Expressions of Genius: Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci: Sources and Expressions of His Genius
Joan Farber Johnson
The subject which I wish to explore in this paper is the nature of Leonardo da Vinci’s creative genius, its sources in the society of his time, and its expression in his art, his science, and in the very manner of his living. I will attempt to indicate those aspects of Leonardo’s genius which are a reflection of myriad forces unleashed by Renaissance Italy, and those which are attributable largely to the inner, individual facets of his nature. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but I shall show that it is primarily as a unique individual of a deep creative genius that Leonardo da Vinci was perceived in his own time and endures today as a timeless symbol of a man as a being greater than the sum of his parts.
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The first flight of the great bird from the summit of Monte Ceceri will fill the universe with wonder; all writings will be full of its fame, bringing eternal glory to the place of its origin. (1428)
The first flight of a man with wings, like most of the visions of Leonardo da Vinci, did not materialize in his lifetime. His name, however, took to the air on the winds of human memory, carrying an ideal of human potential across a span of five hundred years. The image of genius exemplified by Leonardo has come to the twentieth century with many of the trappings of legend. This may be the reason it has endured, for “men have long memories when the memories are clothed in myth.”
Any effort to understand the life and mind of Leonardo must proceed with an awareness of this mythologizing of his life and character, a process which began in his own lifetime. Sir Kenneth Clark, at the end of his study of Leonardo, concludes that, despite the evidence of the great quantity of drawings and manuscripts left to posterity, Leonardo’s “image changes like a cloud, Leonardo is the Hamlet of art history whom each of us must recreate for himself,” and the result will be largely subjective.
Despite the uncertainty of the details of Leonardo’s life, it will be helpful to present the general outlines of his 67 mortal years. Records of his first three decades contain only the barest facts. Leonardo was born in the Tuscan village of Vinci in 1452, the illegitimate child of the notary Ser Piero da Vinci and a village woman, Caterina. It is generally agreed that he was raised by his mother in his first years, his father having married another woman. When this marriage proved barren, the child Leonardo was taken from his natural mother and raised in his father’s house. Subsequent marriages by Ser Piero gave Leonardo a dozen half-brothers and sisters, but not until his childhood had passed.
Although Ser Piero was a notary, and thus in the direct line from which developed the humanist traditions of Renaissance Italy, he did not provide this type of education for his son. When the family removed to Florence, where Ser Piero had an important post as Notary to the Signoria, the governing body of the city, Leonardo was apprenticed to the master artist Andrea del Verrocchio. It was in this workshop that much of Leonardo’s education took place. By 1476, Leonardo himself became a master painter of the Guild of Artists, but he remained with Verrocchio until he was thirty years old.
The next period of Leonardo's life was spent in the Court of Ludovico ‘II Moro’ Sforza in Milan, where he filled a dual role of engineer and artist. These were years in which he acquired much of his fame: for the painting of The Last Supper; for the attempt to create the giant equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza; for organizing numerous court entertainments that employed seemingly magical devices.
Leonardo left Milan after II Moro's defeat by the forces of the French King Louis XII in 1499. During the next few years he sought a livelihood by offering his engineering capabilities to various states – to Venice, to assist in their war with the Turks; to Cesare Borgia in the Romagna, as inspector of fortresses; to Florence, to assist in the ongoing war with Pisa by planning the diversion of the Arno River. A period of artistic activity overlapped these endeavors. The unfinished Mona Lisa was the product of four years intermittent labor. A Florentine commission resulted in the cartoon for The Battle of Anghiari, of which only the portion known as The Standard Bearer was completed, on the walls of the Consiglio. Leonardo’s fame increased during this time, but his fortunes made little progress.
In 1506 Leonardo returned to Milan, where he enjoyed the political and economic stability brought by the French administration that ruled there. During this period, scientific studies were foremost among his activities, particularly the study of anatomy, in which he worked closely with the Professor of Anatomy of the University of Pavia, Marcantonio della Torre.
The departure of the French, the return of the Sforza, and the election of a Medici pope caused Leonardo to follow the shifting cultural center to Rome. The next few years were the most bitter period of his life. Failing to find favor with Leo X, he was without artistic commissions while others, younger than he, rivals such as Michelangelo, were fully occupied bringing High Renaissance art to its culmination. Leonardo was more than ready to accept the invitation of the King of France to join his court.
The last three years of Leonardo’s life, until his death in 1519, were passed at the manor of Cloux, near Amboise, in tranquility and in economic security, in a place where he was honored and where his advice was sought. The mass of manuscripts and drawings which he had accumulated since his Milan years were bequeathed to his friend and pupil, Francesco Melzi. The majority were to disappear into scattered private libraries over the next centuries, emerging only late in the nineteenth century as grist for the mills of scholars of Vinciana.
It will be useful, also to have an overview of Leonardo’s major achievements, although here exists an area of disagreement and confusion that matches the uncertainty surrounding the biographical details of his life. The confusion is compounded by the point of view taken, whether that of Leonardo’s own time, or that of the present, making retrospective judgments.
In painting, Leonardo was acknowledged as an innovator by his contemporaries and by the art critics of the future. The impact of his artistic innovations was felt at a direct emotional and practical level by the spectators and artists of the Quattrocento. Modern aesthetic criticism masks this immediacy, and acknowledges the influential nature of Leonardo’s art with varying degrees of approbation.
We judge the corpus of Leonardo's accomplishment in painting on the basis of its remains – some nine to seventeen paintings, in various stages of completion, marred or even destroyed by the ravages of time and the efforts of restorers. We know from contemporary accounts that Leonardo, while never prolific, created additional masterpieces which have been lost. We can supplement our knowledge of his visual artistry by the large quantity of drawings and sketches which have survived with his manuscripts and by the testimony of his imitators and his artistic heirs.
The major works of Leonardo's Quattrocento period include the unfinished but influential Adoration of the Kings, the Annunciation, portraits of The Lady with the Ermine and Ginevra Benci, and The Virgin of the Rocks. With the painting of The Last Supper, Leonardo broke definitively with the tradition which had nourished him. The Mona Lisa, and the Virgin and Child with St. Anne are the important nearly completed works of his later art, and along with the cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari and the unfinished St. John and St. Jerome, moved Italian art into the Cinquecento.
A brief look at only one of these will serve to emphasize the originality and decisive effect of Leonardo’s art. The Last Supper has been called “the keystone of European art.” Known now only by its faint remains and by mediocre reproductions, it is difficult to appreciate what Leonardo has achieved with this painting. He had taken a traditional theme and had developed it in a manner which was totally new. By the choice of the moment portrayed, the moment when Christ has just finished saying “One of you shall betray me”, by the central focus on the figure of Christ, by the contrasting movements and groupings of the disciples, Leonardo brought to life an intense moment of high drama and shattered many conventions. The overwhelming unity of the painting was strengthened by the lack of distracting decorative art. The isolation and nobility of the figure of Christ were such that “it would seem that Leonardo has made his studies from a different type of humanity, did we not know that he created the type himself. He has here drawn on the best in his own nature, and . . . his air of greatness was to become the common property of the Italians of the sixteenth century.”
