When historians look back at the time periods where art, science and culture took great leaps forward, The Italian Renaissance often ranks high on the list. The 15th century was crowded with brilliant thinkers and artisans — names like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli — whose works are still acclaimed. And amid the era’s artistic giants, none stood taller than Leonardo da Vinci. His accomplishments are staggering: he achieved master status at age 22, revolutionized the medium’s techniques, and painted some of the most recognizable works in history. Even those who know nothing about art can identify his Mona Lisa and Last Supper paintings. And that’s just page one of his resumé.
Leonardo had an insatiable appetite for work, and his mind could barely contain the hundreds of ideas that constantly poured forth. His innovations reached far beyond his sizable achievements as a painter. He journaled feverishly, and in the thousands of pages that survived, we see evidence of a man obsessed with anything and everything — math, geology, anatomy, engineering, philosophy, botany, architecture, warfare, zoology, light, energy — you name it; he thought about it. His journal entries include intricate sketches of futuristic inventions; his schematics for vehicles, helicopters, medical devices, and optics were centuries ahead of their time.
He could simultaneously draw with one hand, while writing with another, and his diary is often written as a mirror image. It’s unsure why he wrote this way; maybe he was ‘encoding’ his work, but he could do so with apparent ease.
Though he was born a peasant, Leonardo’s brilliance propelled him into elite company. The Duke of Milan treated him as an adviser and strategic partner. He was celebrated as Rome’s most famous resident, hailed not only as an designer, but also as the city’s official engineer and most esteemed scientist. Though human dissection was outlawed at the time, the Pope gave Leonardo a personal dispensation to open cadavers and study their anatomy. Toward the end of his career, the King of France gave him a free chateau and paid him to “simply think.”
With a resumé that spectacular, we could easily assume that the ultimate Renaissance Man lived out his last days in France with an air of fulfillment, gratified with a life well-lived. Hardly. In fact, Leonardo saw himself as a failure. His standards were so high and his goals so lofty, that on his deathbed Leonardo uttered these sad final words: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
Wow. If Leonardo da Vinci thought he fell short of God’s standards, what hope is there for us?
The same lack of confidence that plagued Leonardo is rampant in our time. In school, on the playing field, in the office, and even at home, we strive to be “the best,” hoping to make a name for ourselves or affix a star to the family name. We scratch and claw to pull ahead of our peers, only to glance back and realize we’ll never outrun the nudging parent, the critical mentor, or that haunting voice that says … we’ll never been good enough.