Leonardo da Vinci, his paintings, drawings, and inventions
When he was seventeen, he moved to Florence, where his talent for drawing impressed the great master Verrocchio who took him on as a pupil.
Leonardo da Vinci worked for such powerful patrons as Ludovico da Sforza, Duke of Milan; Cesare Borgia; Cardinal Giuliano de Medici, brother of Leon X; and for the French king Francois I at Amboise, where he died in 1519.
It has become fashionable to speak of 'Leonardo the artist' and 'Leonardo the scientist' as if he had been some schizophrenic genius torn between two disparate pursuits and therefore rarely, if ever, able to accomplish anything in either. But Leonardo's own contemporaries, though impatient of his volatility, master himself such a dichotomy would have been incomprehensible. To say that as 'a man of the Renaissance' he believed that a painter needed the aid of anatomy, perspective, optics and so forth is not a proper answer. In fact, these alleged 'scientific' studies of Renaissance artists were a fashion confined to a small circle. In any case, Michelangelo and Raphael to name only two outstanding examples - did not share these interests but were great artists nonetheless. Leonardo's inquiries were rooted in his personality, not in some tendency of the age, and many of his notes and drawings having nothing to do with the tasks awaiting painters of his time. They are not a vast store from which to draw raw materials for his art, nor was his art simply a finely distilled compound of observations and imagination.
In fact, many of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings are different from those of his contemporaries and those by artists from any other period. Of course, there are among them rapid sketches from life, portraits, quick notes for compositions, elaborate cartoons, drapery studies, designs for machines, buildings, drawings of plants and animals, anatomical and proportion studies. But it is their nature which is so often peculiar. The plans of buildings grow before our eyes like the cells of some organism, plants appear on the same sheet both in bud and in flower, trees are drawn schematically to demonstrate the principle of growth, there is a drawing of the peaceful Arno valley, and there are the cataclysmic visions of utter physical destruction of the world. The grotesque heads - to call them caricatures is a misnomer - are combinations and variations of human forms creating a morphological sequence of types. The anatomical drawings demonstrate not only the position of muscles and tendons or the bone structure, they also show the embryo in its mother's womb and a bare skull, - the beginning and end of life. All these drawings are concerned not just with the collection of visual data useful to the painter but with the processes of life, with growth and decay, whether in plants, beast, man, or the world at large. The same is true of Leonardo's designs for his various mechanical contrivances which are so often engines of construction or destruction.
Leonardo da Vinci's notes should be considered in the same context. It is perhaps a pity that we have got used to thinking of them as if they had been written in preparation for some comprehensive treatise on painting. But it
should be remembered that the huge manuscript known as Trattato della Pittura is not a autograph. It was compiled in the sixteenth century, probably by Francesco Melzi, from no less then eighteen of the original notebooks. The
result certainly is a labor of love, but nevertheless this gathering divided into eight chapters is too rigid, too much like a textbook to reveal Leonardo da Vinci's truly dynamic nature. Maybe the compiler himself felt doubts
about the scope of such a treatise, for there are empty leaves at the end of each chapter, surely for the later addition of relevant materials. Furthermore the chapters on elementary anatomy, proportion, on light and shade deal
with topics every painter must know, but a whole section on clouds introduces a subject certainly dear to Leonardo da Vinci, while hardly relevant to the practice of art in the sixteenth century. All this is not surprising, since
among Leonardo's many schemes for research no complete program for a treatise on painting has been found. While it is of course true that Leonardo made copious notes about many aspects of painting - both technical and theoretical
- even their scope goes far beyond a handbook for students or artists.
Leonardo da Vinci repeatedly expressed his scorn for those who relied on book learning and the authority of older writers. By contrast he claims that his work is the result of 'simple and plain experience which is the true mistress'. With a characteristic mixture of pride and contempt he bursts out:”Though I have no power to quote form authors as they have, I shall rely on a far bigger and more worthy thing: on experience, the instructress of their masters. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others, and they will not even allow me my own. And if they despise me who am an inventor, how much more should they be blamed who are not inventors but trumpeters and reciters of the works of others”
The most interesting claim in this passage is Leonardo's assertion that he is an inventor, clearly meaning not so much the man who devises some new gadget but a discoverer in a far more general sense. His concept of the painter and his task must have been on of these 'discoveries'.
