Anything is possible
My Son, who seems to know more about Leonardo da Vinci at ten years old than I do now, asked me to write about him. When I asked him what he knew about the great artist, my son answered, ‘you mean great inventor don’t you? He invented the first robot in 1495, he invented the first aeroplane, parachute, tank and time machine, don’t you know Daddy?’
Well I’m not so sure about the time machine but I wasn’t convinced about the robot either until I checked it out.
Florance Italy… 1504… about tea time.
Leonardo Da Vinci the fifty two year old polymath and genius was strolling through the Piazza Santa Trinity with friend Giovanni di Gavina; as they neared the Spini Bank a group of notables spotted Leonardo and called him over. The notables were discussing a passage from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and were in desperate need of illumination and who better to shed light on a textual conundrum than the famous Leonardo?
Leonardo, dressed in a fine rose colour cloak that stopped at his knees, a tad daring, a little eccentric perhaps, would have been easy to spot in a crowd. By all accounts Leonardo was a big, strong, handsome figure capable of many inhuman feats; not least of all able to bend a horse shoe with his right hand! Leonardo obliged, he was, after all, a gregarious chap, instantly likeable and comfortable with his fame and reputation.
As Leonardo joined the group, perhaps stroking his well groomed beard in contemplation, his younger, less attractive contemporary Michelangelo entered the square. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was easily spotted in a crowd, a menacing, unapproachable creep to Leonardo’s gallant swagger. Whereas Leonardo took pride in his appearance Michelangelo couldn’t give a toss, he wore his working garments, his face covered in the dust exorcized, nah teased from his newest commission David. Sharp tongued, devout and void of humour, the younger genius believed he had no equal, believed that he was the greatest artist alive, his talents bestowed upon him by God.
On spotting Michelangelo, Leonardo called out, ‘perhaps Michelangelo could enlighten us after all he is well known to be a student of Dante’ and thus beckoned the young marble whittler over.
The chances are that Leonardo wanted nothing more than to give credit where credit was due and, if a response deserved credence, then whom better to deliver it than a scholar of Dante such as young Michelangelo? Michelangelo didn’t see it this way; in fact he took umbrage, thought that Leonardo was mocking him and responded to Leonardo’s request with a verbal whipping. ‘You made a design for a horse to be cast in bronze, and, unable to cast it, have in your shame abandoned it’ and with that Michelangelo was gone in a puff of dust leaving Leonardo red faced and tongue-tied. Perhaps the notables, not willing to enter the fray, not wanting to involve themselves with the business of titans expected a crude or clever retort from Leonardo. No such retort came as far as we know; the notables were notably disappointed.
The horse in question or ‘Gran cavallo’ was commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Seventy tons of bronze were set aside for the casting but, as time passed (Leonardo was never in a rush) war became imminent and the bronze was melted down and turned into cannons. The statue was never completed. To be fair Leonardo had made the clay model and spent many an hour solving the problem of casting such a big statue. As with many of Leonardo’s unfinished works, and there were many, he enjoyed the conception and problem solving more than the realization. Once he’d figured it out, seen the completed work in his mind’s eye, there seemed little point in realising it. This metaphysical philosophy sums up the way in which Leonardo not only saw the world but lived his life.
A small interruption…
Leonardo came up with seven principles for a creative life. First we have curiosity, if you lack curiosity then you’re buggered, no point reading the other six, but then you wouldn’t would you?
Next is demonstration, to test what knowledge you have gained through experience, challenge the knowledge, rough it up a bit, pick it up by the ankles and give it a good shake. Basically think for yourself and don’t rely on conventional thought. Sensation comes in at number three; continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, to enliven experiences. (Also to challenge what you’re seeing) The forth principle is Sfumato: literally, ‘going up in smoke’ a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty, to see cherished ideas and preconceived notions going ‘up in smoke’. Now this I fear is the hardest of rules for most people to accept or indeed embrace, people tend to get rather attached to their notions, their notions doth define them.
Then we have art/Science: Development of a balance between science and art, logic and imagination or ‘whole-brain thinking’. A full wit rather than a half wit is best. Number Six is the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise; yeah I’m not doing too well on this one I’m a left-handed, lazy, ill-mannered hunchback.
And finally Connessione: Recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena, or ‘systems thinking’. This principle defines Leonardo more than any other, one cannot even consider a creative life without recognising that the universe, the world on which we dwell and all things within are connected; are in fact one massive organism. Any change to one small environment will have a knock on effect (all very quantum really) with the rest. Before introducing something new to an environment one must think about how it will effect, not just its immediate environment, but the universe as a whole.
This is the essence of metaphysical science. Not that Leonardo came up with the basic idea that we should all challenge what we perceive to be real, that my friends was Mr Aristotle who in turn borrowed from Mr. Thales of Miletus who was one of the first philosophers to reject mythological and divine explanations. ‘Hang on a sundial moment’ he was heard to mutter, ‘what if we just stop for a moment and think about this, scrap what we are told is ‘real’ or ‘fact’ and start from the beginning, what is there and what’s it like?’
…End of interruption
Michelangelo on the other hand was a man driven to finish whatever he started, he was a man possessed, he would not fail, nor would he give satisfaction to his doubters. Many obstacles presented themselves over the course of his career and yet, where many people would have thrown in the chisel, Michelangelo persevered. Nothing was insurmountable, and with a combination of natural talent, god given genius and sheer determination he created the sublime. His problem with Leonardo, I suspect, was that he regarded Leonardo as a fellow artist and therefore competitor; in fact Florence would soon stage a commission to find out which of the two men was indeed the better artist (but that’s a story for another time).
Michelangelo perhaps failed to see that Leonardo never saw himself as just an artist. In fact on his resume to the Duke of Milan, painting appeared at the bottom of the list; a mere afterthought! Or perhaps it irked Michelangelo that, despite paining being one of Leonardo’s many interests, he was still rather good at it. How much better Leonardo could have been had he had the same single-minded drive and dedication to art as Michelangelo, we will never know?
Michelangelo was a wealthy man, a millionaire several times over but he never stopped to smell the roses, to enjoy his wealth; he ate little and worked like a man short on time. Leonardo on the other hand enjoyed a moderate wealth, nothing like Michelangelo’s but seemed to have a much richer life. He experienced fame and notoriety, owned very little and yet enjoyed the hospitality of kings. Leonardo got into whatever grove floated his boat, from botany to weaponry, after all, why box yourself in, why be a slave to expectations?
One of the most obvious differences to me between the two great men is that everything Michelangelo did, his studies into the human form, feats of engineering and design, were a means to an end, a way of insuring the success of his art; whereas Leonardo became easily distracted by the world around him and the mysteries it offered.
The principle subject of the Renaissance was the male body therefore to paint or sculpt it well, one needed to undertake research into human anatomy. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo would have carried out anatomical studies, dissecting animal and human corpses to gain a better knowledge of muscle formation.
Michelangelo was, he admitted himself, in awe of the male body, describing it as ‘the most beautiful thing in all of nature’. To realise the Sistine Chapel he would have spent hours in the crypt of the Vatican poking about with corpses, all of which informed him ( not literally, that would be spooky) of the lines needed to complete his masterpiece. Although it has to be mentioned that although Michelangelo’s portrayal of the male body is executed with panache his pictures of females on the Sistine chapel look like stonemasons with a couple of tits chucked on! Leonardo was not a big fan of Michelangelo’s work, noting that his over masculinised characters looked ‘like stockings full of walnuts!’
When Leonardo delved into anatomical research he not only wanted to study the shape and form of bone, muscle, organ and vessels but to gain a new perspective into the workings, of not only the human body, but human life itself. He wanted to understand conception, growth, the senses, memory, fantasy and the soul. Through his skills as an artist and architect he was able to deliver drawings of unparalleled clarity.
In the winter of 1508-9 Leonardo conducted an autopsy of an old man, recording in his notebooks: ‘This old man a few hours before his death, told me that he was over a hundred years old, and that he felt nothing wrong with his body other than weakness.’ Leonardo then goes on to provide the first clear description of coronary vascular occlusion and arteriosclerosis in the history of medicine! He also came close to discovering the circulation of blood, a century before William Harvey.
Now to achieve greatness in just one discipline be it art, architecture, medicine or tiddlywinks can take one person a lifetime to achieve and even then there are no guarantees. Michelangelo achieved greatness in art and in architecture within his own lifetime. He did dabble with engineering if need be and liked to write poetry but found tiddlywinks to be tediously frustrating. But Michelangelo will always be remembered as the divine artist, the creator of David and the Sistine chapel and with good reason.
Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is something altogether different. Some people think of him as a painter, the man who gave the world the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘the Last Supper’ others, like my ten year old son see him as a great inventor making the world’s first robot, designing vessels for flight and defensive initiatives such as a tank or a diving suit.
Speak to evolutionary scientist and they will point to Leonardo as the first person to question the authority of the church and it’s teachings on creation. Genesis was bollocks, knowledge could only be based on experience. After studying fossil shells brought to him by mountain dwellers, he forged the opinion that these artefacts did not arrive on a mountain top due to some biblical flood as the church would have it. No they were not brought by water and then dumped there but left behind, the relics of a sea that once existed; which meant that the earth was much older than some would like to admit.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Leonardo had virtually no formal education, and he developed an abiding contempt for received learning. Why settle for an explanation given by either the church or ‘the ancients’, why assume that what you are told is right. Repeating something you have read or heard doesn’t make you educated, it makes you stupid and lazy. Leonardo realised that fossils tell the real story of the earth and by study and study alone will you unravel the truth.
One of the most interesting periods of Leonardo’s life was his work for the warlord Cesare Borgia.
In the summer of 1502, the youthful Cesare Borgia was on his third rampage through the Romagna region of northern Italy, brutally seizing city after city in the name of his father, Pope Alexander VI, before consigning their leaders to particularly grisly deaths. Legend has it that the Florentine government – getting a little twitchy- dispatched diplomat and poet Niccolò Machiavelli to spy on Borgia’s military operation, to penetrate the inner circle and find out what the warlord was up to. To achieve this Machiavelli offered Borgia the services of the legendary Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo had a keen interest in military engineering and had already designed some serious hardware for the Duke of Milan.
What amazes me is the odd coupling; Leonardo the vegetarian, pacifist and intellect hangs out with psychopathic, sister shagging, murderer with a penchant for toothless whores. A man once made cardinal at the age of 22, went to Naples to arrange a marriage for his beloved sister and on completion of his official duties tasted the delicacies of down town Naples. After one of many couplings he turned on the lamp to find a bald and toothless whore starring up at him, he promptly threw up all over her…I guess that cost extra! He left Naples with an unwanted guest, ‘the French disease’ or syphilis. This from a man whose good looks inspired his father to commission a painting of Christ and insist that his son should be the model! The image of Christ that we all know now, the westernised, long haired, blue eyed, pious, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth guy was in fact Cesare Borgia!! Luckily Leonardo had nothing to do with that painting.
Borgia’s father Pope Alexander pretty much bought the papacy in a bid to further his own interests rather than the fortunes of the church. He wanted to expand the papal states of Rome, to concur some of the wealthier northern states and so set his illegitimate son up as local warlord. Pope Alex’s other son was murdered, some say by Cesare’s hand, although why he would do this, no one knows.
Anyhow Leonardo travelled with Borgia and Machiavelli inspecting fortifications and defences, designing bridges, weapons of mass destruction and intricate maps, maps that were not just amazingly accurate but in the wrong hands very dangerous; maps that would throw down the gauntlet to cartographers everywhere. Eventually Leonardo became sickened by Cesare’s brutal behaviour and it is said profoundly disturbed at his own contribution to the violence. Once a source of pride and ambition his military designs and engineering skills now became, to him, a grotesque mistake. Leonardo, although continuing to develop ideas vowed to never publish them saying, ‘I will not publish, nor divulge such things because of the evil nature of men’
One positive thing came out of his time with Cesare and that is the Mona Lisa, the misty landscape rising in the background of that painting is the upper Arno Valley an area the artist traversed while on his missions for the barbaric warrior. It is considered to be the greatest portrait in the western world. Despite not applying himself fully to the role of tortured artist Leonardo still managed to give the world ‘the Mona Lisa’ a painting that, like everything else he started in his life, he never finished. Leonardo carried La Gioconda with him for years, adding, modifying and tweaking it. The painting never made it back to its subject Lisa Gherardini but instead was bequeathed to Leonardo’s companion Salai and later bought by King Francis 1.
Details of Leonardo’s personal life are, to say the least, a little sketchy. We know that he was the illegitimate son of a legal notary and a peasant girl. For the first five years of his life he lived with his mother then, for whatever reason, moved to his father’s house. At fourteen he was sent by his father to the Verrocchio studio to study art.
Towards the end of his apprenticeship, on the cusp of becoming a master in his own right, Leonardo was anonymously accused of sodomy. Twas the custom in Florence at the time to jot down your misgivings/accusations or suspicions about someone and drop them into a recipient very much like a post box! Luckily for the young Leonard the charges were dropped. Leonardo never married but kept a string of young, handsome male apprentices at his side which, during his own time and ours, has caused tongues to wag about his apparent homosexuality.
Sigmund Freud wrote a whole book on Leonardo’s sexual orientation based only on Freud’s interpretation of the artist’s work. What I see, and I’m no psychoanalyst, is a great love and admiration for women, in a time when most artists concentrated on the male form Leonardo painted women. He painted women with character, with inner strength, beauty and, dare I say it, an engaging flirtatious look in their eye? Gay or not, who cares? Many of his critics and contemporaries were obviously homosexual but few, if any, had so much fluency and understanding with female qualities.
Some commentators may feel justified in saying that Leonardo is perhaps the most successful failure in history. Few of his designs came to fruition; most of his artistic commissions were never started let alone finished. The ‘Last Supper’ he did complete, but because of his dislike of using traditional fresco he implemented a revolutionary technique which dried and cracked the paint. Only an estimated 30 percent of the painting that is now on show is the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The rest has been revived by ‘give it a go Charlie’s’ and others, which kind of put paid to theories of hidden meanings in the painting!!
Sixty years after Leonardo completed the painting it was said to be unrecognisable and all but ruined. Many misfortunes have befallen the painting, it’s had a door cut into it then bricked back up again, had stones thrown at it by anti clerical French revolutionaries who also scratched the eyes of the Apostles’, been hit by allied bombs and buggered about with for 500 years! Da Vinci code my arse.
Leonardo spent the last few years of his life in the employment of King Francis 1, a man who greatly admired and loved Leonardo. Before his death he bemoaned his inability to finish anything, regretting not giving more to God and mankind. He turned to the Catholic Church, read doctrine and requested a priest to make his confessions and receive Holy Sacrament. It is said that the king himself held Leonardo on his death bed as the great man took his last breath, although probably not true, I’m going to let it go, I think it’s a fitting end to a man that, despite what he felt, gave the world so much.
Despite his own misgivings Leonardo da Vinci was not only the Godfather of the Renaissance movement but the man who gave the world the dictum ‘saper vedere’ or ‘knowing how to see’. He was someone who believed that knowledge gave you vision, someone who refused to except the status quo, rather, through experimentation, exploration, reason and understanding do we arrive at the truth. More importantly perhaps, he thought that ‘knowing how to see’ made anything possible. Hence watching birds in flight gave him the idea that one day man too could fly, all you needed was ingenuity, creativity and an understanding of physics, metaphysical or otherwise. Anything is possible.
Maybe he was a little too ambitious, maybe he set out to achieve too much or maybe he saw a thread, a connection between everything in the universe? This thread, should it exist, was greatly unravelled by Leonardo and in doing so he gave future generations of thinkers, artists and scientist a healthy head start!
Other than the big stuff, the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, thousands of ideas sketched out on hundreds of pieces of paper that make up the codex, we should not overlook the small stuff. Leonardo da vinci created the first lens polishing machine, giving astronomy a much needed boost. He designed a machine to measure the tensile strength of wire which also went into production and, perhaps most importantly it was Leonardo da Vinci that gave the world something as simple as a pair of scissors!
And a time machine…
Sixty beggars followed his coffin, which was Leonardo’s wish, and he was put to rest in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise, in France.