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Leonardo and the strife-ridden renaissance


Set of ball bearings, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in Codex Madrid I, 500 years before the modern set of ball bearings.

Each of Leonardo's thousands of manuscript pages, with their awesome entwining of fragments of minutely detailed prose and delicately refined illustrations, strange machines and precisely sketched anatomy, not only symbolizes man's perennial dreams and aspirations but also expresses a totally new way of considering man's task on earth — as an endless search to master the transient stuff of reality. This is the conclusion of Eugenio Garin, who paints in this article an unusual portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

By Eugenio Garin

Leonardo da Vinci spent many years of his life as a restless wanderer. After his early years in the stimulating artistic climate of Florence, his life reads like a travelogue.

In 1482, at the age of thirty, he moved to Milan to enter the service of Lodovico il Moro as an engineer, for in those days artists were considered craftsmen and technicians and it was common practice for them to be interested in and work on technical and scientific questions.

Then in the 1490s a period of change and instability began in Italy. Lorenzo the Magnificent died in Florence. France (and later Spain and Austria) invaded Italy. There was crisis in the Duchy of Milan. And in Florence Savonarola was organizing his Republican experiment.

Amidst all this turmoil Leonardo first went to work for the French, then wandered from one Italian city to another: to Mantua and the splendid court of Isabella d'Esté, back to Florence, to Urbino where he was received by Cesare Borgia and then to Rome. Finally in 1516 he moved to France at the invitation of King Francis I. When he died three years later he had met and worked for some of the most exceptional men of his time and had lived through a period of renaissance art and culture in Italy and France, which was without parallel in Europe.

Yet, it would not be incorrect to say that in many ways Leonardo was a tragic figure. He was a man alone. He had no family (he was an illegitimate child) and had no social standing. He knew that the world was breaking up around him and that its values were being swept aside by the blind force of events. Amidst the wars and turmoil surrounding him, he plodded on with his eternal search for a supreme harmony. Death cast its shadow over everything: "I thought I was learning how to live," Leonardo wrote, "but I was learning how to die."

The lifeline which had once bound the intellectual to the city was broken. The idea of civic pride was on the wane. Political power in Italy had passed into the hands of rich oligarchies and tyrants, some meanspirited, others able men. The intellectual was no longer a churchman. In Leonardo's time he was a layman who thought of himself first and foremost as a technician ready to offer his services to any ruler who was interested. Leonardo would offer to build a bridge across the Golden Horn for the Sultan.

Referring to himself as "the infidel called Leonardo," he wrote to the Sultan as follows: "I, your servant, have heard it said that you intended to build this bridge but that you could not do so because you could not find men capable of doing it. Now I, your humble servant, know how to build this bridge and will build it."

Leonardo also undertook to build a fortress for Cesare Borgia and a model city for the ruler of Milan, duke Lodovico il Moro. He set to work designing all kinds of machines, such as a device for flying from a mountain top and a means of underwater transport. He invented ingenious machines for use at court entertainments, and made elaborate war engines to put paid to his patron's enemies. (It didn't really matter to him who the enemies were.) As an engineer, he had a lot in common with the politician of that period who was also scientist and expert, chief among them being Machiavelli.

The legend surrounding Leonardo, as an expression of his own time and a model for all ages, began to take shape almost with Leonardo's death.

Its outlines are eloquently drawn by Giorgio Vasari in the first edition of his Lives of the Painters, published in 1550, only thirty years after Leonardo died.

Vasari's Leonardo was a man fascinated by science, a passionate enquirer into the mysteries of science and nature, a man driven by the curiosity of a magician or an astrologer. "His capricious research led him to natural philosophy," Vasari wrote, "to study the properties of herbs and to observe the movements of the heavens, the moon's orbit and the progress of the sun." And in this first edition of his Lives, Vasari also added: "He developed such a heretical stance that he lost interest in religion of any sort, perhaps more interested in being a philosopher than a Christian."

However, Vasari, who was being perfectly faithful to what Leonardo had written about himself, omitted this sentence from the second edition of his Lives, published in 1568, in the straitened atmosphere which set in after the Council of Trent.

For Vasari, Leonardo had been the incarnation of the Ideal man as de¬ lineated by the philosophical discussion group centred on Lorenzo de Medici. "The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings naturally," Vasari wrote, "but sometimes with lavish abundance bestow upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that, whatever he does, every action is so divine that he outdistances all other men, and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo da Vinci."

Thus Vasari was simply depicting, in his own way and according to the perspective of his times, the man that Leonardo had wanted to be. Not so much the image of himself that Leonardo presented as the character which he had delicately yet carefully fashioned for himself.