Through his notes and drawings Leonardo da Vinci has left us an uneasy heritage. The same is true of his few paintings. Theory springs from the brain, but practice depends on the hands, and that is why Leonardo da Vinci who was most learned was never satisfied with what he did, achieved perfection with only a few works and often said that the reason was that his hand could not follow his intellect. Only twenty of Leonardo's paintings have survived but they include some of the enduring masterpieces of Western Art: The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Magi, The Virgin of the Rocks, The Mona Lisa, of course, and his fresco of The Last Supper. All his life he observed and recorded through word and picture natural phenomena and mechanical contrivances of every kind. Often enough they seem remote from any conceivable artistic task. Yet in the end his mind seems always to return to an apparently simple yet obsessive question: what is painting? He had straightforward and technical definitions:
But when considering the role of the painter in a less technical sense he had a definition making him an 'inventor' of a rather special kind:
Painting is a composition of light and shade, combined with all the various kinds of simple and compound colors”
Knowledge of nature and its processes clearly meant power to Leonardo, that is the artist's power to create with pen and brush a second nature. He was not a scientist, in spite of his far flung research, for he never wanted to know for the sake of knowledge. Nor was he an artist in the modern sense since he was not interested in art for art's sake. When he wrote:'... the painter is lord of all types of people and of all things', he spoke of those powers which as an artist he claimed for himself. and yet he never finished his investigations and rarely his paintings for in the end he must have shrunk from the very power which his creations might give him. The most revealing of his notes reads:
The painter is lord of all types of people and of all things. If he wishes to see beauties that charm him it lies in his power to create them, and if he wishes to see monstrosities that are frightful, buffoonish or ridiculous, or pitiable he can be lord and god thereof... If he wants valleys, if he wants from high mountain tops to unfold a great plain extending down to the sea's horizon, he is lord to do so... 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 hand.”
Today Leonardo da Vici is seen as one of the most famous figures in the history of art; no painting in the world has been reproduced as often as the Mona Lisa, on other attracts so many visitors, or has been "borrowed" by so many other artist. (Marcel Duchamp gave the Mona Lisa a mustache, Fernand Leger linked her to a bunch of keys, Kazimir Malevich included her in a collage, and Andy Warhol printed the image thirty times over by silk screen). Yet Leonardo is among the least well represented by his works; not a single sculpture survived, and the fewer than twenty paintings that remain include several that are unfinished and some in which his is not the only had. Contemporary criticism is still engaged in cutting down to size the catalogue of paintings claimed as his, a list encrusted with all kinds of additions in the nineteen century. At the same time, he is seen as one of the most ingenious and prolific of minds. Set against the small number of paintings is the extraordinary (sometimes overwhelming) number of notebooks, revealing the dazzling activity of the man of science, the engineer, the writer. His research on water, air, and the flight of birds inspired inventions and designs that only modern technology has been able to realize, including the aero plane, the parachuted, the bicycle, the tank, and the machine-gun. Finally, he must be numbered one of the most enigmatic figures in the human pantheon. Everything we know about Leonardo da Vinci and his life has been submerged under what people have wanted to believed about his art and his science.
One should not desire the impossible.”
Leonardo da Vici avoided the intrigues of worldly ambitions and vanity. He was a reserved and withdrawn man, not concerned with glory, and yet absolutely sure of the value of his abilities. A consummate intellectual endowed with an extraordinary imagination, he remains the most outstanding figure of the Renaissance.
Like Athens in the age of Pericles, Renaissance Italy is a summit in human history. Today, no name better seems to symbolize that age than Leonardo da Vinci.
In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.” - Leonardo da Vinci