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Leonardo da Vinci: A Universal Man

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Jan 6th 2020

Five hundred years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci (May 2, 1519), there are still many mysteries to be unveiled related to this protagonist of the Italian Renaissance and the history of humanity. He represents the emblem of “universal man,” a formula that echoes the universalis genius of the ancient Romans.[1]

The fields in which this polymath revealed his genius are almost endless. Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, philosopher, designer, writer and above all a scientist: mathematician, optician, architect, engineer, physicist, geologist, geographer and botanist. He was also among the first to conduct research in the anatomical field and designed a set of useful and futuristic devices ranging from diving suits to flying machines, from submarines to battleships with rams, from firing mechanisms to a wind-powered roasting spit, from tanks to structures to repel assault ladders on city walls, from catapults to bombards; he knew how to play the lyre and even composed music. Leonardo is truly a genius of the modern world, the man of synthesis and unity of knowledge, precisely a “universal man,” but also a “man of analysis,” of rigorous and systematic study, who investigates the intimate relationship between the human being, nature and the cosmos.

Leonardo was curious about everything; he had an irrepressible and omnivorous curiosity that stopped at nothing. He usually drew his discoveries, combining painting and science; his masters were nature and life, observation and experience. They are undoubtedly unique and exceptional qualities, and yet they can also be a limit. He was not able to follow a regular course of study, which limited in particular his writing. He did not know Latin or Greek and, aware of this shortcoming, tried to catch up when he was 40 years old.

His birth is marked by illegitimacy. Leonardo was born in 1452 in Vinci, near Florence. He was the son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and of Caterina, a woman of humble origins. His father married that year, but not the mother of the newborn. Yet Leonardo was welcomed into the new family. His stepmother died young, at 28, without having children. Piero remarried three more times and had 12 children: in all, Leonardo found himself having 12 stepbrothers and stepsisters. The last one was born when he was 46.

His grandparents did not give him so much a normal education as a discontinuous formation. He learned to write with his left hand and wrote in reverse, in a mirror-like way compared to normal writing. [2] Vasari, his great biographer, noticed that in childhood he began many things and then abandoned them. His father wanted him to start a legal career, but he was unsuccessful. Since the young man knew how to draw very well, around the years 1460-1464 he introduced him to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, one of the most important in Florence, where Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Lorenzo di Credi all trained. It was a particular and totally innovative historical period: the Renaissance was experiencing its greatest splendor, and artists such as Donatello, Masaccio and Brunelleschi had already given the figurative arts their moment of glory.

Writer or painter? The dilemma between writing and painting

For at least three centuries, Leonardo was known almost only as a painter and very little as a writer and scientist. His fame was due to the masterpieces for which he was universally known: the Annunciation of the Uffizi, the Adoration of the Magi, the Last Supper in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan (the only mural painting), the Virgin of the Rocks, the Belle Ferronnière, the Mona Lisa, the St. John, the St. Anne.

The Adoration of the Magi, begun in 1481, would remain unfinished, as did his St. Jerome and other paintings. Although on the first occasion this incompleteness was due to the artist’s departure for Milan, it became a characteristic: it is the sign of his creative capacity, for which every painting or drawing is a living work, open, in progress, never completely finished and always to be perfected. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, he never delivered to his clients, but he always brought it with him, in his various moves from Florence, Milan, up to France, keeping it among the possessions most dear to him, working on it for more than 10-15 years.

His works were living laboratories, always open, in progress, to which he added from time to time details, landscapes and backgrounds with a new technique that allowed him to overlap layers of transparent paint, so as to create original atmospheric effects with light and shadow. It is the new technique of oil painting, which allows us to return to the detail of a painting, to a background, to a landscape, almost infinitely. As for the Mona Lisa, shortly before his death in 1519, Leonardo presented it to the King of France.

Hence a problem that appears in some of his notes titled Paragone delle Arti[3]: to communicate, to describe a subject, to deal with a topic, is it better to paint or write? By relating word, image and sound, Leonardo deduces that the most effective way of communicating is painting, both for the immediacy of understanding that a painting offers, and for the universality of the pictorial language, which is within everyone’s reach.

