Leonardo da Vinci


   Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) needs no introduction; if there is anyone who seems to embody the Renaissance completely and totally, it is this grouchy and self-centered painter, scholar, inventor, scientist, writer, anatomist, etc. He seems to span the whole of human knowledge as it was known at the time, and combine all this knowledge into this one vast, syncretic whole. So encompassing was his artistic and intellectual accomplishment, that the life and work of Leonardo traditionally marks the beginning of what historians call the High Renaissance.

   For all this genius, however, he could never really finish very many projects (which seems to be a general rule prevailing among geniuses; they never finish projects, I think, because they get bored too easily), nor did he ever realize most of his inventions in real terms. As one surveys his notebooks (written backwards to prevent unwanted eyes from peering into his secrets), one find helicopters and submarines, hundreds of years before anyone else will think of them, but at no point does he sit down and actually build these marvelous inventions.

   Born the illegitimate son of a lawyer and a peasant, Da Vinci established his own shop in Firenze and was so successful that by the age of twenty-five, he came under the patronage of Lorenzo de'Medici, the powerful ruler of Firenze. He and his patron, however, did not get along: Leonardo had an irritating habit of not finishing his work and Lorenzo the Magnificent had an irritating habit of wanting his commissions finished. So Leonardo left Firenze and came under the patronage of the Sforzas in Milan. There he worked at his own pace without interruption until the French invasions of 1499; eventually he came under the patronage of Francis I, King of France, in whose service he remained until his death in 1519.

   In painting, his most famous works are La Gioconda (Mona Lisa ), The Last Supper ,, and The Virgin of the Rocks .. The Last Supper , painted in oils on plaster on the wall of the refrectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, has weathered the years very poorly and is nearly unrecognizable, for oils fare very poorly on plaster. It is justly famous, for it is one of the most complex paintings in the Western tradition in depicting a variety of psychological reactions and internal states all focussed on a single, non-reacting center, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. In the bewildering variety of reactions immediately following Jesus's announcement of his coming betrayal, Leonardo in visual terms manifests what Pico della Mirandola and others were saying about the variety and unpredictability of human beings.

The Virgin of the Rocks
The Virgin of the Rocks

   The Virgin of the Rocks , like The Last Supper , is a masterpiece at depicting a variety of psychological, internal states. Like his portrait of Ginevra de'Benci or La gioconda , The Virgin of the Rocks displays human psychology in intimate harmony and balance with the surrounding natural world.

   Perhaps Da Vinci's greatest work was his notebooks on which he wrote his one and only book, The Painter , as well as a legion of notes on technology, science, human anatomy, architecture, as well as sketches of all these things.

Study of Human Proportion
Study of Human Proportion,
from the Notebooks

Renaissance Reader
The Painter
   Strewn through his notebooks is a small treatise on painting he intended to publish, but never did because, like so much else that he started, he never finished it. The first part of the treatise signals a major shift in the European world view, one that more than anything establishes the character of the Renaissance and its inheritance. The first part of the treatise is meant to justify linear perspective; the second part explains how linear perspective is made possible. In Leonardo's view, linear perspective isn't really just a painting technology that previous generations were too stupid to invent; rather it is based on a world view, one that remaps the human landscape to privilege human beings and the uniquely human perspective (as opposed to the divine perspective). This new world view is also based on new theories of "visibility," which are expressed in the chapter "Linear Perspective." Leonardo argued in his explanation of linear perspective that the whole of the universe can in some way or another be made visible to the human eye and that the human perception of the universe was basically the correct one. This privileging of the human perspective and the boundless potential of human vision parallels Pico's privileging of human capabilities and the boundless potential of human intellect. Without this belief that the all the universe could be made visible to the human eye, inventions such as the microscope and the telescope probably would not have occurred.

Richard Hooker



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World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999