The specific contributions of Leonardo to the science and art of painting are many. His study and use of three-dimensional perspective contributed decisively to the deepening of the spatial plane that marks the culmination of High Renaissance art. Chiaroscuro, a technique utilizing differences of light and shade, and sfumato, a smoky, hazy quality, are both innovations of Leonardo’s art, meant to enhance the particular illusion of reality which he strove to project. These, and the compositional technique of contrapposto, the twisting of the human body around its own axis, changed the direction of European painting, for ill and for good, depending on whether they became clichés or opportunities for further creativity.
Leonardo had a direct influence on contemporary artists such as Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolemeo, and Corregio. Artists of the future had the example of his few surviving works and also the Trattato Della Pittura, a treatise on painting which not was edited and published until the mid-seventeenth century, despite his intention to publish it in his lifetime. The Trattato helped to institutionalize classical precepts of Western art.
Leonardo’s accomplishments in the field of science were of a dual nature. Many of his scientific activities had a practical public purpose, while others were undertaken in pursuit of his own private interests. The practical activities included those of which he boasted in a letter in which he offered his services to Ludovico Sforza as a builder of ships, bridges, weapons, chariots, earthworks, explosives – as well as an architect and a painter. His private pursuits can best be indicated by the topical divisions which Jean Paul Richter used for his translation of the manuscripts. In addition to painting, which includes scientific topics such as perspective and botany, there are sections on architecture, anatomy, zoology, physiology, astronomy, physical geography, topography, dynamics, and mechanics. This list does not exhaust the subjects which were studied by Leonardo, but serves to suggest the breadth of interest which was his.
The manuscripts are our evidence of Leonardo’s private scientific studies. Documented evidence of completed public projects is almost non-existent. Leonardo’s hand has been detected in architectural projects such as the spiral staircase at Blois, but without confirmation. Many engineering projects which engaged his attention were of a transitory nature, dictated by conditions of warfare or by the demands of courtly entertainment. Leonardo's scientifically-based activities increased his fame, but were frequently viewed by his contemporaries as the practice of a new kind of magic. It is only in retrospect that we recognize in Leonardo a modern scientific mind as wall as an innovative, influential artist.
With the bare outlines of his life before us, and an account of the creative activities and accomplishments of this uomo universale, I will turn now to the consideration of the sources of the genius of Leonardo. The first question to consider is the extent to which Leonardo is the child of his society, a Renaissance man of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Italy, and more specifically, in Florence. This is an area in which it is necessary to tread with caution, realizing that what we are seeking are explanations that enlighten our understanding, not causes that determine unequivocal behavioral responses. Arnold Hauser, in his extended and profound investigation entitled The Sociology of Art, sees a correspondence between artistic phenomena and the societies for which they are produced, but warns that these phenomena “are in no way the immediate products or the results of social circumstances . . . An artistic creation cannot be derived from the conditions of its utility. If we know nothing more about an audience than its social composition, we cannot imagine one single feature of a work which would correspond to this audience.” Even more so is this the case for Leonardo’s scientific and philosophical investigations, these having been of a rather private nature, shared with posterity rather than with his contemporaries. Nonetheless, the correspondence of historical conditions of Renaissance Italy with many aspects of the life and work of Leonardo will be apparent.
The Renaissance was a time of change and ferment involving all facets of society – political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual. The fragmentation of legitimate power in Northern Italy and the growth of city-states, on the one hand, and despotic states, on the other, stamp the character of the Italian Renaissance and contrast this period with its later manifestations in Northern Europe. The multitude of political units which existed or were founded in Italy were the result of the struggles between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy, the latter hindering national unity. Into the power vacuum stepped anyone who had the talent and audacity to hold the reins of power. Thus the florescence of the princely courts of Milan, Urbino, Mantua, and others was made possible. City-states such as Venice, Siena, Genoa, and Florence clung jealously to their separate identities, and made the alliances with power necessary to preserve their independence or to achieve supremacy. The underlying political structure of northern Italy was one which was chaotic, breeding insecurity, requiring constant recourse to offensive and defensive warfare, and rendering the country vulnerable to foreign intervention.
The Renaissance was a period of economic change as well. For some theorists, the impetus for change arose primarily from the economic developments that heralded the capitalistic world of modern Western Europe. The expansion of trade and the development of banking and a money economy created an economic vigor that opened opportunities for a wider participation in society than could exist in feudal economies. Pressures of population growth added to this vigor, as greater numbers provided the labor and even sought the rewards that now seemed within their grasp. Economic growth did not hold throughout the Italian Renaissance. In Leonardo’s time, in fact, the city-state of Florence was entering a period of decline marked by economic problems, plague, and poverty. Its preeminence in the cloth trade had been lost to England; its continuing wars with Pisa drained the shrinking resources of population and material wealth. Similar problems faced the other states of Italy. But the impetus given by the economic surge of earlier years remained, as did the expectations it had produced. Frugality was not to be the mark of those holding power in a time of economic contraction.
New bases of political and economic power elicited a search for new social identities. The hierarchical structure of feudal societies allowed each member some comfort from the knowledge of his place and thus of his identity within a relatively stagnant social structure. Those who wielded power did so on the basis of tradition, confirmed by religious authority, with a clear consciousness of the social status of their position, apart from its outer expression. The Renaissance man lived in a world in which class distinctions had become blurred allowing social mobility, and in which power was maintained on the basis of personal popularity and sheer force, rather than on the “half-religious loyalty by which the legitimate princes of the West were supported.” The rulers of Renaissance society, both in the city-states and in the princely courts, sought new identities, a new consciousness, in their desire to define their places in the shifting sands of their world, to come to terms with the criteria of self-worth created by a money culture, and to reconcile the conflict of their desires and expectations with traditional standards. The underlying impetus in this search for identity was the need of those above to differentiate themselves definitively from those pushing from below, to create a world in which they legitimately held sway and rightfully excluded those lacking the appropriate accoutrements of power.
Culture was the medium of the new identity, of the new legitimization of power. The humanists of the Renaissance brought their knowledge of antiquity and their powers of persuasion into the service of the ruling class. The humanists’ alliance with power, fully set forth in Lauro Martines’ incisive study, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy, served the purposes of both parties of the alliance. The humanist found increase of status with its attendant rewards; the ruling class was presented with precedents from antiquity which legitimized their power, increased their feelings of self-worth, allowed them to cultivate their separateness, and permitted them to sanction behavior and attitudes that ran counter to the Christian tradition. Although Martines sees the culture of the Renaissance ruling class as a culture that aimed for exclusiveness and was based on sharp class distinctions, other writers, such as Burckhardt, see it as a more open system, with greater participation by social groups below the patriciate level. This may be merely a difference of emphasis on particular stages and places in the development of Renaissance cultural expressions. The Florence of Leonardo’s time, for example, was still a more open society, with a citizenry that claimed its due share in cultural life. The sixteenth century crystallization of social groups and the polarization of culture that divided everyday life was not yet complete.
