I made the stylized pastel drawing below for a creative sourcebook back in the very first days of CDs. I wrote a caption detailing the many disciplines that Leonardo excelled in and then pointed out that every painting he ever created, every drawing, every codex written by him, every scrap of anything that he ever created in his life could all be contained on one compact disc. Well, yuh. Who knew that DVDs were only days away that could hold details of every mistake I ever made in my life.
I've always had an affinity for Leonardo da Vinci. As ego-bundled as it may sound, we have a lot in common. He was born exactly 500 years almost to the day before I was. I'm a drawer, he was a drawer. I like science, he . . . well . . . he invented science. I have a beard. He had a beard. I invented the internet, he invented stuff too. I don't speak Italian, he didn't speak English. All kinds of amazing stuff like that.
So, it was only natural that when I was invited to create a persona for a children's outreach program, I could put whatever acting skills I still retained to use, performing as Leonardo in the modern day and age. The conceit being that Leonardo never really died, but is immortal. He faked his death in the arms of the King of France, so that he could slip away and live in obscurity, traveling the world. The reason he never died is that he never lost his curiosity for even a second of his life, and that kept his cells regenerating so that he even grew younger the more excited he got about things.
Many people are known for the vast breadth of their interests, but Leonardo's interests were so broad and varied that the range can scarcely be described. Of course he lived at a fortunate time when the rest of the world was pretty ignorant, so even when Leonardo was wrong about something, he was still more brilliantly wrong than anyone else.
One of his primary skills was the power of keen observation, a trait shared with Sherlock Holmes — only Leonardo wasn't fictional. Well, that is until I put on his persona to interact with elementary school kids, talking up art and science. He was a global thinker and not a fragmented specialist, so his interests jumped from subject to subject and back again, not out of boredom but out of unrestrained curiosity. Ooh, ooh, I've got that in common with him too. As well, many times he didn't finish projects, because he was always leaping on to the next. Hey, me too!
Everyone knows that he designed airplanes and helicopters and short-wave radio and belt loops. But look what else:
"Education in Leonardo's time, as now, focused largely on words and numbers in various forms—reading, writing, counting and memorizing texts. But Leonardo's interests were not verbal. He was trained and worked as an artist. In so many ways his was the opposite of the usual verbal education orientation. Avoiding the Schoolmen philosophers of his time, he had a clear propensity to learn from direct experience and observation rather than from books and lectures." (I'll source this quote sometime, it's a note I made a long time ago)
So any number of times I played this guy in a man-child sort of way, a little goofy, a little distracted. I wasn't sure what accent to give him. I didn't want to stereotype the Italian-American accent, but ultimately did the Hollywood stereotype thing of giving British accents to Romans.
It was fun, the kids had fun and we all learned some cool things.
My favorite activity was to place a really large drawing of an intricate cityscape in the classroom and then invite the kids to explore all the little nooks and crannies in the art and imagine what kind of people or animals or mythological beasts might be down those stairs, in that garden, or through that tunnel—and what kind of stuff might be going on. I would tell a couple of stories to get them going and then have them invent bits and pieces of action that we could turn into a class story. The stories were foolish and fabulous and my love of performance art was rekindled, improvisational that it was.