Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man and Genius
May 2nd will be the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Having read a bit about Leonardo over the years, it’s hard for me to believe that he lived so long ago. To say that he was ahead of his time is a gross understatement. He made discoveries about nature and designed inventions (most of which were never actually built) based on concepts that would be rediscovered centuries later, when the best and the brightest of modern times had a chance to catch up with him. This is all in addition to revolutionizing art with his Last Supper and Mona Lisa, among other revered works. I don’t know this for a fact, but the more I learn about Leonardo da Vinci, the more I’m convinced that the term “Renaissance Man,” used to describe a man with varied interests and talents, is referring specifically to him. So who was this man?
To start with the basics, Leonardo was an “illegitimate” child (a major stigma back then) born in 1452 to a prominent married notary and a peasant woman in a small town near Florence called Vinci– hence the name, Leonardo da (“from”) Vinci. Being born outside of wedlock in those days meant that Leonardo was not permitted to study Greek or Latin, which were the languages of books. He was apparently also born left hand-dominant, a condition that would have been trained out of educated children of his era. We know from his thousands of journal pages written in vernacular Italian that, having never been corrected, he wrote left-handed and backwards. Not one to feel sorry for himself, Leonardo was fond of saying that the best way to learn is through observation. Well, that was his only option. And oh boy, did he observe.
Leonardo’s father wanted him to be an artist and was able to secure him an apprenticeship in Florence when he was quite young. He immediately stood out as a unique talent, and eventually drove his mentor, who realized he had been surpassed, into early retirement.
Though painting was the source of his livelihood in his young life, he could never quiet his curious mind enough to focus on one thing. He was always observing and sketching, and when he moved to Milan as a young man, he sought out a position as not only an artist but an inventor. He worked for the ruler of Milan who, like all local rulers of the time, was interested in war machines.
Here we begin to see Leonardo’s gifts as an inventor begin to take root. He learned aerodynamics from countless hours of watching and sketching birds. Leonardo’s sketches reveal an uncanny grasp of Newtonian physics over 100 years before Sir Isaac Newton was even born, and include some gruesomely efficient killing machines. Most of his violent designs were never actually constructed, and some argue that many of them incorporated fatal flaws that would have prevented their usefulness. An example is the awkward tank machine that would never have maneuvered over terrain. Did Leonardo really make these mistakes? His journal entries betray his vast knowledge, as well as his revulsion at the idea of men killing men. I like to think that he was an early pacifist, and this was his form of resistance.
At the same time, he was still practicing as a painter. Anyone hoping to commission a work of art from Leonardo had to have the long game in mind. If you were willing to be very patient, waiting years or decades for the perfectionist to complete his work, you might have a priceless masterpiece at the end. Then again, you might have nothing, as Leonardo was known to leave many of his works unfinished.
One work that he did in fact complete during his years in Milan was his version of The Last Supper, which graces a giant church wall. Of course, this iconic biblical moment had been memorialized many times before. But Leonardo’s approach was unique. He sought to capture the moment right after Christ tells his disciples that one of them would betray him. To get this right, Leonardo spent countless hours over the course of a year walking the streets of Milan, observing facial expressions and gestures. And this was before he picked up a brush. I can only imagine the tedium of detail that went into the process once the painting was under way. In the end, he eventually produced an incredible image that displays reactions of shock, horror and villainy. A masterpiece was born.
Unfortunately for those of us living 500 years after Leonardo’s death, an unintended consequence of his perfectionism was that his Last Supper has chipped away over the years and is only a shadow of its original self. Instead of using the fresco style of painting commonly used for plaster walls, Leonardo chose to paint on dry wall. Fresco painting is a messy race against the clock, as the wet plaster medium dries quickly and seals in any mistakes. Though it has proven to be the best way to ensure longevity in a work of art, it’s no good for someone who likes to take his time.
Leonardo left Milan at age 38 and moved around before ending up back in Florence for some time. He was a working artist and inventor, going where his commissions would take him. He even worked for the infamously cruel Cesare Borgia as his chief civil engineer, designing water systems, and later for the Pope in Rome. During these years, his journals were rife with details of his thoughts. Like many of us, he would make daily to-do lists. Except instead of picking up eggs or running to the dry cleaner, he needed to analyze the movement of a woodpecker’s tongue, describe the dimensions of the sun, and investigate how eyes see.
One of Leonardo’s more controversial habits related to his fascination with human anatomy. He dissected corpses under the cover of night, obsessed with how muscles work with bones, hypothesizing on how internal organs work. Morbid as it sounds, this contributed greatly to his art. Take, for example, the Mona Lisa. It’s the most famous painting in history, and it’s difficult to explain exactly why. One reason may be that her gaze was made more realistic by the artist’s understanding of how light travels through the iris to the lens of the eye, or that her knowing smile was made more mesmerizing by his understanding of the muscle structure around the human mouth.
There are many theories about what makes the Mona Lisa stand out in history. I really like the one about Leonardo’s knowledge of human anatomy, which was so groundbreaking at the time. Others point to the unique composition. At first glance, it’s just a portrait of a sitting woman. But her dress and demeanor were very casual, which was unusual for formal portraits of the era. Sigmund Freud predictably argued that Mona Lisa symbolized the artist’s mother, a peasant from the countryside. But if you take a closer look at her hands, you see they were set in an unusual position high on her belly, possibly implying that her knowing smile was holding a specific secret – that she was pregnant. We know from Leonardo’s notes and sketches that he was fascinated with the female body and its ability to grow new life. So maybe it’s the artist’s reverence for the model’s feminine power that makes the painting so amazing. I really don’t know the answer. It just has a certain je ne sais quoi. (After all, it lives in France).
A few years ago I read a fantastic book called Mona Lisa, a Life Discovered, by Diane Hales. There had been several theories as to the identity of Leonardo’s elusive model, and the book settles on one. The author argues that Leonardo was commissioned by an obscure Florentine merchant to paint a portrait of his wife, Madame (“Mona”) Lisa del Giocondo. I’ve recommended this book once before, in a past blog post about Florentine art and artists. Not only was the book a great read, it also followed by far the most compelling story line. In my more recent research I learned that records were discovered in a Milanese library in 2005 confirming that among Leonardo’s possessions moved and carried around for his last 16 years was a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.
As with many of his works, Leonardo took an incredibly long time to finish the Mona Lisa. But unlike the others, this one he carried with him for the remainder of his life, touching it up from time to time, until presumably at some point he considered it finished. When he died 500 years ago, it ended up in the possession of his final patron, the King of France. It now rests in the Louvre and grins at over 6 million visitors per year.
The Mona Lisa, despite being cloaked in mystery, is the most obvious relic of Leonardo’s time on this planet. But the truth is that his contributions to everything from art to math to science to engineering to medicine… (the list goes on)… are countless. When we think of great geniuses of history, he is commonly named among the likes of Einstein and Newton. But consider the vast reach of Leonardo’s genius. Is he the greatest genius of all time? Maybe, maybe not. He was definitely the ultimate Renaissance Man.