The self-images sought by the new Renaissance consciousness were to be formulated in earthly, rather than celestial, terms. The secularization of culture was a reflection of an optimistic expectation of pleasures and rewards in the realm of the everyday, of a man-centered rather than a God-centered world. The Renaissance artist supplied the self-images which the social identity demanded. The artist showed his patron the world as the patron wished to see it, and, frequently, to see himself in it. The content and style of art changed to correspond more closely with the new perception of reality. Art can be seen as a “mysterious social language” which moved, from 1300 onward, in the direction of an imitation of nature, aiming “to depict everyday things more or less as they seem to present themselves to the eye.” The aim required elements that were not important in earlier art, elements such as movement, light, the rendering of emotions, the illusion of space, foreshortening, modeling, and an accurate knowledge of an anatomy. All of these enabled the spectator to read in the works of art “what it is like to be alive”, and to check his own inner reactions and experiences against what he sees, “and thus confirm their utter truthfulness.” This was a new relationship between “what art expresses and a human being perceives and feels . . . a dialogue of humanity,” a relationship fully developed in the art of Leonardo and other Quattrocento artists.
The concentration on images of everyday reality was made at the expense of the Christian figural tradition, which had sought its images in the other-worldly sphere where fulfillment was anticipated. The Renaissance developed away from this tradition for several reasons. The Church itself, in Italy, was deeply involved in the same political and economic ferment that has been described above. The forces of secularization lured the princes of the church to concentrate on earthly rewards at the expense of their spiritual leadership. Simony, the excesses of parasitical monastic orders, the rampant nepotism of the papacy – these are only some of the marks of the disintegration of the Roman Catholic structure in Italy in terms of moral authority. It requires the Protestant Reformation and the Sack of Rome to halt the process of the secularization of the Papacy, undertaken in order to preserve its power. Until then, the princes of the church were in accord with the princes of the courts and the oligarchs of the city-states in their desire for cultural images of their own earthly, social identities.
The intellectual characteristics of Renaissance thought are a reflection of the shifting social and cultural foci. The humanists set new standards for the educated man, standards based largely on a knowledge of Greek and Latin texts and on rhetorical skills and moral philosophy. Humanistic scholars, particularly in Florence, developed Neo-Platonist doctrines that attempted a reconciliation of pagan and Christian thought. But Aristotelian and Christian ideas generally prevailed. The axis has shifted from Heaven to earth, but the orthodoxy of a finite world endured, stretching at the edges but holding its shape.
I cannot conclude this summary of Renaissance society without noting an important development which arise from the interplay of the forces which have been described – the rise of the individual. Burckhardt believes that human consciousness was under a veil in the Middle Ages; man defined himself as a member of the group. In Renaissance Italy, however, “man became a spiritual individual,” able to indulge the development of a free personality. He notes that l’uomo universale belonged to Italy alone. The desire for fame and for images to perpetuate that fame for posterity was an expression of this intense self-interest and self-awareness. The Renaissance artist served this need for others, and also developed it for himself and for his work. Hauser states that “individual spontaneity is the great Renaissance experience, the concept of genius and the idea of the work of art as the expression of the genius’ personality its great discover.” Leonardo da Vinci exemplified this discovery in its fullest dimensions.
There is little doubt that Leonardo can be seen as true child of the second half of the Quattrocento. The particular juxtaposition of historical time and geographic place certainly created the possibility of the emergence of the multi-faceted genius that was Leonardo’s. As with the child, so with the man. Certain developmental opportunities were the result of the social and economic changes which have been outlines. Similarly, the unfortunate fate of many of his projects resulted from political turmoil rather than from his personal dilatoriousness. The outlines of Leonardo’s individuality can be accurately delineated only with an awareness of the determining environmental factors which nourished it.
The circumstances of Leonardo’s birth are an example of the importance of such an awareness. The image of the illegitimate child carries connotations specific to a given culture. In Leonardo’s time, illegitimate birth carried no social stigma. Bastardy was a common condition, of no hindrance to ordinary social mobility, nor even, indeed, to attaining the pinnacle of Renaissance power as a prince of church or state. This is not to say that his illegitimate birth did not have any effect on his psychological development. It is only to point out that caution must be used in drawing inferences from this fact.
When Ser Piero da Vinci came to consider his son’s education, he rejected, for reasons unknown to us, the opportunities for either a traditional or a humanistic schooling with which he, given his position, must have been familiar. Instead, he apprenticed his son to the artist Verrocchio in his early teenage years. This was not done in a spirit of Dickensonian neglect or rejection, but probably with a careful consideration of Leonardo’s potentialities, and, perhaps, even of his limitation, such as the dyslexia which has been surmised to be the cause of Leonard’s mirror writing.
The studio which Ser Piero selected was “the most liberal and most congenial to Leonardo’s many-sided talent” that Florence had to offer. The workshop atmosphere, stressing the manual activity scorned by humanists, was nonetheless a place for a type of education that could not be found elsewhere. The social demands for a portrayal of everyday reality on a human spatial plane required the student artist to study perspective, mathematics, and anatomy, to turn his eye to nature. It came to be Leonardo’s goal to see art “raised to the stature of a science and the artist placed on a level with the humanist.” In this he was the culmination of a trend that had begun in the workshops such as Verrocchio’s, a trend which united “science and art into one homogeneous organ of knowledge.”
Although Leonardo became a master painter of the Guild of Artists by the age of 24, he earned this rank in a period when such membership was losing its meaning and the artist was shedding the restrictions of the guilds. This was a necessary step in increasing the social stature of the artist. Economic factors encouraged this change. Hauser believes that the “emancipation of artists . . . results from the fact that their services are needed and have to be competed for. Their self-respect is merely the expression of their market value.” He cites the career of Leonardo as demonstrating the gradual ascent of the artist: “esteemed in Florence but still not particularly busy there, who then becomes the pampered court painter of Ludovico Moro, and Cesare Borgia’s first military engineer, whilst he ends his life as the favorite and intimate friend of the French king.” Hauser’s somewhat jaundiced view needs to be tempered with the knowledge of the disappointments suffered by Leonardo because of this exchange of dependency on the guilds for dependency upon the volatile fortunes of the Sforza and Borgia princes. Nonetheless, Hauser’s comment points up the new social and economic opportunities for the artist created by a society which eagerly sought the visual images with which to confirm its worldly merit.
Within the framework of Renaissance patronage occurred a curious blend of subservience and freedom for the artist, due perhaps to the very fragmentation of power. Despite the necessity to satisfy what were often “positive demands for propaganda”, there was “also a tendency for the artist to withdraw from the whole system and cultivate his individuality, and even his eccentricity . . . the tendency is first represented most patently by Dürer and Leonardo, self-aware, self-absorbed ultimately their own patrons with the freedom to execute nothing if they so wished.” This tendency culminated eventually in the modern romanticized concept of the artist as idol, aloof, misunderstood, above the rules of society, embodying aesthetic values in himself rather than in his works. For Leonardo, however, it meant that he could disregard the entreaties of Isabelle d’Este for a portrait, that he could leave unfinished major commissions such as the Battle of Anghiari or even the Mona Lisa to follow his fortunes elsewhere geographically, and that he could increasingly devote himself to his private scientific studies or take the time to fasten scales on a lizard, dip it in quicksilver, give it eyes, horns and beard, tame it, keep it in a box, and use it to frighten his friends.
