The Downside of Genius

Brilliance has its costs. The smartest person in the room may be as insufferable as she is inspiring, and angst-ridden artists may introduce us to brave new ways of thinking.

Outsider Geniuses: Michelangelo and Leonardo

How did Michelangelo and da Vinci come to be the geniuses they were?
Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D.
This post is a response to Barack Obama: The Confidence of Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside by Stanton Peele

If there is a period in the history of the world when we consider artistry to have flourished, it is the Renaissance.  And the greatest artists of the Renaissance were. . .  let's quote Wikipedia: Michelangelo's "versatility in the disciplines he took up was of such a high order that he is often considered a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man, along with fellow Italian Leonardo da Vinci."  To examine a Michelangelo sculpture (the most famous example of which is David, but other examples are equally stunning) is to lose yourself in the marvel of how a human being with a chisel can wring from stone such true representations of human flesh and spirit.  Michelangelo is less well-known as a painter -- then, there is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

Again, according to Wikipedia, "In his lifetime he (Michelangelo) was also often called Il Divino (the divine one)."  There were some pretty good artists calling Michelangelo "Il Divino."  How do you get to be a universal genius of such acclaim that other geniuses beyond human ken bow down at your feet?  It's a little hard to decipher this at the distance of half a millennium.   Michelangelo was from Florence.  His father was a somewhat bitter minor banker, and his mother died when he was six, resulting in M's being sent to live with a stone cutter's family.  M was not a student -- yet he became a poet and great expert on another Florentine -- the poet genius Dante.  So -- other than working with stone with his hands from an early age -- how did he get to be the divine Michelangelo?

M -- for all of his acknowledgement by his peers -- was a loner and an outsider.  And he had a bitter streak.  According to a contemporary biographer, M and Leonardo disliked each other intensely.  But we know of only one incident between them, quoted in da Vinci's Notebooks: while passing by a group of notables discussing Dante, including da Vinci, on a street in Florence (my, that was a time, wasn't it?), Michelangelo heard da Vinci refer the others to him.  M took offense, and responded that da Vinci should explain the passage himself, "horse-modeller that you are, unable to cast a statue in bronze"  -- a reference to V's recent failure at casting a large statue of a horse. (I hate when people say that to me!)

It seems likely that da Vinci was simply acknowledging M's self-taught understanding of Dante, which an intellectually insecure M mistakenly interpreted as a put-down.  Da Vinci, whose father was a somewhat successful notary, received more formal education than M.  He thus became an object of M's insecurity, incurring M's envy and wrath.

While Michelangelo was divine, da Vinci is considered a great painter based on essentially two works: the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper.  But, while Wikipedia describes da Vinci along with M as the epitome of the Renaissance in its entry for Michelangelo, here's what it says on the matter under its da Vinci entry: "Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man."

So how did he get to be da Vinci?  We now have an elaborate attempted answer -- in a work of some creativity and penetration, Curtis Bill Pepper has written Leonardo: A Biographical Novel.  For, you see, while M might have envied V's upbringing and social status, V himself was born out of wedlock, to a solid bourgeois man, it's true, but from a woman servant (actually a slave).  "Vinci" is the town in which the artist was born - his father never gave him his name.  According to Pepper, this had to haunt da Vinci -- the author imagines V being ridiculed and attacked by his fellow school children. 

But V had the odd circumstance of being raised by his biological mother until he was 5, then moving to be with his father and his young step-mother, who was barren (and who herself unfortunately died young).  It is actually known that V was much beloved by his step-mother.  Pepper performs the task of imagining how this love -- and also that of his biological mother -- combined to transform a somewhat marginal figure into the child, adolescent, and adult with the genius and confidence to imagine and to portray, among many things, "a helicopter, a tank, concentrated solar power, a calculator, the double hull and. . .a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics."

Let me summarize what we might say Michelangelo and Leonardo had in common:

- natural talent we cannot imagine or account for, plus early opportunities to develp and perfect their skills in an apprenticeship system

- an outsider's status, where neither was reared in a prestigious, nor even a secure, social milieu

- family upheavel where both were deprived of their natural mothers at an early age, yet where they were welcomed into homes where their talents were recognized and nurtured

- a strong sense of themself, an impenetrable ego, a feeling of their own specialness (both maintained apocryphal family stories of their noble heritage), and practice at ignoring doubt and scorn.

It's good -- necessary -- for a genius to be able to ignore others.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.

The Downside of Genius