene and what we now call “social distancing” as a means to prevent the spread of infection. The cramped housing and overcrowded, filthy streets of Milan appeared to the Maestro as breeding grounds for contagion and inspired his remarkable city planning drawings and designs that promoted much greater sanitation, efficiency and beauty.
“Learn to preserve your own health.”
On a practical, personal level Leonardo counsels: “Learn to preserve your own health.” He advises that we take responsibility for our wellness through a healthy lifestyle. This is important at the best of times, but even more so now.
The Maestro urged his students to dine on fresh, wholesome foods, (he was a vegetarian), and to savor the aesthetic pleasure of every meal. He countenanced the enjoyment of a little red wine with dinner, and recommended that we drink water liberally, get moderate exercise every day, and be sure to get plenty of rest and relaxation. He also advocated the restorative power of being in nature.
More than 500 years ago Leonardo counseled, “Avoid grievous moods and keep your mind cheerful,” anticipating what we now call psycho-neuro immunology. Contemporary science has validated Leonardo’s advice, our attitude effects our immune system, from moment to moment. So, heed the advice of history’s greatest genius and embrace a positive attitude. Recent research makes it clear that optimists live longer. We don’t get sick as often, and if we do get sick, we recover faster.
A few simple, practical tips to help you cultivate a resilient Da Vincian attitude:
- Adopt a mindset of positive protection rather than fear and anxiety and affirm it every time you wash or sanitize your hands. Feel empowered by the wisdom that helps you preserve your own health and the health of your family, friends and community.
- Prevent infection by spreading affection. Emotions are contagious, for better or for worse, so be careful what you catch and spread. Love and connection are the greatest immune strengtheners. Even as you keep your social distance, for the moment, you can still express affection to all your friends and family, by writing, calling and sending good wishes.
- Stay informed, but don’t obsess on the news or social media.
- Keep a gratitude notebook. People who count their blessings rather than their burdens are more adaptive, optimistic, and report a significantly greater experience of well-being. Every morning write a list of 3 things that inspire you to feel grateful. After you compose your list, spend a few seconds focusing on the feeling of gratitude for each thing you’ve written down. After you’ve reviewed your list, just “float” in the feeling of gratitude for a moment. Repeat the process in the evening. A recent study at Stanford University concluded, “In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.”
- Create a positive, uplifting beautiful environment. A couple of years ago I was leading a think like da Vinci seminar for a group of nurses who worked in PTSD wards in Veterans Administration Hospitals. I asked them to explore how to make daily life at the hospital a more beautiful experience for their patients. As they contemplated the question it became apparent that they needed to rethink the set up in their waiting room. Like most waiting rooms, there was a television set that was usually tuned to CNN or Fox News. So traumatized veterans were being exposed to the accidents, scandals, disasters and murders regularly reported as so-called news on these outlets. It became instantly apparent to them that replacing the news with videos that showed relaxing scenes of nature, underscored by soothing music would make their patients experience more beautiful. And then many other ideas began to flow — they proposed the idea of creating an “art exhibition” on the bare walls, and replacing the tabloids and other typical waiting room periodicals with more inspiring literature, their enthusiasm grew as they conceived the idea of keeping a bouquet of fresh flowers on the registration table and infusing the air with delightful aromas like Leonardo’s favorite combination of lavender and rose. Of course, their prime focus was on making the lives of the veterans more beautiful but they realized that they themselves walked through that waiting room many times a day and that beautifying it would enrich their lives as well. Beauty is an antidote to stress. Beauty is healing. And as Leonardo understood it inspires us to think more creatively! So everyday, do something to make your life more beautiful, and to make life more beautiful for someone else.
- Contemplate the Vitruvian Man. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, was drawn as an illustration for his friend’s book on divine proportion. Vitruvius (c. 80–15 BCE) was a Roman architect who believed that the human form expressed the principles of universal harmony and that those principles also formed the basis of harmony in architecture and city planning. The original drawing is in the collection of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, but the image is universally familiar. It appears on the Euro coin and was the symbol for Skylab 3, and it’s used as a logo by countless health care and fitness organizations around the world, from Yoga and Pilates studios to physical therapy and chiropractic clinics.
Why is the image of the Vitruvian Man so compelling more than 500 years after the maestro crafted it? The reason is that Leonardo succeeded in representing the human form as an expression of universal harmony, and like all works of great art, it resonates deep in our psyche. The figure appears to be alive, with unruly hair, distinct facial features and radiant energy. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is a powerful work of art that conveys a message of wholeness, vitality and power.
Healing Through Unity
Leonardo described sickness as the “discord of the elements of the human body” and healing as, “the restoration of discordant elements.” Now is the time, as individuals and as a society, that we need to focus on the restoration of discordant elements through a solution-centered, collaborative approach to creativity and innovation.
The Maestro said:
“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. It is the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”