baudrunner's space: Will the real Leonardo da Vinci please stand up?
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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Will the real Leonardo da Vinci please stand up?

After studying the Time Life Library of Art's The World of Leonardo, 1452 - 1519 and being somewhat surprised by the details of his life and his character I felt compelled to do some research into the artist's life and times. That his was a special incursion into history can be underlined by the people with whom which he shared the times and with many of whom he had at some point a direct relationship. These include the great artist and foremost sculptor of his time Andrea (di Cione) Verrochio, to whom he was apprenticed (as would be Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi). In 1503 Piero Soderini, the newly elected Gonfaloniere of Florence, commissioned the 49 year old Leonardo (there is only one self portrait of Leonardo done late in life) and the great young Michelangelo to work together in painting murals of "epic" battles on separate walls in one chamber of the newly built town hall. At various times in his life Leonardo fell under the patronage of Ludovico da Sforza, Duke of Milan; Lorenzo "The Magnificent" of the Medici's; Cesare Borgia; briefly by Cardinal Giuliano de Medici, third son of Lorenzo and brother of Pope Leo X; and Francis 1 of France, "Father and Restorer of Letters".

Ironically, when Leonardo was still a babe he was very nearly literally snatched from history by a large hawk which swooped down upon his cradle and rested there momentarily to gaze at the infant. History might have taken a different turn had the Hawk taken the child in its clutches. He was probably a big baby as he would grow into a large and strong boned man.

Leonardo was born the illegitimate son of a peasant girl by the name of Caterina and fathered by Ser Piero da Vinci, a Florentine notary from a land owning family. Apparently in those days children born out of wedlock were treated no differently than any other. Even the popes were known to have fathered many illegitimate children by different concubines. At the age of five Leonardo was taken to live with his father who had newly married and at fourteen he would be apprenticed to Verrochio.

Leonardo's first assignment was to complete a work by Verrochio -- The Baptism of Christ. The young artist's contribution consisted of the crouching angels in the bottom left corner of the painting and some of the background. Verrochio was shocked at the quality of Leonardo's work. Leonardo joined the Guild of St. Luke at the age of twenty and even though his father set him up with his own shop he continued to work with Verrochio, realising full well the benefit to be gained by studying under such an accomplished master.

Leonardo was himself never wealthy, but was never for want of the necessities of life, thanks to the patronage of highly placed and important individuals. A revealing acknowledgement of his comfort in his solitary genius is found in this remark, "The act of procreation and everything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions." It must be understood that he was a true genius and rules of norm do not apply to such as he. As a result, any attempt to describe the true nature of his being or character from within the context of one's normal frame of reference is bound to be misguided. Remarks such as those rolled easily off his tongue.

Leonardo was probably the greatest procrastinator of all time. One can easily forgive him this strange quirk of character because his most prolific output was not in painting or sculpture -- indeed, he never produced a single completed bronze or stone statue and we have only about a dozen complete paintings which can be genuinely attributed to his hand -- it was rather in his writings, scribblings, sketches and the engineering drawings and designs that he left behind. He wrote so much instructional material on the technique and style of painting that together those pages alone number about 1,200. Beyond that he kept notes of his inventions and ideas: botanical sketches; anatomical studies -- he was permitted to perform dissections at the hospital Santa Maria Nuova in Florence; and the many engineering works which he devised while under contractual arrangements as engineer for military or public works under patronage. Of course the preliminary sketches and studies for his paintings, too numerous to mention, are outstanding works of art in their own right.

Paintings until the high Renaissance were generally done with different mixtures of egg tempera. Oil paints were a new development and Leonardo is known to have invented the oil pastel. He often developed new mixtures of finishing varnishes and shellacs as well as undercoatings, many of which did not always live up to expectations and many a potentially fine creation was ruined by the results of his experimentation. Nevertheless, artists of and since his time have benefited from those innovations.

When he did begin a painting, the work was invariably never finished to his complete satisfaction. In Leonardo's own words, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Taking ten or fifteen or more years for a single painting was not unusual for him. This is probably why three of his commissions were still in his possession when he died in France in 1519 while under the patronage of Francis 1, who merely wanted him around for conversation and companionship with no obligation to produce anything. Those works in his possession then were the Mona Lisa, St. John, and Madonna and Child with St Anne.*

Everyone has their personal favorite of Leonardo's paintings. Mine is the Louvre version of Madonna of the Rocks. A simple photograph does not do justice, and when seen in the proper light one is awed by the effect of the golden glow on the faces of the subjects.

The creations of his which actually materialised are surprising. He invented the same chain link that we use on our bicycles. He also invented an automated bobbin winder. Many practical inventions are among his creations but most of them never saw the light of day. For an idea of just how ahead of his time he was one might point to the example of the Turkish government's decision on 17 May, 2006 to construct Leonardo's bridge to span the Golden Horn which he designed for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Istanbul in 1502.

Leonardo da Vinci was possessed of a runaway creative genius. Tackling many projects at once and finishing almost none was the innate peculiarity of his character. But the fault must lie partly in the demands placed upon him by important individuals who could not be refused. For sixteen years he labored on the complexities of one singular commission for the Duke of Milan. He was asked to create the largest bronze equestrian statue in existence. This was not a minor undertaking and would not be even today, as the finished product would be a bronze horse 26 feet high. When Leonardo was finally prepared to begin the casting the Duke took to repeatedly diverting the brass he had procured for the project to the manufacture of canon and the statue was never completed. The clay pre-cast was destroyed by water damage which penetrated the punctures in the model after French troops used it for target practice during their invasion of Milan in 1498 under Louis X11. The Milanese had previously repelled a French attempt in 1492 by using their canon. The poignant irony of this sequence of events canot be too easily overlooked.

Was Leonardo da Vinci a perfectionist? Yes, and occasionally self-deprecating. These can be summed up by quoting from the man himself, "I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have," and "I have wasted my hours." Leonardo was an eye-winking philosopher: "Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else." Leonardo was a patient man: "Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge," and "Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence." Leonardo was a seeker of truth: "The truth of things is the chief nutriment of superior intellects."

Some might conclude that his presence in history occurred as a divine intervention of sorts. I hold my opinion on that matter, but do point out what he said once, "Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!" You have to love the man.

* the Mona Lisa (Madonna Lisa) has an alternate title - La Giocondo, and it is generally believed that she was Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of a Florentine Merchant by the name of Francesco di Bartolommeo del Giocondo, although an argument can be made for her being the portrait of Caterina Sforza. (see Lorenzo di Credi)

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