Leonardo Da Vinci - Thinker and Man of Science


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Not only was Leonardo da Vinci (1453-1519) an astonishing painter, but also a scientist, anatomist, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, inventor, and more. The question is rather, what was he not? During the Italian Renaissance, he mastered the most beautiful works of art for the Medicis’ in Italy and for the King of France. He aroused admiration from his contemporaries, who depicted a universal genius, curious and virtuous. Even today, interest in da Vinci and his work does not fade; his works and writings are still studied by foremost experts hoping to decipher one of the numerous secrets of this visionary artist. Studying nature with passion, and all the independence proper to his character, he could not fail to combine precision with liberty, and truth with beauty. It is in this final emancipation, this perfect mastery of modelling, of illumination, and of expression, this breadth and freedom, that the master s raison d être and glory consist. Others may have struck out new paths also; but none travelled further or mounted higher than he.



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Published 08 May 2012
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EAN13 9781781603871
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Leonardo da Vinci
Text: Eugène Müntz
Layout: Baseline Co Ltd rd Fiditourist 3 Floor 127-129A Nguyen Hue Blvd District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
© Parkstone Press USA, New York © Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA
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No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyrights on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.
ISBN: 978-1-78160-387-1
Publisher’s Note
Out of respect for the author's original work, this text has not been updated, particularly regarding changes to the attribution and dates of the works, which have been, and are still at times, uncertain.
BIOGRAPHY p. 250-251
NOTES p. 252
“L’imitatione delle cose antiche e più laudabile che quella delle moderne.”
he initial stage of Leonardo’s career coincides with the last supreme encounter between the ancient tradition (the tradition of the Middle Ages), and the new spirit of the times. Down to about the third souTfrom Roman models for details of costume or ornament only. Now, taking example fromght inspiration quarter of the fifteenth century, painting, if we exclude the painting of the school of Padua, had the sister arts of architecture and sculpture, it strove to assimilate the actual principles, the very essence, of classic art. Botticelli, Ghirlandajo and, above all, Filippino Lippi exerted themselves unceasingly to build up their frescos or pictures on the teachings offered to them by that army of statues, some specimen of which came to light each day under the pickaxe of the excavator. These efforts, rudimentary enough at first, culminated some years later in the triumph of classicism under the banner of Raphael and his disciples. How did Leonardo understand, and how did he turn to account for this factor, which became more and more difficult to neglect, this factor which spread itself over the intellectual life of the ‘quattrocentisti’ by so many ramifications? At the first blush, one is rather inclined to deny that Leonardo ever felt the influence of classic models. “He alone,” says Eugène Piot, “was the true faultless painter. The study of nature, untrammelled by absorption in classic ideals, a constant and unremitting study, carried on always and everywhere, with a perseverance and tenacity peculiar to himself, had revealed to him all the secrets of power in art, all the mysteries of grandeur and physical beauty.” Another critic, my lamented friend, Anton Springer, is no less positive: “Leonardo’s axiom, that nature is the artist’s true domain, that the study of nature should be inculcated, not only as the best, but as the only real discipline, determined his attitude towards the antique, and dominated his judgment of the historic development of art. It has often been remarked how extraordinarily slight was the influence exercised over him by the wonders of antiquity. ”In his pictures, indeed, it plays a very insignificant part, while in his writings it never manifests itself at all. In his youth, he drew inspiration once or twice from classic sources, as when he painted a Medusa’s head entwined with serpents, and drew a Neptune for his friend, Antonio Segni. The sea-god was represented on a vehicle drawn by sea horses on swelling waves, and surrounded by all sorts of marine beasts. As the drawing has not come down to us, it is impossible to form any opinion as to the measure in which Leonardo here utilised classic forms. The pictures ofBacchus(p. 201) and ofLeda(p. 172) belong to an earlier period. Whether theBacchusin Paris, and the various versions of theLeda,may lay claim to authenticity, is a question on which critics have not yet been able to agree. But be this as it may, the heads in all these pictures are of the individual type created by Leonardo, and show no trace of classic influences.” Given Leonardo’s independent spirit and his critical tendencies, it is evident that he was never one of those who accept stereotyped formulae and ready-made principles, either in his maturity or in his youth. Nothing would have been more opposed to his aspirations, as either an artist or a man of science, than such acceptance. Did he not lay down the following rule in theTrattato della Pittura?– “A painter should never attach himself servilely to another master’s manner, for his aim should be, not to reproduce the works of man, but those of Nature, who, indeed, is so grand and prolific, that we should turn to her rather than to painters
1.Study for Hercules and the Lion Nemean, c. 15051508. Charcoal and metalpoint, 28 x 19 cm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin.
2.Frontal Study of a Naked Man, c. 15031509. Pen and ink, 23.6 x 14.6 cm. Royal Library, Windsor Castle.
