The trouble with simplicity...

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Red chalk....Image via WikipediaThe trouble with simplicity is… it conceals so much difficulty.
Take for example, Leonardo da Vinci, he’s a complex guy. But how do you look him up? Under “D” for “Da Vinci,” or is it “V” because the “da” is lower case? Turns out, neither. You look under “L” because he’s only got one name, like Cher or Prince, and that’s Leonardo. He was the bastard son of a guy named Piero, who also came from the town of Vinci in the region of Florence. I guess the town was so small everyone only had one name, so you could say “Yeah, that’s Leonardo from Vinci,” just like one might be called “Alexander from Mosier.”

Another tricky thing about Leonardo is that he died almost 500 years ago, and was born just about the time Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. That’s a blink of an eye in geologic time, and only twenty five generations of humans, but it's the dawn of history's mass-produced written records. Considering that only single copies of the notebooks existed for a while, it’s a wonder Leonardo's words have survived through history at all.

So when I was reading this review of a book by Christine Romans called "Smart Is the New Rich," and she wrote “I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, ‘The ultimate luxury is simplicity,’” it felt incongruous to me. Something about the quote didn’t ring true – I couldn’t picture Leonardo da Vinci equating luxury with simplicity. Here’s the guy who painted the Mona Lisa ("la Gioconda") and “The Last Supper.” Both of those paintings have a hidden complexity executed in a simple style, but I don’t detect any luxury in either of the works.

At that point I wondered two things: did Leonardo da Vinci really write this, and if not then who? So, I did the obvious thing for the 21st century: I googled the quote. Interestingly enough, the internet came back with an immediate clear and obvious answer: the quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci should actually be "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." So the answer is that Romans had incorrectly quoted the original Renaissance man. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Although the quote “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” was consistently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, none of the web pages listed a source. Google returned 96,400 results for the phrase while Bing found 560,000 hits. I have to admit I didn’t check each and every web site, but the first 60 sites I visited failed to mention which of Leonardo da Vinci’s works contained this aesthetic opinion. If I wanted to answer my two questions I realized I was going to have to investigate in more depth.

Since Leonardo was Italian, I figured the original text was probably in Italian. I used the google language tools to translate the words ‘simple’, ‘simplicity’, ‘luxury’, and ‘sophistication’ into ‘semplice’, ‘semplicit√†’, ‘lusso’ and ‘raffinatezza’. I plugged these words into the search engines along with Leonardo da Vinci’s name to see if I could uncover an untranslated version of the text. To my surprise all the results were simply translated Italian versions of the English phrase “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” (“La semplicit√† √® l'ultima sofisticazione”). It was almost as if the Internet was trying to obscure its tracks, producing translations and retranslations of the same phrase, consistently absent any original source.

By the way, the internet is great machine for providing tangents. I can tell you this from experience. One path I had to follow was this odd link, an Italian shotgun called the Vinci, named after Leonardo in honor of his purported aesthetic.
The gun is named for the great Italian Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, who once said, “Simplicity is the highest form of sophistication.” Benelli has taken their shared Italian heritage with Da Vinci and sought to create a high performing gun built on a platform that is efficient, reliable and simple. Most notable is the modular design of the Vinci, which makes it a snap to assemble and reassemble for cleaning, maintenance, storage and transportation.
I was just about to give up on the Internet when I thought of Project Gutenberg. Like Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press Project Gutenberg is attempting to disseminate books far and wide using the latest technology – in this case it’s the Internet. The Project library consists mostly of royalty-free books digitized by volunteers, but I figured Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks would be found there. Seconds later I was skimming through both volumes of the notebooks, using the browser to search for my key phrases either in Italian or English. Unfortunately, no luck. Zip.

I found, however, Leonardo wrote on a wide range of topics. Here’s what he has to say about “continence” from a section titled “Humorous Writings”: “The camel is the most lustful animal there is, and will follow the female for a thousand miles. But if you keep it constantly with its mother or sister it will leave them alone, so temperate is its nature.” And this from the section discussing chiaroscuro: “First I will treat of light falling through windows which I will call Restricted [Light] and then I will treat of light in the open country, to which I will give the name of diffused Light. Then I will treat of the light of luminous bodies.” I liked this comment in the section on sculpture: “Sculptured figures which appear in motion, will, in their standing position, actually look as if they were falling forward.”

So, I was left with a puzzler. The way the phrase “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is written, it’s possible that Leonardo wrote it, it's likely to have had a different translator than the person who did the version of the notebooks that I read. It’s also impossible to tell whether the sentence is about sculpture, painting, architecture, or even advice on how to tell a joke. At this point I felt I’d reached the limit of the internet.