Certain aspects of the art of Leonardo can be considered as arising from the social conditions which have been described, conditions which created a strong demand for visual images to reflect a particular perception of reality, and yet left room for individuality of expression. Leonardo’s work, while highly innovative in its totality, continued the exploration of the spatial plane that had been begun by Brunelleschi, Masaccio and others earlier in the century. The emphasis on the life-like modeling of figures, on the use of light and shade to suggest movement, on the unitary composition, these and other stylistic formulations did not begin with Leonardo. It can be considered “that he united in his art the inventions and innovations of the Florentine Quattrocento”, and yet this backward looking statement does not begin to suggest the artistic stature of Leonardo, who left the Quattrocento when he painted The Last Supper and who himself set standards for many who followed him, through his works and the Trattato della Pittura.
Similarly, the content of his art consisted of subjects which were not wholly new, yet still bore the unique stamp of Leonardo’s genius. The Madonna theme in Renaissance art can be interpreted as a symbol of the secularization of thought, not as a reaffirmation of religious orthodoxy. The Virgin had long been viewed as the intermediary between man and the Divine. In the Renaissance, she assumed more and more her earthly functions, and was so portrayed, in familiar everyday settings and garments, as a mother with a newborn babe. The early sixteenth century witnessed the transformation of the earthly Virgin into a terrestrial queen of regal bearing, self-assured in her expression of simplicity and nobility, a fusion of pagan ideal and Christian symbol. Leonardo’s choice of the Virgin as a subject in his art, and of popular themes such as the nativity of the Last Supper, is common to his time; his treatment of such subjects, however, contain the unexpected.
The society and culture of the second half of the fifteenth century form the framework in which the mind and skills of Leonardo selected from a range of possibilities. The greatest influence of this historical environment was that it offered choices that had not before been available, and were not to exist later, choices that could exist only in “an interlunar period in the history of thought.”
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Sir Kenneth Clark believes that it is a mistake to speak of Leonardo as a typical Renaissance man: “If Leonardo belongs to any epoch it is in the later seventeenth century; but in fact he belongs to no epoch, he fits in no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes.” In many ways, both Leonardo and his contemporaries knew that he was a man who did not belong, a man so unique that it can be said that “Leonardo remains the loneliest man who ever lived.”
From an early age Leonardo cultivated a life-style that contrasted with the ordinary. One of the earliest of Leonardo’s biographers, in a very brief sketch, take pains to note, in commenting on the beauty of Leonardo’s person, that “he wore a rose-colored cloak, which came only to his knees, although at the time long vestments were the custom.” Even in dress, he made noticeable choices that attracted attention and set him apart. His vegetarianism, whether based on his love of animals, which in itself was unusual in his time, or on Pythagorean beliefs, is another example of counter-culture behavior.
Leonardo had many social graces that made him sought-after: skill in disputation, musical ability, magnanimity, as well as physical characteristics of strength and dexterity, and personal beauty. All these were highly valued qualities in a world in which a person defined himself in terms of his relationships with his fellow men, with whom he lived a life of close contact. The desire to spend time alone was not characteristic of the eminently sociable Italian of the Renaissance, and yet it was a practice that Leonardo recommended as necessary for those who would be painters, and practiced himself. He believed that both solitude and friendship were requirements of the full life, but his needs for friendship were at a personal level and did not precipitate him into active participation in public life.
Leonardo’s lack of formal education and his methods of self-education led him down paths which were not common. It was Leonardo’s custom to seek out those who were eminent in the various fields of inquiry which interested him. He spent much time with men such as Fra Luca Pacioli, mathematician, for whose book De Divina Proportione Leonardo provided the drawings, or with Marcantonio della Torre, with whom he began the dissection of cadavers that was the basis of his anatomical studies. Leonardo pursued his education even on foot, out into the open, into the country, along rivers, up mountains, an unusual pastime for the city-dwelling man of the time.
Wherever he went, Leonardo carried small notebooks in which he recorded his observations and thoughts, in drawings and in words. This is the source of the thousands of pages of manuscripts which were bequeathed, unorganized and unpublished, to his heir, Meizi. Although Leonardo's writings did not appear in an edited form in his lifetime, their existence was known, as was the peculiar nature of his writing, from left to right and backward. This method of acquiring and recording knowledge, highly unusual, was common knowledge. Leonardo could in this fashion impassively record in sketches toe death throes of a man being hung in the public square of Florence. And so, an aura of extreme rationality and detachment evidence an isolating coldness of personality.
In an age when thoughtful men were re-examining traditional concepts in the light of new knowledge, Leonardo stands as an extreme. Others frequently substituted classical thought for traditional Christian abstractions, or sought a blend of the two that was metaphysically satisfying. Or they applied rational analysis to only one small segment of their experience, and retreated to seek comfort within the shelter of the Faith of the finite universe. Leonardo had the capability of rejecting all orthodoxy with ease, when it conflicted with the evidence of his senses. His thought was largely Aristotelian, but this never constrained his free-ranging mind. His rejection of all metaphysical abstractions included those of religion. The first edition of Vasari’s Life of Leonardo (1550) contained the sentence: “Leonardo was of such a heretical frame of mind that he did not adhere to any kind of religion, believing that it was perhaps better to be a philosopher than a Christian.” The sentence was dropped from subsequent editions. The painter of The Last Supper could not be deemed a heretic. The notion was too discomfiting to posterity.
In his art, Leonardo was consistently an innovator. He was able to work with a subject which was relatively common, even traditional, and endow it with a fresh vision of reality. In each of his paintings there are, as we have seen, elements of new thematic conceptions, new formal techniques. His artistic impact on his contemporaries was immediate, inspiring awe on a wide scale. The large clay model of the gran cavallo stood in the square of Milan until destroyed by the archers of Louis XII of France. It did not need to be cast in bronze to convey the impression of the heroic scope of the artist’s talent. As with the horse, so with his paintings even before completion. Vasari tells us that when the cartoon of the Virgin and St. Anne with the Christ Child was set up, “Men and women, young and old, flocked to see it for two days, as if it had been a festival, and they marveled exceedingly.” Those who viewed the Mona Lisa, which Leonardo took with him into his self-exile in France, spread the word of the artist’s power to create life within the ordinary vehicle of the portrait bust. Although Leonardo’s effects were produced by a technique and a style which were the result of a painstaking, highly intellectualized process, this was not apparent to the spectator. His contemporaries came to thinks of him “as a magician, a man who from his close familiarity with the processes of nature, has learnt a disturbing secret of creation.”
The originality and creative abilities of Leonardo in art, in science and in the manner of his living have been the source of much speculation among those seeking to probe the inner recesses of the human mind. The classic example is the attempt made by Sigmund Freud to apply his psychoanalytic method as a tool of historical research. Leonardo’s manuscripts contain only a handful of personal statements, and only one brief passage concerning his earliest years.
Freud’s essay, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, takes this passage as his text and from it develops a theory to account for the artistic and scientific bent of the man in the experiences of the child. Freud assumes that an excessive tenderness existed between the child and his natural mother, allowing an over-stimulation of the normal sexual research of infancy. Freud considered that a dual sublimation of sexual interests occurred in Leonardo’s mind: the first, in the form of wish fulfillment expressed through art (hence, Madonna figures); the second, based on a deeper repression of sexual instinct, expressed in the overwhelming urge to engage in scientific research. Freud draws more specific conclusions concerning Leonardo: he diagnoses him as a passive homosexual, and considers Leonardo’s abandonment of his unfinished projects to be a re-enactment of his father’s abandonment of himself as a child.
