Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man Extraordinaire

by | Nov 8, 1998

“Many will think that they can with reason blame me, alleging — that my proofs are contrary to the authority of certain men held in great reverence by their inexperienced judgments, not considering that my works are the issue of simple and plain experience which is the true mistress.” — Leonardo da Vinci1 During the […]

“Many will think that they can with reason blame me, alleging — that my proofs are contrary to the authority of certain men held in great reverence by their inexperienced judgments, not considering that my works are the issue of simple and plain experience which is the true mistress.” — Leonardo da Vinci1

During the Renaissance, an age that spanned the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Western art reached its pinnacle, and although Michalengelo’s work embodies its grandest artistic achievements, no life embodies the Renaissance as grandly and completely than that of Leonardo da Vinci’s. He more than any other individual then earned the title “Universal man.” It was not unrare for Renaissance artists to engage themselves in various intellectual interests; Leonardo, however, was unparalleled in both the breadth of his interests and the thoroughness with which he studied them. The extraordinary ability he possessed in integrating the observations of his studies with his art demonstrates the essence of his innovative genius.

Leonardo was born in the Italian village of Vinci in 1452, but spent much of his youth in Florence, the Renaissance’s center of culture, where people passionately embraced art, ideas, learning, money and luxury. Most of Europe remained entrenched in feudalism as the Renaissance blossomed in Italy, the cities of which became comparatively wealthy through trade, developing credit, and banking institutions. Many learned Italians had rediscovered and cultivated certain ideas fathered by ancient Greece and Rome. Reborn were individual self-consciousness and the conviction that man’s life was worthy of study, could be understood, and should be approached as an art. These ideas challenged the religious dogma that dominated the Middle Ages, such as that man’s earthly life is merely to redeem himself from his sinful nature, so that he may enter the next and “perfect” world.

During the Middle Ages the Church was the principle customer of art. Thus, in both content and meaning the art of that age was overwhelmingly religious. With the distinctive outlook and prosperity of the Renaissance, however, princes, councils, and merchants emerged as important patrons who paid for a largely secular, man-centered art that glorified themselves or their cities. In Renaissance art religious subjects remained dominant, but its significance lies in its worldliness, its fidelity to nature and to man. “The world of man became the painter’s real subject even when he painted a Madonna,” writes Douglas Mannering in *The Art of Leonardo Da Vinci*, “the divine was now approached through the human — a change no doubt easier to accomplish where men believed that their God had manifested himself, and lived and died, as a man.” Of Leonardo’s surviving paintings, most are religious representations. But although he was careful to harmonize them with their references in the Bible, “there is no evidence that he had any interest in the legendary, theological or ritual aspects of Christianity,” writes Mr. Mannering. “On the contrary, if he was not exactly a scientist, he did have an exclusive reverence for the empirical facts on which science was to base itself.”

Thus, Leonardo was among a new circle of intellects who held faith as a theoretical form of “knowledge” subservient to or made obsolete by knowledge based on empirical evidence; i.e., on reason. Since he regarded eyesight as the supreme sense, Leonardo was a keen observer whose theme in his life and work was “knowing how to see;” his purpose was his art. He developed his own “theory of knowledge,” wherein art and science form an integrated whole and the artist is a transmitter of truth based on sensory data.

Leonardo spent twelve years of his youth as a pupil and apprentice in the workshop of Florentine artist, Andrea del Verrochio. According to Giorgio Vasari, an art historian during the Renaissance, when Leonardo painted the angel in the master Verrochio’s *Baptism of Christ, Madonna and Child,* “Andrea would never again touch colours, being most indignant that a boy should know more of the art than he did.”2 Under Verrochio’s tutelage, Leonardo studied the anatomy of cadavers for the purposes of artistic training. “Leonardo had recognized,” writes Carlo Biaggi in *Leonardo da Vinci,* “that it is necessary for the painter to understand the figure in its structure in order to give expression to its spirit.” These anatomical studies he undertook soon branched into independent research. His vast encyclopedic- type notebooks contain hundreds of pages of diverse, thorough, and extraordinarily crafted anatomical drawings, particularly of man’s skeletal structure and muscles.