The basic premise underlying all Leonardo's work is that the artist, and above all the painter (which is how Leonardo primarily thought of himself), must understand every object he depicts if he is to be worthy of his art, since his task is to represent reality in all its facets. In other words, he must know the whole world around him: its Innermost secrets, its fundamental laws, its origins and causes. If we fail to understand this essential fact about Leonardo then we risk missing the point of his life's work.

Leonardo himself was perfectly clear on this point. He declared that the painter should be a "universal master", capable of "imitating" through art "all the different shapes which are produced by nature." "The artist must "first have a mental picture" of every form. He must know the reasons for everything. He must use his intellect to master the brute force of the elements, and he must learn how to construct all kinds of machines and devices which will enable him to reproduce reality and triumph over it. "The painter," Leonardo proclaims, 'is, in conflict and competition with Nature; he is the Lord and Master of Nature."

It has been said that the enormous mass of material in Leonardo's note¬ books gives the impression that he intended to produce an encyclopaedia of human knowledge. It is most pro¬ bable that this was indeed his purpose.

The idea was not a new one: Leonardo was acquainted with the encyclopaedias of the Middle Ages and knew Pliny's Natural History, which was widely read and admired during the Renaissance. And Leonardo was apparently much more aware than he lets on of what was going on in the "sciences" during this time.

The real novelty lay in his line of approach. He did not simply seek to accumulate facts and data or examples of strange occurrences for his own edification and contemplation. His purpose was action: he wanted to create, to become "Lord and Master" over Nature. And so he strained to go beyond what the senses observed and sought to apprehend the deeper forces which act on the senses.

It was precisely because he wanted to produce in the eyes of the beholder the effects that the real world produces, and because he wished to do so in a fresh, transfigured way, that Leonardo felt that he had to reach down into the roots of the visible world and that he had to comprehend the impulses which produce optical images.

If an artist wants to render all the possible effects of light, Leonardo reasoned, then he should learn what light actually is, study light rays and the laws governing their diffusion, the structure of the eye and the characteristics, of sight. Before undertaking to carve the human form, an artist should have long practice in the dissection of dead bodies. He should be an expert in anatomy, have a good knowledge of muscular movement, and the whole process of movement in a living body.

Similarly, to paint the macrocosm that is, the world around us the artist must study the anatomy of the universe, scrutinize its subtlest fibres and examine its every movement and manifestation.

Leonardo's notebooks are the extraordinary fragments of this great new-type encyclopaedia, based not on texts or scholastic disputes, nor indeed on superficial experiments, but instead on studies in depth into the unknown, using calculations, measurements, laws and elementary forms which then make it possible to work back to the surface of things, to phenomena which we can understand and thereby dominate, transform and mould to our needs.

Such an encyclopaedia, as conceived by Leonardo is not unlike a great anatomical or physiological study of the universe. Just as man is a world in miniature (a microcosm) and incorporates everything contained in the universe (and hence is capable of knowing everything, and can do and become everything), so the world is like a great living organism (a macrocosm) with water instead of blood as its life-giving force, and its "causes" that is, its mathematical laws are its soul.

Light, motion and life these are the fabric and structure of the universe. We see that the chapters of the encyclopaedia fall naturally into place with sections on optics, mechanics, hydraulics, anatomy, biology, physiology and cosmology. Then come the machines which enable man to rival Nature. And finally we have the crown and summit of It all, the science of painting, which Leonardo saw as fundamental and basic to the whole work. For through art, according to Leonardo, a new world is created inside the world. This is the world of man the "creator" and poet, a world which triumphs over the existing world.

The world-view which found its most extraordinary outlet in Leonardo cannot obviously be considered his own unique creation. The circles in which he moved during the first thirty years of his life had seen other distinguished artists with a broad cultural back¬ ground including training in scientific as well as literary disciplines.

Filippo Brunelleschi, for example, is known to have carried on an intellectual exchange for many years with one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of the century, Paolo Toscanelli.

Italy had also known other encyclopaedic minds before Leonardo, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti, like Leonardo, was a skilled artist. He had made a special study of physics, mathematics and optics because he felt they were indispensable for an artist.

But throughout their lives these men had preserved an attachment to their cities. Leonardo on the other hand is totally detached from the idea of the city-state (Florence, Milan); his science transcends civic and national boundaries and has no ideological or national loyalty.

Leonardo had nothing in common with the humanist "dignitaries" of his time or with the scholastics entrenched in their cities, nor for that matter with the artists attached to a particular court or belonging to a specific school. His patriotism extended quite simply to the universe, to which he belonged entirely, like his mathematics, science and philosophy.