Much of Freud’s interesting analysis is based on a mistranslation of critical words in Leonardo’s statement. The analysis also makes assumptions about the chronology of Leonardo’s early life which have since been proven incorrect. The essay is written with a general disregard for the artistic and historical context of Leonardo’s works. It remains nonetheless thought-provoking. One need not subscribe to Freudian concepts to realize the decisive importance of the early years for the developmental processes of the human child, and to acknowledge that there are deep and powerful formative forces at work here.
At a less profound level, certain psychological characteristics of Leonardo can be drawn out of his life and work. A knowledge of the general direction of his central activities and of the specific fusion of art and science that characterized his intellectual processes will serve to illuminate further the nature of his genius.
Leonardo was “dominated by one ruling passion which was not a Renaissance characteristic – curiosity. He was the most relentlessly curious man in history.” Leonardo had to examine everything that presented itself to his senses, examine it in detail, and record his observations. Like a child perpetually stringing out the question “why”, Leonardo took nothing at face value. Both form and function drew his curiosity. Seldom was he satisfied. The enormous, frequently repetitive, quantity of his written and sketched research shows that the inductive process seemed, eventually, to become an end in itself for Leonardo.
Leonardo was aided in his tireless research by “the extraordinary quickness of his eye. There is no doubt that the nerves of his eyes and brain, like those of certain famous athletes, were really supernormal.” The quickness of his eye was matched by the dexterity of his hand. Leonardo described movements of birds and minute anatomical details that would not be confirmed until the development of sophisticated optical instruments in the twentieth century.
Leonardo’s insatiable desire for information was strengthened by “his lack of Western superstitions and inhibitions. His non-conformism . . . was spontaneous and natural.” Thus Leonardo could go where others would not dare to go, for the sake of his research: to the top of the storm-covered mountains or to the houses of the dead. Similarly, Leonardo did not shun the grotesque, the unusual, the violent. In fact, he seemed to have an affinity for the eccentric in nature, as if it would lead him to a knowledge of hidden secrets.
Leonardo’s curiosity, his supernormal quickness of eye and hand, his lack of inhibitions, these are facets of his psychological makeup that were fully incorporated into his intellectual processes and into his creative expression. The manner in which Leonardo sought knowledge of his world and sought to express that knowledge was by a fusion of art and science that can best be seen by examining three quotations from his notebooks:
The eye is the window of the human body through which it feels its way and enjoys the beauty of the world. (31)
I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And that is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautiful with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains . . . (508)
In fact, whatever exists in the universe, in essence, in appearance, in the imagination, the painter has first in his mind and then in his hands … it lies in his power to create them . . . (19)
These quotations present the essential elements of Leonardo’s creativity. He felt that knowledge of the world of nature could be gained only through experience, via the five senses, of which sight was supreme. The information thus acquired was material for imaginative reconstruction, always with an awareness of the bounds of the natural laws that determine phenomena. The final goal was concrete: the quest for knowledge ended in action, potential or actual: a painting, a machine, a building, a canal – the products of human hands. This approach to knowing the world around him was a conscious procedure for Leonardo.
We have seen Leonardo's obsession with recording his observations of nature and man. This is the initial step of both his art and his science. Within this framework of reality Leonardo allowed freedom for the imagination, recognizing this as an essential element of creativity. His fondness for fanciful activities, for what was essentially ‘play’, continued throughout much of his life and was a source of puzzlement to those who thought he should devote himself strictly to more serious matters. The time devoted to preparations for II Moro’s court festivities, the time spent in writing fables and drawing monsters, the thought given to devising a method of setting “a hall in a blaze without injury” (949) to bedazzled spectators, this was not time wasted. It was a characteristic of mind open to all possibilities, of a mind like a child’s, still growing.
Giving a free range to his imagination enabled Leonardo to retain an essential sense of the mystery lying within the observable phenomena. He did not merely record, but sought a unifying spirituality in the plurality of experiences, a oneness in nature that opened further possibilities. His imagination encompassed past, present, and future and eventually brought him to a philosophical awareness of duration, change, and decay.
To the thought processes of observation and imagination, Leonardo added another type of thinking, what Jaspers and others refer to as ‘visual thinking’. “The hand thinks in movements . . . this thinking, not in concepts, but in lines, forms and figures, is vision and action combined.” Thus Leonardo’s art was in itself both a form of knowledge, and a means of communicating that knowledge to others. It was this visual thinking that created the unity of art and science in the mind and works of Leonardo.
The fusion of art and science which he represented was so complete that it is difficult, if not impossible, to detect a dividing line between these as forms of knowledge and expression, to determine, as many students of Leonardo attempt, whether he should be viewed as primarily an artist, or primarily a scientist. This distinction need not be made at all if there is a correct understanding of the intellectual processes involved in the two areas. Art and science are not either/or kinds of activities; they are conceptually related in that they imaginatively seek coherence in the workings of nature, rearranging experience until a satisfactory, albeit temporary, unity has been achieved. Both forms of knowing are expressed in an integrated manner in Leonardo’s literary works. The means by which he achieves this integration can be seen by examining how he dealt with the subject of painting, on the one hand, and with a scientific subject such as anatomy, on the other. It should be born in mind that sketches and drawings accompany almost all of the textual material in the notebooks.
In the Paragone, Leonardo presents a justification for the elevation of painting to the ranks of the Liberal Arts. Through comparison, he identifies painting as equal or superior to the other traditional disciplines, in stature and in purpose.
Leonardo begins by establishing a basis for the identification of painting as a science in the mathematical concepts both share. “No human investigation can be called true science without passing through mathematical tests (1) . . . the science of painting begins with the point, then comes the line, the plane cones third, then the fourth the body in its vesture of planes.” (2) The science of painting in its beginnings is therefore drawing; it is further concerned with color, with perspective, and with light and shade as it expands its domain.
He defends painting against those who would debase it because it finds final expression through manual activity, against the scholars who scorn the mechanical. For Leonardo, “Knowledge born and consummated in the mind” cannot wear the label of science. Knowledge must be based on experience, known to us through the senses. The actual manual creation is, in fact, “far superior in dignity to the contemplation or science which precedes it.” (6)
The most important of the senses is vision. The Trattato della Pittura is basically a presentation of optical principles, the knowledge of which are necessary to the artist who would present a truthful rendering of nature. “. . . any object, placed in the luminous atmosphere, diffuses itself in circles, and fills the surrounding air with infinite images of itself.” (69)
The bulk of the Trattato offers an analysis of these “infinite images” and the method by which they may be scientifically rendered on a two-dimensional surface.
The subdivision titles give a summary of Leonardo’s theoretical concerns: Linear Perspective; Light and Shade; Perspective of Disappearance; Color; Perspective of Color and Aerial Perspective; Proportions and Movements of the Human Figure; Botany for Painters. The approach to each area is visual and mathematical, concrete in its illustrations and conclusions, all of which are confirmed from Leonardo’s own experimentation and reasoning. Diagrams abound in his writing, carefully drawn and labeled, portraying algebraically the principles governing the transfer of light from object to eye, and from eye to the plane surface of the artist.