Leonardo’s pictorial studies are among the greatest achievements of Renaissance science. He both elevated the art of drawing into an independent means of artistic expression and developed it into a means of scientific investigation and the highest quality of teaching. This confirmed his conviction that the artist was the person uniquely qualified to reproduce scientific knowledge authentically in a pictorial manner. “And you who think to reveal the figure of man in words, with his limbs arranged in all their different attitudes, banish the idea from you,” Leonardo wrote in his notebook, attempting to warn of the mentally burdensome verbiage of anatomical texts, “for the more minute your description the more you will confuse the mind of the reader and the more you will lead him away from the knowledge of the thing described.”3 He potentially made scientific studies more easily graspable by reducing the vastness of their abstract details to concrete drawings. His principle being, in effect, that a well-drafted picture conveys certain knowledge vastly better than a thousand words.

Leonardo’s notebooks reveal his need to draw and to write copious notes on many of his observations. “This will be a collection without order,” he once wrote in them, “Shoping afterwards to arrange them…according to the subject of which they treat.”4 Unsystematic and disorderly, his notebooks nevertheless provided the histories of art and science a unique, unmatched insight into the mind of a monumental genius pursuing knowledge. They reveal the breadth of Leonardo’s interests, which ranged from the anatomy of humans and animals to mechanical, hydraulic, nautical and military engineering; from painting, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, physics and optics to geography, geology, botany, acoustics, music, linguistics, design. One page of his drawings “shows an exercise in the geometry of curves, a drawing of curly hair, grasses curling around an arum lily, sketches of trees, curvesome clouds, rippling waves of water, a prancing horse, and the design of a screw press,” writes historian, Daniel Boorstin, in *The Discoverers.* Mr. Boortstin believes that if Leonardo’s treatise on anatomy had been completed and published, medical science might have progressed more speedily. In his book *The Creators,* Boorstin writes, “He became a pioneer of modern scientific illustration. Whether depicting the vascular system of the vertebrae of man, or the wing structure of a bird, or a new lifting machine, Leonardo’s drawing verified the function, stability and motion of every part.”

Leonardo’s noted observance of how light reflected off of flowing water, for example, would then appear as highlights in the waves and curls of his subjects’ hair, as with his angle in Verrochio’s *Baptism of Christ, Madonna and Child*; and his observations in his anatomical studies would become ever- present in his subjects’ physical features, as with his uncompleted *Saint Jerome.* In this painting that depicts the Saint about to strike himself with rock as punishment for his carnal temptations, Douglas Mannering writes that, “Leonardo captured a moment of highly-charged action with a realism and emotional force that had never been seen before.” The degree of St. Jerome’s agony is portrayed consummately through his emaciation; in the prominent bones, the straining muscles and cartilage in neck and shoulders, and the hollow eyes. Thus, Leonardo masterfully integrated his scientific observations with the subjects of his art, which were markedly distinguished from the often stilted, one-dimensional subject’s Medieval art.

Leonardo was once commissioned to sculpt a sixteen-foot bronze equestrian statute honoring Francesco Sforza, founder of the family dynasty (baring his namesake) that ruled Milan at that time. Precise studies of the anatomy, movement, and proportions of enlivened horses preceded the sketches for the statue, sketches that demonstrate the considerable depth of Leonardo’s approach toward sculpture. Taken as ideas, they had a powerful influence on the development of equestrian statues during the sixteenth century. His statute, however, was never completed. Another uncompleted commission that promised to be among Leonardo’s grandest works was his painting *The Battle of Anghiari.*. In this massive mural that was to depict a cavalry battle in Florence’s military victory at Anghiari over the Milanese forces of the pope, his studies of anatomy were to be employed along with the laws of equilibrium that he’d probed in his studies of mechanics, all of which would enable him to capture the drama in the struggles of both men and horses. *The Battle of Angihiri* nevertheless became the archetype for paintings of cavalry battles, influencing many painters from Rubens to Delacroix.

One of Leonardo’s significant contributions to Western art was his mastery of chiaroscuro, the painting effects of the contrast between light and shadow or dark. As a consequence of his studies in optics, he considered the play of light in painting essential to three-dimensionality. In his *Saint John the Baptist,* the Saintly subject emerges from a dark backdrop; the right side of his upper body and head is gradually revealed by fiery-orange light, as the left side remains obscured in darkness. A century later Rembrandt and Caravaggio made chiaroscuro their trademark. Leonardo also often employed sfumato, the soft, subtle melting between colors and tones. This effect is characteristic of Leonardo’s landscapes, such as the one that forms the backdrop of his *Mona Lisa,* perhaps the most famous portrait in Western art. With the rise of implicit individualism, portraiture became a dominant aspect of Renaissance art, as popes, princes, nobles, and even mercenaries and relatively unknown individuals, had themselves painted for posterity. The *Mona Lisa* offers a superb example of both the mastery of sfumato and evocative portraiture.

