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Da Vinci, Leonardo

Category: Genius

A portrait of Leonardo by Francesco Melzi.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519, Old Style) was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.   He was also, according to Vasari, ‘a most talented musician’.  Few of his paintings have survived, principally because he was also a great innovator, trying new paints, new colours and new techniques. And innovation can go wrong.

The Last Supper, for example, was described on its completion as ‘a masterpiece of design and characterisation’, but it deteriorated rapidly, so that within a hundred years it was described by one viewer as "completely ruined". Leonardo had experimented with tempera over a ground that was mainly gesso, resulting in a surface which was subject to mould and flaking. 

But enough of his paintings have survived to show us just how innovative he was.
Among the qualities that make Leonardo's work unique are the techniques which he used in laying on the paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology, his interest in physiognomy and the way in which humans register emotion in expression and gesture, his innovative use of the human form in figurative composition, and his use of the subtle gradation of tone”.
He was a ‘slow worker’, and on many occasions did not finish compositions he had started.  Nevertheless, his few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, provide an extraordinary insight into the nature of his genius.

Leonardo also had a flair for invention.  He drew and designed a tank, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, the concept of the double hull, and also outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. There are designs for wings and shoes for walking on water. Leonardo's journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical. They include musical instruments, a mechanical knight, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, and a steam cannon.  In 1502, Leonardo produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (220 m) bridge as part of a civil engineering project. Leonardo's vision was resurrected in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Leonardo was also fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies of the flight of birds, including his c. 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds, as well as plan for several flying machines, including a flapping ornithopter and a machine with a helical rotor.  Relatively few of his designs were constructed simply because the materials and skills were not available to construct them, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, were made.

Leonardo's studies in science and engineering are recorded in 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, made and maintained daily, as he made continual observations of the world around him. In fact, Leonardo's whole approach to science was an observational one: he tried to understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail.  Leonardo's writings are mostly in mirror-image cursive. The reason may have been both secretive and practical, as he wrote with his left hand.

Brain Cogn. 2004 Jul;55(2):262-8. The handedness of Leonardo da Vinci: a tale of the complexities of lateralisation. McManus IC, Drury H.Department of Psychology, University College London
The handedness of Leonardo da Vinci is controversial. Although there is little doubt that many of his well-attributed drawings were drawn with the left hand, the hatch marks of the shading going downwards from left to right....... PMID: 15177791

As a successful artist, Leonardo was given permission to dissect human corpses. Leonardo made over 240 detailed drawings and wrote about 13,000 words towards a treatise on anatomy.  He drew the heart and vascular system, the sex organs and other internal organs, making one of the first scientific drawings of a fetus in utero.  The drawings and notation are far ahead of their time, and if published, would undoubtedly have made a major contribution to medical science.  But they weren’t.

Coition of a hemisected man and woman.

Leonardo was ‘born out of wedlock’ to a wealthy notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence.  Because of this, he had no official surname and his full birth name was "Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci", meaning "Leonardo, (son) of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci".

From 1457, he lived in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle, Francesco. His father had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but died young. When Leonardo was sixteen his father married again, to twenty-year-old Francesca Lanfredini. In effect, Leonardo was brought up in a household with beautiful women barely older than him, a factor which had a great influence on how he portrayed woman, which was usually with great affection.  Leonardo’s women are universally beautiful.  In contrast, his men are universally ‘characters’, often tending towards the rather brutal and occasionally veering off into caricature.  On the whole the impression he gives through his drawings and paintings is that he was not keen on very ‘masculine’ men.

Leonardo often seems fascinated by the ideas of diversity and contrast.  His drawings include numerous studies generally referred to as "caricatures" because, although exaggerated, they appear to be based upon observation of live models. Vasari relates that if Leonardo saw a person with an interesting face he would follow them around all day observing them.  I don’t think Leonardo saw ‘ugliness’, he saw diversity.

Leonardo “received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics”, which implies that much of his schooling was home schooling.  But in 1466, at the age of fourteen, Leonardo was apprenticed to the artist Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was "one of the finest in Florence.

Although this is entirely speculation on the part of one Angela Ottino della Chiesa, in her book The Complete Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, she says that Leonardo was the model for two of Verrocchio’s works:  his bronze statue of David in the Bargello and the Archangel Raphael in Tobias and the Angel.  I have included pictures of both as I love speculation like this.  Both paintings show him to be an extremely attractive boy.

Verrocchio's work - his statue "David" (left) and his painting  "Tobias and the Angel".

Vasari described Leonardo as having "outstanding physical beauty", "infinite grace", "great strength and generosity", and "regal spirit and tremendous breadth of mind".  He was a vegetarian and an animal lover.  According to Vasari, for example, he used to purchase caged birds and then release them.  Leonardo had many men friends who are now renowned either in their fields or for their historical significance, including the mathematician Luca Pacioli, with whom he collaborated on the book De Divina Proportione in the 1490s. Leonardo’s pupil, Melzi, described Leonardo's feelings for his pupils as both loving and passionate.  

By 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine, but even after his father set him up in his own workshop, his attachment to Verrocchio was such that he continued to collaborate with him.

And then came an event which must have frightened him to the very core.  Florentine court records of 1476 show that Leonardo and three other young men were charged with sodomy “in an incident involving a well-known male prostitute”, but acquitted.  Homosexual acts were illegal in Renaissance Florence, the penalties were severe.
“There is speculation that since one of the accused, Lionardo de Tornabuoni, was related to Lorenzo de' Medici, the family exerted its influence to secure the dismissal.”  More speculation.