In this sense he contradicts the literary spirit of the Humanism of his time, without resolving the problem, because if his mastery in painting leads him to instinctively choose painting, he notes that the word in the narrative also represents the passing of time; instead, painting, portraying a form or an image, makes them definitive, without the dynamics that time adds. Leonardo understands well the complexity of reality and communication, and deduces that both painting and narration are necessary. In short, both painting and writing are important.

The difficult relationship with writing is well highlighted by Italo Calvino in one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the one on “exactitude.” For Leonardo, writing is a “battle with language, a shaggy and knotty language, in search of the richest and most subtle and precise expression.”[4] For him this is a tormented and never concluded relationship, always alive and evolving: when he reaches the age of 40, he engages in the study of the words of the Italian language, perhaps as a project for a vocabulary, and even learns Latin, obviously self-taught.

This is documented by his Codices, as witnesses of a writing that, as Fabio Frosini and Carlo Vecce say, is “the most significant example of scientific and intellectual communication before Galileo.”[5] The most famous of them, the Codex Atlanticus, consists of 1,119 sheets, a collection of writings, notes, drawings, curiosities, sensations that are the very impressive result of this “man without letters” (as he called himself), even if his culture was vast. Those sheets are almost an autobiographical diary of his artistic, scientific, literary and technological career. Remarkable is the Treatise on Painting, his only book – among many projects – which circulated as a manuscript since 1540 and was published a century later in Paris, in 1651. It is one of the most important sources of Italian artistic literature.

Painter and ducal engineer

If painting and writing are the expression of an unlimited perfectionism, Leonardo’s relationship with science is marked by the universality of his interests, by infinite inventions, by exceptional intuitions, by the genius of his discoveries. It is no coincidence that he can be called a “scientist” ante litteram. He interested himself with the whole universe: from mathematics to physics, from botany to biology and anatomy, from geography to geology and astronomy, not to mention the structures for lifting cannons, for military fortifications; and then the machines for flying, a sort of parachute, steam propulsion, the submarine, and even the bicycle[6]; and countless other inventions. For him, observation of nature was the incentive to grasp its functioning and replicate it artificially.[7]

In 1482, after his Florentine experience, he presented himself in Milan at the court of Ludovico Maria Sforza il Moro, and qualified as a pictor et ingegnarius ducalis, that is, as a painter and as an “engineer,” not only in the sense that he was an expert in construction and architecture, in roads, in water supply, in the design of military machinery, but also in the fact that he knew how to become an expert on everything.[8] And he’d prove it immediately, to general amazement. In hydraulics he designed a waterway that would take the Arno from Pisa to Florence and discovered the principle of the speed of water in the canals, based on the depth. His theory of the arc is exceptional. Arcs hold very solid through a force that is caused “by two weaknesses,” where each of the two parts that support it “for itself desires to fall and opposing the other’s ruin, the two weaknesses are converted into a single fortress.”[9] In his language we can see the painter and the poet who knows how to paint even what he writes about architecture.

Leonardo was the first to consider the law of inertia, which was later formulated by Galileo: “Every motion will follow its course in a straight line, as far as the violence of the motor lasts in it”; and also the first idea of the law of action and reaction, which was to be enunciated two centuries later by Newton: “So much force is done with the thing that encounters the air, as is done by the air encountering the thing.”[10]

Vitruvian Man

Leonardo also has a tremendous passion for studying anatomy. He is fascinated by the dissection of corpses, to discover how the limbs are made, the forms of muscles and bones, the veins, the circulatory system, the heart. The study of the human body is not a peculiarity of Leonardo, but a sign of modern time, and yet he has a particular way of describing the work in drawings and comments.

Among the anatomical studies, the “Vitruvian man” should be remembered. This is perhaps the most famous drawing in the world, and also the symbol of the Renaissance. It represents a man drawn in a circle and a square. It is not an original idea, but a new way to realize an ancient idea of the architect Vitruvius (in the first century BC), who stressed the harmony that must regulate the proportions and the various parts of a building: it is the same that applies to the limbs of the human body.

In Leonardo’s drawing, the figure of the man is superimposed in a square and a circle, standing, in two different positions and with his arms outstretched. The center of the circle is the navel of man, but the square and the circle do not have the same center. The design has a surprising symbolic meaning, reflecting the conception of the human person in the transition between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. Man is a microcosm, a reflection of a higher order, which nevertheless has within itself the fundamental components of the world. The circle and the square represent the divine sphere and the human sphere respectively (the square refers to the terrestrial “four elements”). Thus the human person, halfway between the divine and the terrestrial, becomes an element of connection, with an extraordinary novelty. In the Middle Ages, the center of gravity of the world was God, now the center of the world is the human person[11] reaching out toward the universe that surrounds us, to know it, embrace it, and love it. This is the actor and protagonist of history, the person with intelligence, conscience, art, creativity, and the ability to plan life and for the future. Leonardo’s most famous drawing documents our awareness of the new dignity of the human person.[12] 

Unexpected failures and successes

In Milan, the artist was commissioned to design a colossal work, the monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico il Moro and founder of the dynasty. Leonardo manages to make the true model of the colossal monument: a rampant horse with raised front legs and the rider in an attack position. The model is original compared to the previous equestrian monuments of the Gattamelata by Donatello in Padua and the Colleoni by Verrocchio in Venice. But there were problems: how could such a statue remain erect? And what huge furnace will it take to melt about 80 tons of bronze into one piece? Leonardo is stalling, the client is pressing, because in his eyes the work is still in the phase of smoky projects. While the artist is looking for a solution, Moro urgently needs metal to make cannons and sends to Ferrara the bronze set aside for the statue, without the artist’s knowledge. The disappearance of the metal is a bitter defeat for his work.

However, in Milan Leonardo also had several other successes in organizing parties and court shows, where he manages to invent imaginative scenarios, unusual decorations and impossible games. He designs the costumes of the actors, he sketches the scenes, he composes the music, he even writes the plot of the show.

But the greatest success in Milan is due to the paintings already mentioned: the Last Supper for the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the Virgin of the Rocks. In the Last Supper, which unfortunately will fall into disrepair as the colors of the wall change tone because of the humidity, Leonardo presents a new configuration of the traditional composition: the Lord is at the center, majestic, with a strong face and with a firm gesture, John does not rest his head on his chest.

The painting captures the dramatic moment when the disciples ask themselves about Jesus’ revelation: “One of you will betray me.” Who can betray the Lord? The excitement of those present, represented in groups of three, like a wave in motion, reflects the questioning, the consultation, the response, in short, the drama of consciences. Everyone is in the light, except Judas who appears in the shadows. To the dramatic effect is added a spatial effect: the aerial perspective of the fresco seems to create a stage, where the scene is illuminated by the windows in the background.[13] In short, a masterpiece.

The Virgin of the Rocks was commissioned for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan: it depicts the Madonna and the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist in the desert having escaped from the slaughter of the innocent; there is also an angel looking out of the painting. The scene has a unique arrangement on the threshold of a cave, in the background of which emerge caves, glaciers and rocky pinnacles, in a nuanced atmosphere that becomes a source of light for the close-ups. Perhaps they are symbolic forms (the innards of the Earth? Underground Nature?). There has even been talk of hermetic language. The caves in the background would allude to the prehistory that ends with the coming of Christ. But why the encounter between Jesus and the Baptist child? And why does the angel pointing his finger at the Baptist look at the admirer of the painting?[14] Difficult to answer; in any case, the altarpiece was not appreciated, and the artist had to paint another one.

The prodigy of portraits

In Milan, Leonardo is the genius of portraits: for him portraying a person does not mean painting the physiognomy, but capturing a state of mind, feelings and personality. Note the first of the Milanese portraits, the Lady with an Ermine (also called Lady of the Ermine, around 1489-1490),[15] in which he depicts a young lover of Moro, Cecilia Gallerani, an aristocratic woman, rich in charm and culture. The depth of a look emerges, the moment that caught her by surprise: it seems that someone called her and that both she and the ermine are attracted by the call, which is beyond the picture. The two figures are shaken by the dynamism of a surprise. The woman seems to hold the animal gently, an ermine with white fur, a clear sign of purity. This is followed by a disconcerting meaning, which overshadows the figure of Moro himself: he had just been awarded the royal honor of the Order of the Ermine, which the Duke held in high regard and of which he was proud. And he’s probably the one who commissioned the work. In this way, the woman holds her lover in her arms and caresses his character in the figure of an animal, known as a predator and anything but tamable.[16] It is said that Isabella d’Este, given the beauty of the painting, asked Leonardo to make a portrait of it, but the artist made a drawing, without however painting the image.[17]