All of Leonardo’s abilities that depict a heightened expressiveness and a greater adherence to reality were largely enhanced by the employment of his scientific observations with his methodical use of every technical means known to him in drawing, color, perspective, lighting; each being highly developed and distinctive features of his art.

These abilities culminated in the *Last Supper,* Leonardo’s masterpiece, which attained a height of expression that became a standard of its kind. This mural captures the dramatic moment after Jesus announces to the apostles among him, “One of you which eateth with me will betray me.” Their reactions are depicted expertly through their gestures: Thomas’ doubtfulness is conveyed by his index finger pointed upward, the guilness of Bartholomew by his hands held to his chest, the shock of others by their rises from their seats. “[T]he apostles gesticulate vehemently to display their distress,” Jack Wasserman writes in the pictorial book *Leonardo Da Vinci*; “faces reveal a variety of deeply felt emotions and bodies twist and turn convulsivelySGesture, movement, and facial expression were for Leonardo…necessary components of epic painting.” The power of the painting rests primarily on these attitudes of the apostles as contrasted to Christ, who, at their center but separate from them, sits calm and aloof. Writes Douglas Mannering, “Nothing like this dynamic interaction between a group of people had ever been seen before. The skill with which their gestures varied has always been admired.”

Unfortunately, Leonardo’s life was similar to his notebooks: unsystematic and disorderly. His insatiable hunger for knowledge that provoked him into various, extensive pursuits probably account for much of his disorderliness; his many unfinished artistic projects; and his uncompiled, unpublished recorded studies, whether in architecture, painting, anatomy, or mechanics (although his treaties on painting was published posthumously). Moreover, Leonardo’s genius was so profound that certain of his ideas were not fully understood and appreciated until our modern age. His flying machines, for instance, though impractical, show sound principles of aerodynamics (as he implicitly grasped the principle of aerodynamic reciprocity that Issac Newton presented two centuries after him). “To conceive a plausible-looking flying machine (especially one in the form of a helicopter) was an astonishing feat for a 15th-century mind, but the design hardly came complete with specifications,” writes Douglas Mannering. Because he was the first individual since the ancient world to study mechanics in their details, with his work as a designer and constructor of machines penetrating to their essence of reducing man’s physical labor, Leonardo can be considered an early father of the Industrial Reloution that materialized three-hundred years after his death. Kenneth D. Keele writes in *Leonardo Da Vinci Anatomical Drawings,* “By the eventual application of his physical laws, Leonardo achieved a wholly unique penetration into the mechanical principles of physiology. His contemporaries were quite unready for thisS [I]n anatomy, as in so many other aspects of his life’s work, Leonardo was a man who awoke too early in the dawn of the scientific Renaissance while others still slept.”

High Renaissance art, of which Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were its masters, reached an unmatched grandeur in art by embodying great intellectual and psychological intensity. Leonardo, the exemplar of this transformation in art, was the first artist to be treated as an exceptional being other than kings, or fit to live with them, as Leonardo had lived with royalty. In stark contrast to the Christian-dominated Dark and Middle Ages, Leonardo’s work made concrete an unprecedented use of reason and the monumental capabilities of the individual human mind. Despite certain of his work being not fully understood during his lifetime and generally unknown thereafter due to his notebooks being scattered throughout Europe, Leonardo, the supreme Renaissance man, was nevertheless instrumental in bridging ancient Greece and Rome’s respect for reason to the age of Enlightenment and the founding of the United States, the nation that finally freed the individual from the tyranny of religionists and of kings.

Dedicated to Rita Kellard, who taught me to respect intelligence and to pursue knowledge. — JK


1 Leonardo da Vinci Anatomical Drawings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983;
2 Daniel Boorstin, The Creators, Random House, 1992, (p. 400);
3 Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers, Random House, 1983, (p. 357);
4 Daniel Boorstin, The Creators, Random House, 1992, (p. 401).

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard's commentary, visit his website The American Individualist at americanindividualist.blogspot.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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