So, I got drastic and walked to the branch library. You know the great thing about the library? It’s all the books. They’ve got walls of ‘em, and most of books have been edited and checked for accuracy. I made a beeline for the reference desk and found Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations as well as the Encarta Book of Quotations. I also grabbed two biographies of Leonardo da Vinci and found a table to do some reading. Bartlett’s is arranged by author and also has an index by subject. I scanned through but there weren’t any quotes from Leonardo da Vinci on simplicity or luxury in either book. In fact, of all the quotes on simplicity this one by Richard Austin Freeman from the book “The Eye of Osiris” is the closest to the original quote: "simplicity is the soul of efficiency." I also flipped through the biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, but most of the quotes they contained were from other people talking about him.

So, what did I learn? For one, I got to review my facts on Leonardo and he’s much more interesting than people give him credit for. If all you know of him are the codex (the naked guy in the circle), the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, then scroll up and click on the links to his notebooks. He’s like a 16th century Stephen Hawking crossed with Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright. Secondly, I wonder if this is the limit of the Internet: a collection of misinformation and ill-informed comments, pointing in on itself time and again, slowly collapsing into mush unless people get out into the real world and explore new ideas. And finally, the number one takeaway from my little exercise is that simplicity can often hide complexity. When it’s put to good use, such as in a computer program or a skyscraper, this information hiding can create small wonders, almost like magic. But when it becomes sloppy or completely wrong the simplicity turns into the fog of ignorance, obscuring the quality of light for everyone.

I leave you this quote, which may or may not have been written by H.L.Mencken: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

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  1. Anonymous10:58 AM

    Love this description of Leonardo as a mixture of Hawking, Picasso and Wright. I found your blog via wordpress Zemanta widget that offers the list of related articles based on words and topics used in post of my own. I used this quote about simplicity, and now I find such an interesting story behind it. Thank you for that. I have learned a new interesting fact. Your blog is going on my link list :)

  2. Anonymous7:09 PM

    Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

    - David

  3. Anonymous4:44 PM

    hi, new to the site, thanks.

  4. I work in an academic library. I was trying to find the source of that same Simplicity quote for a professor who wished to use it in an article. It's not in any quotation book or database. An art librarian was working on this too. Somebody must have said it first, but I'm beginning to doubt that it was LDV.

  5. Anonymous6:21 PM

    Hello quote seekers!!

    The words were actually first uttered by william gaddis in "The recognitions" in 1955, but he did not mean them as an authoritative, declarative statement (like we find them in our apocryphal da Vinci quote). If you would like to read them they can be located on amazon.com in the "search inside this book" feature in the penguin edition on page 457.

    The first time they ever appear in print in the way we wish them to be found is in an unlikely place. . .an apple computer add from 1977.

    But for the record. . .i wish they were da Vinci!!!

  6. It is perfectly obvious that Leonardo who was both a great scientist and a great artist would never have said anything so banal, at least as it is phrased in English, so your suspicion that it was a false quote or falsely phrased reflects your own good taste, as does your observation that books are where the good checked stuff resides.

    I am sure of this being a false quote even though I hurried to Ralph Keyes' Quote Verifier, which tells you which quotes he found were genuine and which was not, and it was not even mentioned.

    The quote actually hints in a rather poorly phrased way at the worthwhile idea behind it, which is that great minds tend to arrive at a simple version of their insights after wrestling through a jungle of complications. That is why string theory or the current solution to Fermats theorem are probably both wrong, being both messy and extensive when the true solutions are probably cleaner. But you probably have found this yourself when learning some field well. It is mostly simpler and clearer than the textbooks written by inferior minds. Richard Feynman the physicist is a good example of a Nobel plus genius who write so that his hotel maid ncould understand him, which is what Einstein remarked is the test of your understanding of any great truth - that you can explain it to the chambermaid.

    If she is interested.

  7. Stephanie3:26 PM

    I've doubted LDV said this, too. My thinking is sophistication is an anachronistic word for his time, and I would love to know howto check that.

  8. Stephanie3:28 PM

    Hey, the wonders of the internet: I've just checked the entymology of hte word 'sophistication' and here is what I've found.

    The meaning of 'sophistication' as wordly wisdom, refinement etc is first used around the mid 19th century. So not LDV. Up until then it meant the employment of sophistry, to quibble, cheat, or a wise man/teacher. The quote should really say 'simplicity is the ultimate teacher'!