From that date until 1478 there is no record of his work or even of his whereabouts. In 1478 he left Verrocchio's studio and ‘was no longer resident at his father's house’.  In January 1478, he received the first of two independent commissions: an altarpiece and a painting The Adoration of the Magi.  Neither commission was completed.  In the 1480s, Leonardo wrote in his diary: "I thought I was learning to live; I was only learning to die."

Those who do not understand their symbolism have assumed from this and the fact he portrayed androgyny in paintings like John the Baptist and Bacchus, that Leonardo was homosexual.  But this is not proof.  If I speculate for a moment, he may have loved women dearly but been terrified of losing any more – he was parted from his real mother at aged 5, when he was sent to his father, lost his next substitute mother on the death of Albiera, and lost the next substitute mother Francesca Lanfredini as well.  Leonardo’s mother Caterina died in 1495.

To anyone as sensitive and compassionate as Leonardo, this was enough grief to last a lifetime.  Leonardo was well aware of what sex with a woman was like, he even drew it [see picture].   And he had a fascination for babies, born and unborn.  So he may have turned to men to avoid the pain he had been through loving women.

Leonardo liked women, you can see this from the paintings. He also knows about women.  The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on her face, ”its mysterious quality brought about by the fact that the artist has subtly shadowed the corners of the mouth and eyes so that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined. The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called "sfumato" or Leonardo's smoke”.

In 1482, the Lorenzo de' Medici sent Leonardo to Milan, to secure peace with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter describing the many marvellous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing Ludovico that he could also paint.  The letter worked.  Leonardo worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499 and was employed on many different projects for Ludovico, including the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico's predecessor. In the spring of 1485, Leonardo even travelled to Hungary on behalf of Ludovico. 

At the start of the Second Italian War in 1499, Ludovico Sforza was overthrown, and Leonardo, with his assistant Salai and friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice.  In Venice, he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack. 

In 1500, he returned to Florence.  Both he and his household were guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop, where he was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi. This is one of the very few acts of patronage Leonardo received from the Catholic church.  This 'daring display of figure composition and personal drama', however, was never finished. 

In general, Leonardo’s patrons were rulers and politicians not the clergy.  Lorenzo Medici (il Magnifico), for example, who was three years older than Leonardo, was one patron, as was Ludovico il Moro, who ruled Milan between 1479 and 1499; he was also of Leonardo's age.  In part it appears that this was because, whilst the clergy appeared to not understand the nature of inspiration, the rulers did
The novelist Matteo Bandello observed Leonardo at work and wrote that some days he would paint from dawn till dusk without stopping to eat and then not paint for three or four days at a time. This was beyond the comprehension of the prior of the convent, who commissioned him to paint the Last Supper.  He hounded Leonardo. Vasari describes how Leonardo, troubled over his ability to adequately depict the face of the traitor Judas, told the Duke that he might be obliged to use the prior as his model.”

It also seems clear that Leonardo’s contact with the Medicis in particular, exposed him to ideas that were outside conventional religious thought.  Through the Medici’s, for example, he met  Marsilio Ficino; Cristoforo Landino, writer of commentaries on Classical writings; John Argyropoulos, teacher of Greek and translator of Aristotle; and Pico della Mirandola.

In 1502, Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer and travelling throughout Italy with his patron.  One of the more intriguing things that Leonardo did was to create a map of Cesare Borgia's stronghold, a town plan of Imola. Maps were extremely rare at the time and it would have seemed like a new concept. Upon seeing it, Cesare hired Leonardo as his chief military engineer and architect.  What is so extraordinary about this map is that it is a bird’s eye view of the town.  Now to create an accurate bird’s eye view, especially one that has a few topographical features on it as well, one has either to be a bird, or have an extremely advanced capability to place your mind above the town and remember what you saw.

His map of Imola juxtaposed against a modern Google Maps photo.

Later in the year, Leonardo produced another map for his patron, one of Chiana Valley, Tuscany, so as to give his patron a better understanding of the valley and its strategic position.  And there are more examples of his map making abilities that I have provided as observations, because I am convinced he was able to go out of body, and since he also appeared to possess perfect recall – if his drawings of horses are any indication – he was able to record what he had seen.

Leonardo returned to Florence, where he rejoined the Guild of St Luke on October 18, 1503, and spent two years designing and painting a mural of The Battle of Anghiari.  In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan. However, he did not stay in Milan for long because his father had died in 1504, and in 1507 he was back in Florence trying to sort out problems with his brothers over his father's estate. By 1508, Leonardo was back in Milan, living in his own house in Porta Orientale in the parish of Santa Babila.  I think you can thus see from this that Leonardo’s inspiration did not derive from security or a safe base from which to work.  In fact he seemed to spend most of his life on the move.

From September 1513 to 1516, under Pope Leo X, Leonardo spent much of his time living in the Belvedere in the Vatican in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time. In October 1515, Francis I of France recaptured Milan.  In 1516, he entered Francis's service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé near the king's residence at the royal Château d'Amboise. It was here that he spent the last three years of his life, accompanied by his friend and apprentice, Count Francesco Melzi.  Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, on 2 May 1519.  Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving as well as money, Leonardo's paintings, tools, library and personal effects.

Giorgio Vasari - Lives of the Artists
In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.


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