Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Da Vinci's Grocery List

Living in the greater Atlanta area definitely has its perks. Shopping, restaurants and entertainment go without saying; but I also adore its museums. Coupled with my own artistic background, I guess it's not surprising that The High Museum of Art is one of my favorite haunts. I am always amazed, not only at the rich spectrum of works they get on loan, but also what they keep on permanent display.

About ten years ago I was privileged to go see the DaVinci exhibit at the High Museum. I was taking a drawing class at a local university at the time - just for kicks - and the professor arranged for us all to go as a class and check out the exhibit. He was excited because it was a collection of Da Vinci's rough works - sketches and mock-ups and small models. Nothing huge or polished or anywhere near complete - only a collection of hastily noted ideas cast in plaster, or scrawled out on oddments of soiled paper.

I say "only a collection..." when really it was anything but an afterthought.  It was a wonderful exhibit, with a rare and privileged glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. I soaked up every yellowed paper, each lumpy plaster model, and all the explanatory texts that went with them.

For me, however, the highlight of the exhibit was not the sketches that mapped out his original ideas for the Sistine Chapel, or the plaster mock-ups for his sculptures. The crowning jewel was - for me - a grocery list.

Just that. A grocery list.

Allow me to put that comment in context. Da Vinci had a servant who managed his household for him, and did all manner of errands on his behalf; but those duties apparently did not usually include the grocery shopping. Going down to market, and selecting ingredients for himself, was something that Da Vinci evidently liked to do. But one day he found himself in a bit of a bind. Perhaps he was working under deadline with his latest project; or was simply focused on whatever idea he was working on at the moment. Perhaps he was on his way to meet someone. There's no telling. But in the middle of all his rushing about, Da Vinci stopped to jot down a list of items he needed from the market, and handed it off to his servant.

It was at this point that DaVinci made a timely discovery: his servant could not read.

If it had been me, I would have told the servant to not worry about it, and gone later myself. But DaVinci must have really been in a pinch for time (or groceries - perhaps he was expecting company?), because he did nothing of the sort. Instead he took back the list and carefully, dexterously, sketched out each item on the list beside its Italian name. He had asked for six eggs -- so he drew six little eggs, their rounded forms casting little shadows on each other in the right places. He needed three tomatoes --- so he drew three little tomatoes, each with their own stem and scratchy leaves on its indented forehead. He wanted fish and eggplant, and so their distinctive shapes were added to the margin of the list. Every thing that he needed he sketched out, quickly but neatly, in his own masterful hand.

It was this grocery list, scribbled on the backside of an odd scrap of drawing paper, that held my attention far longer than anything else in that exhibit. I loved it because it not only showed that Da Vinci was human, but that his attention to details cascaded into every aspect of life. He drew and painted and sculpted masterfully; his workshop was full of masterpieces, all in progress; and yet he took the time to illustrate his grocery list so his servant could go down to market and not be embarrassed because he didn't know what was expected of him.

That's the kind of artist, teacher and author that I want to be - a person who not only knows the intricate details of the task at hand, but who pauses to appreciate the details of the everyday: of tomato stems and egg-shadows, of the treasures of my local market, and most importantly of the people around me. That, I am sure, is a mark of greatness - whether it is ever remembered by anyone, or not.


What do you think? What are the details of thinking and living that sets someone apart?


  1. Fascinating - I think that if I could send Johan out with a grocery list like that, the cell phone calls may be less. I am just grateful that he is willing to go for me - always an adventure for him...

  2. Lovely post Angela. I'd like to be that kind of person but it hasn't happened yet. I do think we can make positive steps towards making ourselves better but I'll have to be satisfied with just remembering to say thank you to the bus driver when I leave the bus. :))