3. Andrea del Sarto, after Pollaiuolo, A Water Carrier, c. 1513. Red chalk, 17.9 x 11.3 cm. Palais des BeauxArts, Lille.
4.Doryphorus, Roman copy after a Greek original by Polykleitos created around 440 B.C, before 79 A.D. Marble, h: 200 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.
5. Sandro Botticelli,Two Nude Studies. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
”who are only her disciples, and who always show her under aspects less beautiful, less vivid, and less varied than she herself presents when she reveals herself to us.” Although Leonardo left the question he once propounded to himself unanswered – is it better to study drawing from nature, or from the antique? – he was more categorical in another passage of theTrattato,a passage missing both in the original manuscripts and in the Vatican codex. It is only to be found in the Barberini MS, and runs thus: “It is a common fault with Italian painters to introduce into their pictures whole-length figures of emperors imitated from various antique statues, or at least to give to their heads an air which we find in the antique.” Leonardo, in fact, had too fine a taste to allow himself to introduce into the art of painting effects proper to sculpture, as the great Andrea Mantegna was doing at this very time. For this reason, he did not believe that a painter would profit much by the imitation of antique statues. However, as a fact, these opinions are all more or less superficial. A careful study of da Vinci’s work leads us to the inevitable conclusion that whatever he may have said of the antique, and however completely he may have avoided dependence upon it, he was well acquainted with it in practice, and had assimilated its spirit. We may oppose, for instance, to the declarations of faith we have just been quoting, the following very definite assertion: “Suppose that an artist had to choose between copying antique models or those of modern times, 1 he should choose the antique for imitation in preference to the modern.” Let us consider first the branch of art that is, as it were, the parent and frame of the rest, imposing upon them its own laws of arrangement, of symmetry, and even of illumination; I mean, of course, architecture. What was the attitude of Leonardo towards it? The answer is easy. He admitted the ancient orders only, except that he would allow their occasional combination with the Byzantine cupola. He accepted with no less eagerness the authority of Vitruvius, to which, indeed, he was constantly referring. Many of his designs reproduce, or at least recall, Greek and Roman monuments, especially the mausoleum of Halicarnassus; one of his ideas for the base of the Sforza statue was taken from the castle of St Angelo at Rome. From these premises flows a series of deductions of great importance, as the reader will readily understand. The mere fact that Leonardo accepted Roman forms in architecture tends to prove that he admired classic methods in the provision of architectural settings and in the arrangement of figures in that setting. The principles of grouping that he followed in the Sforza statue, in hisLast Supper,in hisSaint Anne,are in no way inconsistent with those of antique models. When Leonardo lamented that he was unable to equal the ancients in symmetry, he was, perhaps, thinking of their mastery of the science of composition. One of his own contemporaries, a certain Platino Piatta, places the following declaration in his mouth:
Mirator veterum discipulusque memor Defuit una mihi symmetria prisca, peregi Quod potui; veniam da mihi, posteritas. As far as the canon of human proportion was concerned, Leonardo deferred, more perhaps than was reasonable, to the laws laid down by Vitruvius. The latter, he says, declares that the measurements of the human body are thus correlated: four fingers make one palm, four palms one foot, six palms one cubit, and four cubits or twenty-four palms the total stature of man. “If you separate your legs far enough to diminish your height by one-fourteenth, and stretch your arms outwards and upwards until your two middle fingers touch a line drawn horizontally across your poll, then your extremities will touch a circle of which your navel is the centre, and the space enclosed between your legs will be an equilateral triangle.” The attention Leonardo gave to the nude should also be ascribed to his study of the antique. Every now and again, especially in his sketches for theAdoration of the Magi, he drew figures quite undraped, so that he might the better observe their structure and the play of their movements. In Leonardo’s method of rendering the human figure, we also find analogies with the antique. Excluding portraits and modern costumes from religious pictures, his efforts were given to make his people excel by their own beauty, instead of through the brilliancy of their ornaments and surroundings. What simplicity in his composition! What rigour in his selection! What thoroughness and completeness in his synthesis! The young painter had little sympathy with realism in costume. Living in an ideal world, the modes and habits of his time did not trouble him, so that nothing is rarer in his work than to find memoranda of actual life, or reproduction of this or that landscape or building. No artist has shown less solicitude in those directions. He was interested in man himself, and not in man’s historical setting. Leonardo’s proscription of the costume of his own time, a costume reproduced with so much care by the “quattrocentisti” was, like the retrospective nature of his investigations, proof of his abstract and idealistic mind. Putting aside a few portraits, the figures he painted are robed after the antique; they wear tunics, togas, cloaks; and wear them with an ease that justifies us in saying that no artist has at once modernised and preserved the noble simplicity of antique costume so successfully as the author of theLast Supper(see Vol. I, p. 194-195) and theMona Lisa(p. 163).