A closer look at the book of Linear Perspective will illustrate Leonardo’s approach. The book carefully sets forth definitions: of perspective, which is “a rational demonstration by which we may practically and clearly understand how objects transmit their own image, by lines forming a pyramid, centered in the eye,” of the mathematical tools which elucidate the laws of perspective, “which are: the point, the line, the angle, the superficies, and the solid.” (42)
Leonardo then proceeds to present axioms of perception, e.g., “Objects that are farther off can never be so large but that those in front, though smaller, will conceal or surround them.” Explanations and proofs of the axioms follow, such as that which follows the above: “This proposition can be proved by experiment. For if you look through a small hole there is nothing so large that it cannot be seen through it and the object so seen appears surrounded and enclosed by the outline of the sides of the hole. And if you stop it up, this small stopping will conceal the view of the largest object.”(98)
This scientific approach to painting involves more than the reproduction of the external forms of nature. Correctly applied, these principles would, Leonardo believed, allow the artist to portray the inner essences as well, the spiritual aspects of reality. Restricted to the messages of the senses as the source of knowledge, however, the artist must seek to express the spiritual by indicating movement, of limbs and facial muscles, by the use of color and of shading. Leonardo’s own use of chiaroscuro and sfumato exemplify the means of expressing spirituality. The harshness of outlines disappear, and the resulting unity is expressive of the inner soul of his subjects. Leonardo achieves what Jaspers calls “spiritualization of the living flesh . . . of the sensuous.”
Leonardo presents practical as well as theoretical advice. The material arranged by Richter under the heading “The Practice of Painting” contains concrete instructions for utilizing the scientific principles of art. The passages also contain advice on how the artist should conduct his personal life, how he should acquire good study habits, and develop his imagination, memory and judgment. Leonardo defines the area of study of the painter as “ . . . every object produced by nature or resulting from the fortuitous actions of men, in short, all that the eye can see . . ." (500) This overwhelming task was to be carried out with the clarity of thought and the reliance on the evidence of experience that Leonardo had demonstrated himself in his writings on painting.
Art, then, for Leonardo required a scientific basis to enable it to reflect fully the myriad aspects of reality. The eye provides the connection between the images of the external world and the art form, and the laws of light are the language the artist must learn if he would be truthful. In the many scientific areas which were subjects of Leonardo’s research, the same elements exist, with the eye in the central position still, representing the senses, and the hand of the artist now illuminating and reconstructing the external world for the scientist who seeks to comprehend its manifestations. This artistic approach to knowledge can be seen in Leonardo’s studies in anatomy.
In anatomy, as in all else, Leonardo believed that knowledge was gained from experience, from the senses, primarily vision. To this end, he participated in the dissection of human cadavers – but the knowledge thus gained was not enough. It did not lead to the kind of knowledge that could be useful in itself, either for the artist or for the scientist. Leonardo had to seek unity in particularity.
This was the role of the anatomical drawings which he executed. “And you, who say it would be better to watch an anatomist at work than to see these drawings, you would be right, if it were possible to observe all the things which are demonstrated in such drawings in a single figure, in which you, with all your cleverness, will not see nor obtain knowledge of more than some few veins . . .” (796)
Leonardo’s plan for his books on anatomy follows a pattern of building from the parts to the whole by means of drawings, each part seen from various points of view. He would include both sexes and all ages, not neglecting the anatomical details of the muscles used in expressing emotions. “Thus . . . you will have set before you the microcosm . . . a description of the whole form and substance of man . . .by means of his different parts.” (798)
It is difficult to demonstrate Leonardo’s achievement without examples of his anatomical drawings. The drawings do, however fulfill his purpose, and in detail and accuracy, go far beyond the immediate needs of the artist for anatomical knowledge. In all the manuscript pages devoted to anatomy, the text itself plays a strictly subsidiary role. The drawings are paramount, having become a method of investigation in a scientific field.
These two areas, painting and anatomy, show with clarity the direct relationship of art and science in the though and practice of Leonardo da Vinci. The interactions of the two forms of knowledge are evident in all his works, though at times more subtly. For example, Leonardo was long preoccupied with water – its natural movement and its uses by man. “While the dominant purpose with which he approached the study of water was scientific, aiming at result in hydraulics and canalization, the many studies and drawings of eddies and current . . . show also the mind of the artist at work . . . and some of the beauty seen in the moving masses of water lives in the studies made for the Leda composition, in the closely encircling coils and rippling tresses of the hair.”
Although Leonardo withdrew himself gradually from the practice of art and into scientific research, the two aspects of his genius remained together in the patterns of his mind. His was the highest manifestation of a synthesis of art and science that was, perhaps necessarily, historically unique.
We have examined the nature of Leonardo's genius as it manifested itself in patterns of thought and expression that were original and imaginative. There is a deeper meaning to his creativity, however, a meaning that derives from the root of the word ‘creativity’. To create also means to “cause to exist, as by divine power” or its equivalent, especially the act of bringing the universe or this world into existence.”
Leonardo felt within himself the godlike power to cause something to exist, to absorb the essence through his science and endow it with existence through his art. His vision of the artist as creator, rivaling the Diety, is explicit in his writings.
By his profound ability to sense the interconnectedness of all aspects of nature, to think by analogies, he sought in the universe that same creative force that dwelt in himself. All his talents were devoted to an exploration for this force, for the hidden vitality and spirituality beneath the surface appearances. Like Henry Adams who, in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, turned to the medieval image of the Virgin as the thirteenth century equivalent of the modern Dynamo, Leonardo, too, thought to locate a universal force emanating from the quintessential female. His portrayals of the Madonna, the Mona Lisa, the Leda, were executed in this sense of quest for the ultimate power.
Leonardo’s search was not restricted to the symbolic expressions of art. All his life he was attracted to men of strong personality who exercised power over others, frequently a power of life and death. Men such as Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia were prime examples, in Leonardo’s time, of the unfettered force of individual will that acknowledged no limits set by man or God. Leonardo had ample opportunity to study the manifestations of this force, in peace and war. Leonardo’s attraction to sources of power extended to the practical realm of mechanics. His was the vision, unusual to his time, of lightening men’s loads, and, at the same time, increasing enormously their ability to produce. Paradoxically, he devoted the same energies to designing and building engines of war. His obsession with power was, at times, strangely insensitive to the uses of that power, but in keeping with the realities of the Italy of his day.
The only source of power in Leonardo’s time, other than simple mechanical power, was hydraulic. Many of Leonardo’s engineering designs and projects involve the direct and indirect use of this power. He conceived of schemes for diverting rivers, building canals, and operating machines by water-power, schemes which were not feasible in his day because his society preferred to direct its resources elsewhere.
Leonardo’s interest in projects to enhance human power did not seem to be diminished by the lack of concrete results. His dreams were heady dreams that carried themselves of their own optimistic strength. Only a man intoxicated with the potentiality of power could, in the fifteenth century, have seriously considered the possibility of flight. Only Leonardo, who felt within himself the oneness of the universe, of man with animal, with the inanimate, and the concomitant oneness of the vital energy of that universe, could have imagined himself soaring on wings. And only Leonardo, having made this imaginative leap, would have, in his day, proceeded then with meticulous studies of the flight of birds in order to bring to life, by his art, the very source of energy that propels these creatures skyward.
