Saturday, April 15, 2006

Leonardo Da Vinci

In many of the "most important people of the millennium" lists which popped up at the end of 1999, Leonardo da Vinci placed in the top 10, yet some historians argued that he was not deserving of the honor: as a painter, he produced relatively little work which survives; and as a scientist, while his copious private notebook doodles and commentaries are revealing about the thought processes and unfinished projects of a peculiar Italian dilettante, they produced little in terms of direct, lasting influence.

What continues to attract us to Leonardo, perhaps, is his unrelenting eye, the curiosity which drove him to dissect and probe and theorize in the manner of our 20th century heroes of science and technology. Those notebooks, in which Leonardo wrote from right to left in his careful, angular handwriting so that they may only be read with the aid of a mirror, showed not just a freelancer with an interest in topics ranging from architecture and botany to physics, engineering, cartography, anatomy and military science, but an innovator -- someone who saw his mission as one of searching for tiny lightbeams of visible scientific truth out in the darkness and encouraging their brilliance through previously unimagined practical designs (much as his style of painting seems to present the light of human forms struggling out of the shadows). In that sense, historians notwithstanding, Leonardo's life stands as a sort of signpost for the twinkling millions of anonymous workshop geniuses without specialty, and the elevated admiration popularly held for Leonardo (similar to the feelings reserved for Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) is a method of doing them honor.

Born on this day in 1452 near Vinci, the illegitimate son of a notary, his lowly social status ensured that the clever child would not be whisked into a traditional profession, thereby allowing him the freedom to shape his own profession as nomad, thinker and craftsman. Seeing artistic talent in him, when he was 16 Leonardo's father apprenticed him to the workshop of Florentine painter/sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, with whom it is said Leonardo developed a close bond. Some have surmised that Verrocchio used the handsome young Leonardo as the model for his bronze statue of David. Leonardo quickly surpassed the skills of his teacher, particularly in rendering the musculature of the human body, the suggestion of motion and in his bold use of light and shadow (in contrast to the flat "stage" lighting of many of his contemporaries).

He enjoyed some unusual commissions while other more established artists began to leave Florence for the papal art boom in Rome, but abruptly left Florence himself in 1481 to seek his fortune as a military advisor and genius-at-large in the court of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. There he designed fortifications against potential invasions by the French, while filling his notebooks with designs for the most sadistic machines of human destruction one could imagine -- cold evidence of his detachment from other human beings (which he referred to as "sacks for food") despite his obvious admiration for the beauty of the human form. Yet he did not seem to be filled with hatred; rather, his calculating scientific eye seemed to blot out any access in him to love or hate, even as he could cultivate charm, grace and even humor when the company of society served his aims.

While in Milan, Leonardo painted one of his most famous works, The Last Supper (1495-98), on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, recalling Castagno's earlier Last Supper in its composition (except that Judas now sits on the same side of the table as the other disciples) but surpassing it in Leonardo's intimate rendition of the emotional states of each disciple at the moment Christ predicts his betrayal, and in his use of an ideal (rather than purely realistic) perspective design in which there is no place one can stand to make the lines of the picture come right. As to the latter innovation, Leonardo employed a kind of super-realistic plane of experience with which to engage the viewer, in effect "cheating" on the perspective to emphasize the drama, with Christ at the mathematical center of the mural and Judas' diagonal planes jutting exaggeratedly away from Christ, identifying his separateness. Use of this kind of super-real perspective would become a hallmark of the High Renaissance in the work of his younger contemporaries, Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1502, Leonardo went to work for Cesare Borgia designing more fortifications and hydrological plans, making maps and giving strategic advice, although Borgia's mercurial temper ultimately drove Leonardo away within a few months. Back in Florence the following year, Leonardo began his portrait of the 24-year old Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, wife of Florentine big shot Francesco del Gioncondo. Known as Mona Lisa, or La Gionconda, the portrait took Leonardo three years to complete, and ultimately he never gave it to Sr. Gioncondo, as it was in his own estate at the time of his death. Since then it has become the most famous of Leonardo's works, if not the most famous painting in history, a definitively reusable pop culture referent (see Nat King Cole's hit song, "Mona Lisa," 1950, among other manifestations) as well as the subject of years of intense analysis and comment by art critics, Renaissance historians and Sigmund Freud, among others. Thus, it is probably too easy to overstate its influence, yet it is clear that Leonardo's singular decision to paint the entire torso and head of Sra. Gioncondo in three-quarter view (as opposed to the close facial portrait typical of the time) became the standard in serious portraiture well into the 19th century.

Leonardo spent his last years as the beloved wise man of the French court of Francis I, ironically after spending so many years in the service of Italian nobles obsessed with French attacks. Vasari says that Leonardo stubbornly raised science over God even as he met his end on May 2, 1519 near Cloux, France, while other sources suggest he spent his last hours in pious observance, asking God to forgive him for squandering his time on science instead of his God-given talent for painting. It is perhaps more important to note that for Leonardo, art and science were intimately related, one toiling in the service of beauty and the other in the service of truth, both beginning and ending under the watch of the preeminent human eye.

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