Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge… Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence
No artist contained an extra wrinkle in their brain as big as Leonardo Vinci (1452–1519). He was a creative genius who combined the disciplines of both art and science to make something new. His undivided mind drove his imagination which led him toward discovery and innovation. He was also a tinkerer, even a procrastinator.
He came close to understanding almost all of what was known on the planet at the time. That’s partly because scientific knowledge was relatively limited back then, partly because he had a high IQ, but mostly because he was insatiably curious about pretty much every area of natural science and the human experience. He studied, in meticulous detail, everything from the flow of water and the rise of smoke to the muscles you use when you smile.
Amazingly, he did it with almost no formal schooling. His father was a notary, a profession that gave him some prominence and prosperity, so Leonardo never had to work in the fields. But because Leonardo was born out of wedlock (his mother was a poor, orphaned peasant girl), he was not sent off to school. That turned out to be a blessing. Leonardo got free time to wander, look at nature, and start creating notebooks full of observations and ideas. He became, in his own words, “a disciple of experience.”
A technological genius
He drew designs for a helicopter, calculator, tank, solar power, double hull and the beginnings of the theory of plate tectonics. Although his designs, except for a few, were not constructed during his lifetime, some of them, like the automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, were huge successes
King Francis I, twenty years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci, was reported as saying, “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculptures and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.”
Leonardo’s work was unique. Because of his extensive knowledge of the human form and the way humans show emotions, he was able to paint expressions and gestures that other artists had never successfully conveyed. His method and technique of laying on the paint and gradation of tone were innovative.
“I can also paint”
Despite his remarkable artistic talent, Leonardo barely thought of himself as a painter. When he was about 30 years old, he applied for a job with the ruler of Milan. After listing interests from military engineering to science to designing sets for plays, he included almost as an afterthought, “I can also paint.”
Notorious for never finishing his work
There was one downside to having such broad interests: He often switched his focus to new domains right in the middle of a project, leaving works unfinished. Here’s a classic example: After Leonardo won a coveted commission to create a large statue of a nobleman perched on a horse, Leonardo procrastinated by going down multiple rabbit roles. For example, he dissected horses to understand their anatomy, created new systems for feeding horses, and designed cleaner stables. He never completed the statue, and he never published the treatise on horses he started.
The list includes St. Jerome in the Wilderness in the Vatican City, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne held in the Louvre in Paris, and even the great Mona Lisa are examples of the da Vinci masterpieces that the artist never declared completed.
Dissected more cadavers than many contemporary doctors
There’s a reason da Vinci painted the human form so realistically: the artist obsessively studied human anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. In an era when medical knowledge in Europe was rudimentary, to say the least, da Vinci was one of the original pioneers in the field of documenting the human anatomy. To this day, he is considered one of the forefathers of the study.
At first, the artist likely had to dissect largely in secret. Though dissection itself wasn’t technically illegal, Leonardo had a tough time getting bodies. But as his reputation grew, cadavers became easier to come by, and by 1517 da Vinci is reported to have completed more than 30 dissections.
His most celebrated sketch on human anatomy is hidden away
During his career, da Vinci filled dozens of notebooks with his thoughts, equations, illustrations, experiments and scientific/anatomic observations. The most famous of these sketches is the Vitruvian Man, a study in classical proportions that was never meant to be made public. Drawn in one of the artist’s private notebooks around 1490, the sketch was a way for da Vinci to ponder the “ideal” human proportions proposed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. The drawing is kept in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, but it’s too fragile to be on permanent display.
What about Leonardo, the man?
He was a vegetarian and openly gay, in an age when sodomy was a crime, and quite a dandy. He illegitimate, left-handed, a bit of a heretic, but the good thing about Florence was that it was a very tolerant city in the 1470s. Leonardo would go around town wearing short, purple and pink outfits that were somewhat surprising to the people of Florence, but he was very popular. He had an enormous number of friends both in Florence and Milan. He records many dinners with close friends, who were a diverse group: mathematicians, architects, playwrights, engineers, and poets. That diversity helped shape him.
When you look across all of Leonardo’s many abilities and his few failings, the attribute that stands out above all else was his sense of wonder and curiosity. When he wanted to understand something—whether it was the flow of blood through the heart or the shape of a woodpecker’s tongue—he would observe it closely, scribble down his thoughts, and then try to figure it all out.
In 1513 Leonardo went to Rome, where he remained until 1516. He was much honoured, but he was relatively inactive and remarkably aloof (apart) from its rich social and artistic life. He continued to fill his notebooks with scientific entries.
The French king, Francis I (1494–1547), invited Leonardo to his court at Fontainebleau, gave him the title of the first painter, architect, and mechanic to the king, and provided him with a country house at Cloux. Leonardo was revered for his knowledge more than for any work he produced in France. He died on May 2, 1519, at Cloux.
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved