Leonardo da Vinci, the universal genius
"Here is the miraculous story, all of which is not only true, but can be proved," Paul Valéry once wrote of the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Were it fictitious, it would form a chapter in the mythology of the human mind and Leonardo would be one of the heroes or demi-gods in the history of the intellect. Yet all the proofs of his stupendous life are there for those who demand them and his great achievements may be seen by all who have eyes to see." This explains why, in the words of his faithful Melzi, at his death "all grieved at the loss of such a man, whose like nature will never repeat."
By José de Benito
In the year 1452, "Ser Antonio" noted in his diary: "A grandson was born to me-the son of Ser Piero, my son on April 15, a Saturday, at three o'clock in the morning." Ser Antonio, a landowner living in the Florentine village of Vinci, was a man of few occupations. In a declaration made in 1457, he stated that he lived in his house and did nothing. Presumably he was sufficiently occupied tending his vines and his land and watching hie five-year-old grandson running about the house and fields. Little Leonardo observed with rapture the falcons in flight, the painstaking industry of the ants, and the clouds overhead. He used every scrap of paper that came his way to render the graceful lines of the cypresses, the gnarled shapes of the olive and fig-trees, the houses in the surrounding countryside and the outlines of the animals that grazed on the hills.
The discoveries that Leonardo made in those first five years of true liberty, in close communion with nature, looking, assimilating and understanding, left a profound mark upon his mind. His earliest recollections were suffused with light, with fantasy and with a prescience of his future destiny. Leonardo himself tells us of it in his Notebooks and Treatise on Painting.
One day, as he lay in his bed watching the wind driving the clouds helter-skelter over the top of Mount Albano, a falcon-the lesser eagle of those valleys-alighted beside him, and after a moment's contemplation, brushed Leonardo's parted lips with its tail and throat-feathers, so that-as though anointed by an eagle-his destiny was marked by the cares of the bird which lords it over the skies of Leonardo's native Tuscany.
Another time, he found a grotto and, torn between fear of the darkness and his curiosity to discover its twilit mysteries, he crept in, and perhaps even then glimpsed the harmony with which he was later to endow his"Virgin of the Rocks." And it was from his childish fancies which never left him, from the language spoken by the stains made on old walls by mould and peeling stucco, and from the message of the bells as they pealed from bey fry to belfry, that he derived his theory that"however ugly and even absurd a thing may seem, yet it may enable the mind to fashion inventions of every sort."From this idea, too he derived his use of lines, half imaginary, half real, to depict battles, landscapes or figures in motion, or to catch in the vibration of tongues of bronze the sound of words and phrases.
The song of the streams, of the birds and of the wind in the olive-trees and vineyards around Vinci led him to the study of music. His urge to learn the why and the wherefore of things was transformed into a love of drawing and mechanics. His thirst for precision led him to mathematics-to calculus and geometry. His passion for knowledge and reading drove him to learn Latin as the only vehicle whereby he could read the volumes piled thigh in the library of the parish priest at Vinci-his first teacher in the humanities. And his repeated contemplation of the stars in the Tuscan sky roused him to study astronomy. He saw with his eyes and his will was strong, but ignorance interposed itself like the bars of a cage between his thirst for learning and universal- or as he termed it, "solar"-freedom of knowledge. Leonardo thereupon devoted all his energies to overcoming the obstacle presented by those iron bars, in order that, like the falcon that had anointed him, he might fly free through space.
With that varied but incomplete stock of knowledge, Leonardo left his village of Vinci and came to the city of Florence, in those years of the Qllalll'occnlo (1400-1500) the very heart of the Renaissance. It was a great adventure to arrive at the Tuscan capital where in the period following the splendours of Dante and Boccaccio Were gathered together the masterpieces of Giotto in the church of Santa Croce, of Masaccio in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, and of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. The patronage, first of Cosimo, and then of Lorenzo di Medici, peopled the city of the rich silk and wool merchants with the most illustrious names in the arts, the culture and the science of the age.
The burghers of Florence had understood that, if they were to reap the fruits of their wealth, they must enjoy freedom. Without it their possessions might, from one day to the next, pass into the hands of the tyrant of the hour ; for then as today, the one path to liberty lay through culture. That is why thev called in Greek masters to teach them, and why, not content with that, they sent their young men of outstanding promise and industry to study the \vorks of antiquity in Greece. This policy paid a rich dividend, and the Academy of Plato, founded by Cosimo di Medici, was inspired by the learning of men (like Paolo L'ccello and Marsilio Ficino) 'whom Lorenzo the Magnificent collected around him.
For a youngster of sixteen, with Leonardo's spiritual and mental make-up, Florence was the ordeal of fire. Donatello had just died, and Verrocchio, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio, Alberti, Perugino, Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto-all of them magicians in the use of brush and chisel, in gold and silver work, metal-casting and building-were not legendary figures, but beings of flesh and blood talking together and discussing solutions to the problems they encountered daily in their work.
Scarcely had Leonardo arrived in Florence, when his father, the notary Ser Piero, thinking to have his illegitimate son taught a trade, took some of the boy's drawings to show to Verrocchio. Verrocchio at once perceived the young draughtsman's extraordinary gifts and took him into his studio without further ado. Thus Ser Piero was-fortunately-able to forget his"youthful escapade, "and in the genius who created the "Colleone" and the "David," Leonardo found a father, friend and guide, so that in four years he passed from the status of apprentice to that of master painter (1468-1472).
His companions in the studio were Sandro Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi and Pietro Perugino. Verrocchio, Leonardo and Credi first collaborated publicly on the "Baptism of Christ." When the public came to examine the picture, they realized that another great artist was now making his contribution to the greater glory of Florence.
Team-work was the rule in the "workshops" of the Renaissance painters. The master would plan, direct, paint in parts, compose, add the finishing touches and sign the work."The Annunciation,"preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, is another collective product of Verrochio's studio. The Angel in it is by Leonardo, and for many years it was claimed that here the disciple had excelled his master, though today that claim is no longer upheld.
It seems that Leonardo continued to work with Verrocchio until towards 1480, when the master moved to Venice to start on the "Colleone" monument for the Republic; and not long afterwards, BotticeIli and Perugino also left Florence on an invitation from Pope Sixtus IV to work in the Vatican chapel. In the twelve years between 1468 and 1480, Leonardo possessed by his thirst for knowledge, not only worked at his drawing, painting, sculpture and metalcasting, but besides that, he visited the houses of Leon Battista Alberti and Paolo Uccello, true masters of æsthetics ; he read books on geometry, hydraulics, mathematics and optics; he seized every opportunity to make the acquaintance of Yisiting masters, and counted among his friends the physicist Toscanelli, the astronomer Marmocchi, the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci and the mathematician Benedetto Aritmetico. He attended the Academy debates, composed music and wrote words for songs, made musical instruments, and untiringly took notes and made sketches of everything he sa\v, He loved nature in all its forms and longed to plumb its secrets. "Great love,"he said, "springs from profound knowledge of the object loved."His first-hand study of nature enabled him to pursue this enormous diversity of interests'without thereby weakening his own personality. He filled notebook upon notebook: "I tell painters that in art, no one should copy the manner of another, else will he produce but a nephew to nature, and not a son."
At the age of thirty, gifted 'with everything needed to fulfil his universal mission, and engaged at the time on the "Adoration of the Magi" -a picture which, although unfinished, represents a revolution in æsthetic, perspective, conception and composition-Leonardo betook himself to Milan, bearing a silver lyre shaped like a horse's head, which Lorenzo the Magnificent was sending as a gift to Ludovico Sforza. Conscious of his skill and firmlv assured of his ideas, he sent to the Regent of Milan the famous letter in'which he explained all that he could do for the Dukedom-build canals, manufacture new arms, perform feats of engineering and architecture-concluding with the statement that, in painting and sculpture, he could do"any task as well as another man."
During this second period, at Milan, Leonardo gave forth the fruits of his maturity. "Mortal beauty passes, but beauty in a work of art does noL"Thus he produced"The virgin of the Rocks, "confirming his theory of chiaroscuro: the "Last Supper," in which he achieved incredible light effects, realizing his own ambition: "May it please God, the Illuminator of all things, so to enlighten me that I treat light'worthily." Soon after finishing the"Last Supper" (1499), he started on his travels through Italy : Venice, Florence again, Pavia, Rome and back to Milan. By now the perfection of his work was familiar to all.
Leonardo was pouring out sketches and studies for his "Saint John, "the "Virgin and Saint Anne," "Leda," "Elizabeth d'Este" and the "Gioconda," in all of which the painter'was seeking not only to create a work of art, but also to apply his doctrine of universalism. Behveen times he was writing the Treatise on Paining, the Treatise on Painting and Music, the Treatise on Water, the Treatise on the Flight of Birds: the Codice Atlantico and the Anatomical Notebooks. Leonardo's personality flowed over, invading every field of the human knowledge of his time. marking an advance in every direction. Two hundred years were to elapse before anatomy achieved the precision of his drawing of the human body, and four hundred before a flying machine, with wings constructed on the lines of one of Leonardo's sketches, rose from the earth, supporting itself on air, and covered over a hundred yards in miraculous flight.
How shall we explain the Leonardo phonomenon? In the history of Western civilization. Plato, Leonardo and Goethe perhaps represent the three highest peaks ever sealed by the mind of man. Leonardo had the advantage over the first that he was more a man of action than a thinker. Unlike Plato, he dit not merely reproduce the doctrine of Socrates. The hands, eyes and intellect whicti co-operated to produce imperishable work were his own. Over Goethe, the romantic who said: "I love those who want the impossible, "Leonardo, executant and realist, had the advantage when he said: "I do not want the impossible. "Yet at the same time he enlarged the scope of human endeavour to an unbelievable extent. All three developed their own theory of colour. All three-as Gælhe expressed it in naming one of his works-were poetry and truth. The genius of all three was universal. But of the three, Leonardo alone displayed that unique phenomenon-a perfect balance between capacity to see and capacity to understand. We do not know whether his eyes were his intellect, or whether his intellect lay in his eyes, but we do know'that both gave to his hands the means to do what he did. He has been called an "intellectual artisan," but he was more-much more. If ever in human history there was a prototype, on which future men could be modelled in the mass, then Leonardo would be the prototype of "Man the Intellectual."
A few days before he died at Amboise on May 2, 1519, where his last patron, Francis I, had provided him with lodging, Leonardo knowing that he was near his end, uttered three words: "I shall survive," by which he meant his influence would live on. An active immortality enjoyed only by a precursor- but in his case fully conscious. The forerunner of Baton, Newton, Watt and of so many later men of science had discharged his debt to humanity, and in dying poured out his education, science and culture from the full cup of his life and work. to enrich a world, like himself seeking avidly after truth.