The young Leonardo had sensed a mystery in the creative force within himself and within the universe. The enigmatical smile, the pointing finger, the primordial landscapes carry this message in his art. It was a mystery that challenged his spirit. The aging Leonardo came to realize that he would not find the answer to the riddle, that the spiritual energy of the cosmos was not within man’s grasp, that there were forces of change and destruction on a vast scale that dwarfed man’s puny efforts. ‘Di mi se mai fu fatta alcuna cosa’ reiterates Leonardo in his notebooks, in what Clark calls “the leit motif of his old age,” ‘Tell me if anything was ever done.’ This pessimism expressed itself artistically in drawings of catastrophes, mushrooming storm clouds destroying men, animals, and countryside.
It is entirely possible that there was a direct conscious connection between Leonardo’s growing pessimism, his prophecies of doom, with the convulsive historical conditions of the early sixteenth century. “But to anyone who has followed the development of his spirit they have a deeper and more personal significance . . . (they) express his sense of tragedy . . . the failure of human knowledge in the face of the forces of nature.” And it is in this sense that we can see the gulf that separated Leonardo from his historical epoch. However rooted in his time and nurtured by the opportunities of his environment, he had outpaced the intellectual limits of his day, and had wrestled with scientific concepts for which the vocabulary had not yet been invented. In the end, Leonardo stood alone on the doorstep of the future, unaware of what he had really done, of the immortality that was to be his.
Leonardo da Vinci’s survival as a twentieth century myth is based on his mind and spirit rather than on tangible accomplishments. The mythic figure of Leonardo inhabits the realm of the real, as did the living prototype. It is not a supernatural power that attracts, but the power of man’s potential to understand his place in the cosmos in terms of his experience alone.
The myth of Leonardo is a reminder to modern man of the essential ingredients of the creative mind: pleasure in exploring the full range of one’s mental activities, independence of mind, bravery of spirit; and the necessary burden of solitude. He can be seen also “as a paradigm . . . a living example to stimulate the imagination . . . Leonardo’s image functions as an occasion to consider what it is for a life’s activities to have intrinsic value.” As Jaspers concludes, “There are few men who all through their lives are wanderers, seemingly detached from other men, wishing only to see the world and communicate what they have seen. These men do for us what we can do only inadequately for ourselves . . . other men act and struggle and change the world of human affairs. Theirs is a different struggle, an intellectual struggle to perceive the eternal essences in the surface and appearance of the world.”
The genius of Leonardo da Vinci cannot be explained by the particular circumstances of his time. It was a genius that partook of the forward movement of the human mind throughout history, a movement that requires imaginative leaps that surpass the limitations of time and place; a movement that mirrors the creative force of the universe. “The artist and the scientist bring out of the dark void, like the mysterious universe itself, the unique, the strange, the unexpected.”
Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1960.
Clark, Kenneth, Civilization, Harper and Row, New York and Evanston, 1969.
Clark, Kenneth, Leonardo da Vinci, Penguin Books Ltd., Baltimore, Maryland, 1958.
Eiseley, Loren, The Invisible Pyramid, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1979.
Eiseley, Loren, The Night Country, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1971.
Goldscheider, Ludwig, Leonardo da Vinci, Phaidon Press, London, 1959.
Hauser, Arnold, The Sociology of Art, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1982.
Jaspers, Karl, Three Essays: Leonardo, Descartes, Max Weber, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1964.
Ketchum, Richard, ed. , The Horizon Book of The Renaissance, American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1969.
Levey, Michael, Early Renaissance, Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1967.
Martines, Lauro, Power and Imagination, Vintage Books, New York, 1979.
McCurdy, Edward, The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1928.
Philipson, Morris, ed., Leonardo da Vinci, George Braziller, New York, 1966.
Richter, Jean Paul, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1977.
Wolfflin, Heinrich, Classic Art, Phaidon Press, London, 1959.
 The number in parentheses after this quotation from Leonardo's notebooks is the paragraph number used by Jean Paul Richter in his translation. All quotations from the notebooks used in this paper will be designated by this number, and not footnoted.
 Eiseley, Loren, The Invisible Pyramid, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1979, p. 11
 Clark, Kenneth, Leonardo da Vinci, Penguin Books, Ltd., Baltimore, Maryland, 1958, p. 159
 Ibid., p. 92
 Wolfflin, Heinrich, Classic Art, Phaidon Press, London, 1959, p. 27
 Hauser, Arnold, The Sociology of Art, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1982, p. 23
 Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of The Renaissance in Italy, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, I960, p. 2
 Ketchum, Richard, ed., The Horizon Book of the Renaissance, American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1969, p. 143
 Burckhardt, pp. 9-10
 Martines, Lauro, Power and Imagination, Vintage Books, New York, 1979, p. 249
 Ibid., p. 249
 Levey, Michael, Early Renaissance, Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1967, p. 33
 Ibid., p. 34
 Burckhardt, p. 81
 Hauser, p. 46
 McCurdy, Edward, The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci., Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1928, p. 22
 Hauser, Arnold, "The Social Status of the Renaissance Artist", in Philipson, Morris, ed., Leonardo da Vinci, Braziller, New York, 1966, p. 25
 Ibid., p. 34
 Ibid., p. 22
 Ibid., p. 27
 Levey, p. 79
 Hauser, The Sociology of Art, p. 47
 Vasari,Giorgio, “Life of Leonardo da Vinci- Painter and Sculptor of Florence”, in Goldscheider, Ludwig, Leonardo da Vinci, Phaidion Press, London, 1959, p. 21
 Wolfflin, p. 15
 Ibid., p. 27
 Clark, Kenneth, “On the Relation Between Leonardo's Science and His Art”, in Philipson, p. 211
 Clark, Kenneth, Civilization, Harper and Row, New York and Evanston, 1969, pp. 133- 135
 Clark, in Philipson, p. 208
 Vasari, in Goldscheider, p. 32
 Ibid., p. 9
 Ibid., p. 13
 Ibid., p. 20
 Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, p. 16
 Clark, Civilization, p. 135
 Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, p. 121
 Jaspers, Karl, Three Essays, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1964, p. 5
 Ibid., p. 12
 McCurdy, p. 117
 Clark, in Philipson, p. 219
 Ibid., p. 220
 Philipson, p. 5
 Jaspers, p. 57
 Eiseley, Loren, “The Mind as Nature”, in The Night Country, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1971, p. 204
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 - 1519)
"The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, but sometimes they bestow with lavish abundance upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that whatever he does, every action is so devine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his greatness is a gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo."
~Georgio Vasari (1511-1574)
[author of 'The Lives of The Artists']
Leonardo da Vinci epitomised the genius and diversity of achievements that we associate with the Italian Renaissance. The range of his accomplishments was astonishing, for he was an anatomist, engineer, mathematician, naturalist and philosopher, as well as a painter, sculptor and architect. In fact far more is known about his thought and the great range of his mind than of the events and circumstances of his life, especially its early stages.
The location of Leonardo's birth is questionable. Some say Vinci (about 50km west of Florence), others believe Anchiano (near Vinci). He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant woman. It is unknown as to whether he spent the first years of his life with his mother or father. Records show, however, that by the time he was five years old he was living with his father and stepmother, Albiera who was at that stage childless.
Leonardo's early education was probably handled by Albiera and her mother-in-law, Monna Lucia who was fifty-nine when Leonardo was born. He demonstrated a talent for drawing and design early in the piece. Then, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, after he moved with his family to Florence, was apprenticed to one of the leading artists in the city - Andrea di Cione, called Verrocchio ('True Eye').