His architectural projects fired the imagination of rulers such as Cesare Borgia, Lodovico il Moro, the King of France, and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Leonardo's work is inscribed in great geometrical flourishes across the open book of the universe. Science and technology owe allegiance to neither church nor country.

To understand Leonardo's detached attitude, his wanderings from city to city, his readiness to offer his "secrets" to the sovereigns of so many different lands, the above remarks must be kept constantly in mind. Leonardo's "secrets" were not, or not only, his exquisite paintings; they were weapons and instruments of war. But for Leonardo they were nothing more than machines that reflected man's scientific Inventiveness, his drive to interpret Nature and bend it to his will. For him, these "instruments", were neither good nor evil but simply effective in other words, they did the job required of them.

It is here, in his "detachment" as a scientist and engineer, that Leonardo parallels Machiavelli, an affinity much more significant than the fact (not without its own importance) that both men passed briefly under the aegis of Cesare Borgia in his court at Urbino.

The extraordinary synthesis achieved by Leonardo reached its culmination, as we have pointed out earlier, in "painting", which for him, was charged with very special meanings. Leonardo saw the work of the painter as dominating the process of human knowledge. It was the ultimate goal of scientific enquiry and the starting point of creative endeavour. Creativity and scientific research are not two separate activities but part of the same circular process with the artist standing at the critical juncture. He is the meeting point between knowledge and action. More precisely, where knowledge is transformed into creation.

It is no accident if Leonardo extols the painter for he always attributes special importance to the eye and the act of visual perception, as well as anything having to do with the world of images.

Leonardo always tended to express his ideas in visual terms: "The painter," he wrote, "should resemble a mirror." He should welcome "the multiplicity of things," not just their external forms, but also their inner properties and essence, and their elementary geometric patterns, which stand at the roots of perceptual experience and allow us to understand it.

Hence the primacy of mathematics over the evidence of the senses: "no human enquiry can properly be called science unless it passes by way of mathematical reasoning," said Leonardo. Hence too the "philosophical" importance of painting: "Anyone who feels contempt for painting has no real affection for philosophy... Painting itself is philosophy because it captures the movement of bodies through space in their full spontaneity. And philosophy does exactly the same thing ..."

These two aspects of human activity, knowledge and action, "seeing" and "creating", cannot, therefore, be separated. The circular process science engineering-art and seeing-doing is a single unique activity.

For Leonardo, the invention and construction of machines underscore a number of important considerations: that technology and science are inseparable, the two being linked by the "mathematical" structure of all things; that the skeletal framework of physical objects can be reduced to a mechanical model; that there is a fundamental connexion between mechanics and real life; that research into models based on visual observation shows that "the eye is the least fallible of all the human senses."

From all this we can clearly see the perfect unity that existed in Leonard’s encyclopaedia, in which it is absurd to separate science, technology and art. Vasari's mistake was to break, or rather misunderstand, the close link between these three domains, with the result that he failed to see the real significance of the work, and finally concluded that it was an example of Leonardo's madness and incoherence. "He perpetrated many such follies," Vasari wrote, "he studied mirrors and made curious experiments to find oil for painting... His knowledge of art, indeed, prevented him from finishing many things which he had begun, for he felt that his hand would be unable to realize the perfect creations of his imagination, as his mind formed such difficult, subtle and marvellous conceptions that his hands, skilful as they were, could never have expressed them ..."

Vasari referred to these activities of Leonardo as "caprices". But in reality they were part of an unending search for the unifying factor in human experience, for a meaning of the created universe, for man's place in the world. Here was the restless beginning of a new era, a new way of understanding art and science.

Each of Leonardo's thousands of manuscript pages, with their awesome entwining of fragments of minutely detailed prose and delicately refined illustrations, strange machines and precisely sketched anatomy, not only symbolizes man's perennial dreams and aspirations but also expresses a totally new way of considering man's task on earth as an endless search to master the transient stuff of reality.

I have taken care to stress Leonardo's extreme refinement in everything (whether it be his hand-writing or the disdain he showed for the literati). He was an exquisitely literate man, and we know from the Madrid notebooks that he possessed a rich and widely diverse library.

All of Leonardo's "caprices" are justified by an awareness that man and his works are fragile. And here perhaps is the sign, and the secret, of Leonardo's relevance for all of us today: the fact that he understood and expressed with superlative skill the enigmatic insecurity of man and the mystery of his destiny and condition, at a time when unforeseen and unforeseeable possibilities were opening up in art and science.


Eugenio Garin

Professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Florence, Eugenio Garin is internationally known for his studies on the culture of the Renaissance and medieval thought. He is the author of major works on tenth-century Italian culture.