The most famous of Leonardo’s portraits is the Mona Lisa of the Louvre[18]: the artist, as we have said, always perfected it, taking it with him in all his movements. He was almost obsessed with his favorite painting, in an infinite, delicate and loving caressing; and he did not separate himself from it until the end. The result is a complex and enigmatic figure, wrapped in the mystery of an indefinite and indefinable smile.

For centuries there have been documents, studies and interpretations circulating about the famous painting failing to clarify either the identity of the character (was it really Mona Lisa, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, as Vasari says?[19]) or the precise date for the start of the painting.[20]

Leonardo worked on it all his life, and in the masterpiece you can glimpse his pictorial poetics, so much so that the painting has been called “the pinnacle of Leonardo’s art”[21] and has become the ideal model for all successive portraiture. In the background there appears a landscape that is neither real nor fantastic, but the image of a nature from which emerges the beauty of the woman. The light that comes from that atmosphere seems to invest and embrace Mona Lisa.

Questioning the mystery of the smile does not help to understand the feelings of her soul, yet the woman expresses the joy of her inner life and beauty, in harmony with the nature and cosmos that surround her: it represents the fullness of a life accomplished in an intimate joy that also involves the viewer. It is the surprising novelty of the Mona Lisa: whoever looks at her seems to be in relation with her; the expression of the woman is alive, not fixed in a definitive way, and she seems to react, to modify herself, to speak mysteriously with those who are admiring her.

The Battle of Anghiari

In 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence, where, after the fall of the Medici, he received an important public commission to fresco the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in Palazzo Vecchio. The Battle of Anghiari intends to celebrate the glory of the Tuscan city with the victory over the Milanese army in 1440. Michelangelo, a young emerging artist who has already shown his talent with his David, will be entrusted with the task of painting, in the same room, the Battle of Càscina, which took place in 1364 between Florence and Pisa. Thus begins a silent duel that will end badly for both. The two Battles of Palazzo Vecchio will remain unfinished… Michelangelo will be called to Rome to work on the tomb of the future pope Julius II, Leonardo will be overwhelmed by unexpected aspects of his new painting technique.

The wall to be painted is huge, measuring 20 x 8 meters. Leonardo is enthusiastic and seems to be proceeding quickly. Unfortunately, something is wrong. As soon as the central part of the painting is finished, he passes to the use of braziers to dry the stucco, which is soaked in pitch. But the encaustic technique goes wrong: while the heat is successful at the bottom, at the top the painting melts before his eyes like a wax wall.

Another failure… Yet the central scene of the battle – which remains in the cartoons and copies of the painting, including a watercolor by Rubens – is considered one of the artistic masterpieces of Florence: it represents a frantic and furious struggle of knights and horses who compete for the pole of the banner, the symbol of the city.[22] Men and animals share the same passions, in an impressive and shocking way. Art historian Marco Rosci observes that the project reveals “an obsessive representation of ferocity as mad bestiality, … pessimistically proposed as a universal fact.”[23] The Battle by Leonardo does not celebrate Florentine heroism at all and ends up as a severe condemnation of the war, “bestial madness.”[24]

It is certain that from now on it will no longer be possible to paint battles without these two masterpieces. We have a copy of Michelangelo’s cartoon, which does not present the battle, but the Florentines who are suddenly surprised by the alarm of the enemy attack while they are bathing in the Arno: this drawing amazes for vitality and energy.

After painting the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo returned to Milan, then Rome, and finally in 1516 accepted the invitation of Francis I to move to France, where he died in 1519.