It was in Verrocchio's studio, according to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, that Leonardo gave the first great demonstration of his ability. He assisted in painting Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (c.1472, Florence, Uffizi). His contribution, the left-hand angel, made the other figures look prosaic. Vasari asserted that Verrocchio was so affected by his pupil's success that he never wanted to paint again. At only twenty years of age and still under his master's authority Leonardo's addition and several other 'corrections' were completed using a form of oil compound even though Verrocchio began this piece using tempera.
Leonardo's rejection of tempera, the medium choice of his master, was a considered act demonstrating a forthright belief in his own ability, which some described as arrogance. He clearly desired the effects possible from the medium of oil paint, first discovered by Flemish artists, such as transparent and luminous skin, lustrous jewelery and silken hair.
It is at this stage, that it is possible Leonardo took a managerial role regarding commissions in Verrocchio's studio, as several paintings from the years between 1472 and 1477 are regularly attributed to Leonardo. These include the Annunciation and Ginevra de' Benci. Although there is reminiscence of Verrocchio's style in these pieces, the composition and atmosphere of the Annunciation and the compelling facial expression of the Ginevra are close enough to Leonardo's artistic intentions, justifying claims of his direct participation in these works.
After leaving Verrocchio's studio, though his talent was widely known, Leonardo gained a reputation for not delivering on his commissions, and it is possible that this is why he did not recieve much official work. One commission he did receive, in 1481, came from the monks of San Donato at Scopeta. This piece, The Adoration of the Magi was an important work displaying great originality and complexity in its sense of movement and in its variety of gesture and expression. It was left unfinished when, in 1482, Leonardo left Florence for Milan.
In Milan, in 1483, Leonardo received another important commission from the Church of San Francesco Grande. This painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, although the contract specified a seven month deadline, was not deliverd for another 25 years.
It was during this time that Leonardo wrote an extraordinary letter to the then ruler of Milan, Duke Ludovico Sforza, in which he recommended himself as a military inventor and engineer. He claimed that he could make bridges 'indestructible by fire and battle', and 'chariots, safe and unassailable'. To this he added at the end that he was also an architect, a sculptor and a painter.
Leonardo's letter earned him a commission from Sforza and in 1483 he began work on the Great Horse. It was an immense undertaking. He set himself the seemingly impossible task of creating a rearing horse over three metres high. Such a task had never been undertaken before. After a number of stopages the full-sized clay model was finished in 1493.
To complete the horse tonnes of bronze were needed. While waiting for Sforza to organise the bronze Leonardo began work on a huge mural for the monastery church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper was an incredible piece. Even before it was finished word spread of its brilliance drawing many admiring pilgrims to the monastery. Although Leonardo's experimental technique used for this work failed disasterously, leaving the mural as a sad ruin with peeling paint, it still retains some of the authority which made it the most celebrated painting of its time.
Leonardo's drawings and notes indicate the immense care taken in its design. "That figure is most praiseworthy", he wrote, "which, by its action, best expresses the passions of the soul." The idea of the artist as a creative thinker rather than a skilled artisan was revolutionary and stems chiefly from Leonardo.
The bronze meant for the Great Horse was used by Sforza to make weapons and therefore this work was never completed. When the French took Milan in 1499, the clay horse was used as target practice by French archers.
Leonardo left Milan, passing through Venice, then looked mainly to Florence. It is during this period that he painted an artwork that has become one of the most internationally recognised art images - the Mona Lisa, innovatory in the subtlety and naturalness of its pose and expression. Also the war-painting of The Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Veechio. This is destroyed but copies show that its dynamic energy anticipated the Baroque.
In 1502 Leonardo left Florence enlisting in the service of Cesare Borgia, a brutal leader, for whom Leonardo travelled as a military engineer inspecting fortifications. He then returned to Florence to resume life as an artist. From 1506 to 1513 Leonardo was based in Milan, although he made two lengthy visits to Florence.
In 1513 he went to Rome, at the invitation of Giuliano de' Medici. We learn from Vasari that he was engaged by Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici), Giuliano's cousin. It was in Rome that he may have begun St John the Baptist. In 1514 and 1516 respectively, two of Leonardo's most important patrons, Louis XII and Giuliano de' Medici, died.
Fortunately, however, Louis' successor François I, intervened and became Leonardo's patron and great friend. In 1516 Leonardo headed for France at the new king's invitation and was given lodgings in the castle at Cloux. And it was there that he lived the remainder of his days, dying on May 2, 1519.
Described by Sir Kenneth Clarke as "The most relentlessly curious man in history", Leonardo's later years were taken up increasingly with scientific work (which largely remained hidden in his notebooks). Anatomical studies including those of embryos inside the womb, botany, astronomy and physics were all a part of his explorations into human and natural science. Although his paintings are so few, more drawings (e.g. Study of Hands c.1485) exist by Leonardo than by any other contemporary Italian artist (mainly at Windsor Castle), and in them is revealed the range and power of his extraordinary genius and his insatiable quest for knowledge.
Leonardo's contemporary reputation was colossal and has never faded. He was a generation older than the other two supreme artists of the High Renaissance, Michelangelo and Raphael, and with his nobly balanced designs and heroic figures can virtually be said to have created the style. An influential aspect of his work was sfumato modelling through light and shade which suggested rather than delineated the form.
Many have speculated as to what Leonardo's achievements may have been if he had been born in a different time, even a century later when scientific study was celebrated. Indeed Freud said of Leonardo that "He was a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while others were still asleep." In this the assumption is clearly that Leonardo's accomplishments were limited by the constraints of the era in which he lived. One can therefore only marvel at the extent of Leonardo's achievements within such constraints and acknowledge that the world has seen few of the likes of Leonardo thus far and will see even fewer in the centuries to come.
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1452 Born in or near Vinci, Italy
c.1469 Apprenticed to Verrocchio in Florence.
1472 Joins the Florentine Guild of Artists. Paints the angel on the left in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ. Probable date of his painting of the Annunciation.
1478 Begins painting the Benois Madonna. Earliest drawings of war machinery.
1481 Commissioned by the monks of San Donato at Scopeta to paint The Adoration of the Magi. Writes a letter of self-recommendation to Ludovico Sforza.
c.1482 Leaves Florence for Milan. Begins keeping his notebooks.
1483 Commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks.
1489 Earliest sheet of anatomical drawings, dated by Leonardo as 5th of April that year.
c.1490 Paints Portrait of a Musician.
1493 Completes clay model of The Great Horse for Ludovico Sforza.
1495 Begins The Last Supper.
1499 The French invade Milan. Leonardo leaves for Venice and then Florence.
1502 Employed by Cesare Borgia.
c.1503 Commissioned to do the fresco of The Battle of Anghiari. Sometime between 1503 and 1506 he paints the Mona Lisa.
1506 Returns to Milan.
c.1508-10 Paints The Virgin and Child with St Anne.
1512 Probable date of Leonardo's self-portrait.
1512-13 French expelled from Milan; moved to Rome.
1516-17 Leaves Italy for France on the death of Giuliano de' Medici. Is given the gift of the Castle at Cloux, Amboise. Receives a visit form the Cardinel of Aragon to whom he shows his last works.
1519 Leonardo dies at Cloux, France on May 2nd.