The two giants of the Renaissance

Leonardo and Michelangelo are two giants, two great artists of the Renaissance. Although different, and in some ways rivals, they have art in common with each other, albeit understood in a totally different way. Leonardo is above all the scientist, the analytic observer (from natural processes to corpses), the man of atmospheres and its effects, the experimenter of every type of movement, the utopian in his inventions, the creator with the taste to create and recreate continuously devices, even useless ones. His works are often unfinished or “shaded,” because they are never clearly defined, but always in the process.

Michelangelo is the opposite of Leonardo: less scientist and more poet (also a writer of rhymes), with all his tensions, his strong beliefs (see the Sistine Chapel and his intense love for the Bible) and his passionate personal choices (as a young pro-Medici, later in favor of the Republic and the Savonarola, and finally promoter of the Reform of the Church). He does not conceive of art as adding matter as happens in painting, but as removing matter to bring out in sculpture the soul of the work of art. Leonardo seems to be the man of air and spaciousness, Michelangelo the man of the spirit: both men of infinity.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 7, art. 4, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1907.4

[1] Cf. F. Severi, “Introduzione. Leonardo uomo, artista, scienziato,” in Leonardo. Saggi e ricerche, by the Comitato Nazionale per le onoranze a Leonardo da Vinci nel V centenario della nascita (1452-1952), Rome, Ist. Poligrafico dello Stato, 1954, XI-XIV.

[2] In the sense that his writing could be read with a mirror.

[3] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, Rome, Salerno, 20062, 123-127; G.O. Longo, “La matematica al primo posto,” in Vita e Pensiero 102 (2019/1) 20f.

[4] I. Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Mariner Books, 2016, New York City

[5] Cf. G.O. Longo, “La matematica al primo posto,” op. cit., 22.

[6] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 14.

[7] Leonardo’s commitment to the observation of nature owes much to modern “fractal geometry,” which studies mathematical behavior in nature, broken forms, etc., and of which he was undoubtedly a forerunner (see the drawings of the Floods).

[8] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 78f, where the detailed list of competences is presented.

[9] F. Severi, “Introduzione. Leonardo uomo, artista, scienziato,” op. cit., XVIII.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 15f.

[12] In 1486, Pico della Mirandola wrote the work De hominis dignitate oratio, which has been defined as the manifesto of the Renaissance (cf. Pico della Mirandola, De hominis dignitate. Heptaplus. De ente et uno, edited by E. Garin, Florence, Vallecchi, 1942, 23).

[13] Cf. G. C. Argan, Storia dell’arte italiana, vol. II, Florence, Sansoni, 1977, 374-379.

[14] Ibid., 374-378. The pointing finger is the signature in Leonardo’s paintings.

[15] The painting is located in Krakow, in the Czartoryskich Museum.

[16] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 104-106. In Greek the animal can be called gal? and alludes to the woman’s surname, Gallerani.

[17] C. D’Orazio, Leonardo segreto. Gli enigma nascosti nei suoi capolavori, Milan, Mondadori, 2018, 103-109.

[18] Cf. G. C. Argan, Storia dell’arte italiana, vol. III, Florence, Sansoni, 1979, 20-22.

[19] Cf. C. Bertelli – G. Briganti – A. Giuliano, Storia dell’arte italiana, vol. III, Milan, Electa – Bruno Mondadori, 1991, 40.

[20] Cf. C. Vecce, La biblioteca perduta. I libri di Leonardo, Rome, Salerno, 2017, 39-44; C. D’Orazio, Leonardo segreto…, op. cit., 157-164.

[21] C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 325.

[22] Cf. C. Vecce, Leonardo, op. cit., 244.

[23] Cf. C. Bertelli – G. Briganti – A. Giuliano, Storia dell’arte italiana, op. cit., 42.

[24] C. Vecce, Le battaglie di Leonardo, Florence, Giunti, 2012, 29. The author comments, summing up Leonardo’s thought: War is “the paradox of humanistic civilization at its height, with the invention and development of modern war as a form of legalized collective violence, organized on a technological and economic level, culminating in the greatest possible violence, the large-scale killing of other human beings” (ibid.). In another Code he affirms “that taking life from man, or even from the animals, is a very bad thing” (ibid. 29 f).

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