• Taylor Sheikhalmolooki

The Gift of Leonardo da Vinci:

An Interpretation of Creative Insight of the Human Condition

For the last 500 years, Leonardo da Vinci has inspired and captivated society with his studies. He was an individual who was interested in everything, and indeed good at many from art, biology, physics, and so on. He lived during the middle of what is known as, The Italian Renaissance, a period marked as the era in European history between the 14th and 17th centuries. It is a period where exploration was encouraged, knowledge about the natural world was accepted, and the expressions of humanity were understood by the creative minds who built it. This era fostered change, inspiration, enlightenment, and paved the way for a new profound understanding of the world as we know it today. The expansion of modern-day studies in sciences, mathematics, arts, philosophy have been possible because of the talented and creative geniuses that contributed to branding this era, The Italian Renaissance. (Wamsley 2008) A name that reflects the “rebirth” of civilization after the Middle Ages and wouldn’t exist without those creative geniuses whom we describe as the “Renaissance Men” – Michelangelo, Galileo, Raphael, and Copernicus, to name a few. Leonardo Da Vinci was among these men who bear a legacy so great that his work stands above the rest. One of his most iconic paintings, The Mona Lisa (1503, Louvre, Paris) is a global destination for millions of visitors from all over the world. In fact, the painting has become part of a collective cultural icon around the world. Its image has become a recognizable staple for pop culture including: merchandise, and marketing. It is safe to say that the painting is a mystery and when one is confronted with the question, “Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?” Most would answer they don’t really know why. Some conclude it is her comforting smile while others refer to her subtle gaze. Others reference the sfumato technique used and perfected by Leonardo. Finally, some offer it is a reflection of humanity that exists beyond ourselves. It can be argued that any art that is made by oneself is always a reflection, expression, and extension of who they truly are at the deepest layer of the soul.

Before one can begin to understand any type of art, we must first understand the individual. Leonardo Da Vinci left behind a collection of papers and notes known as The Codex Atlanticus. The collection exhibits his detailed observations in an array of scientific subjects; biology, medicine, astronomy, physics, and geography. Not to be outdone, his collection of thoughts also offers insight about a variety of art forms: painting, sculpture, music, and theater. One can say the body of work left behind tell an intimate relationship of the truth that resides in one’s most inner thoughts about the world around him. It is there in the midst of understanding the mind of a genius is appreciated by a divine connection to the universe, in which, he loved and in turn loved him in return. By examining his work and thoughts, in relationship to his early life’s narrative we will correlate his profound ability for insight in all things that lead us to a better understanding of what is means to be human. By doing so, we can learn to live in the moment and see the inner workings of what the creativity of the mind, and the uplifting spirit of the universe nurtures in the human condition.

The most important source of Leonardo’s life comes in a short biography titled, Lives of the Architects, Painters, and Sculptures, written by art historian and painter, Giorgio Vasari published in 1550. Vasari is suggested to have began his research in the mid-1540s, Leonardo would have been dead for over 20 years at this point. (Wamsley 2008) Vasari must have relied on interviews with those who remembered, knew, or had interactions with Leonardo. He also gathered the very few other written accounts on Leonardo.

In the 1930’s, a notebook was discovered within the Da Vinci family and within it was a record of Leonardo’s birthdate as April, 15th 1452 written by his grandfather, Antonio. (Wamsley 2008) This record demonstrates Leonardo’s birth was illegitimate and took place in a small town of Vinci. His father, Ser Piero da Vinci, a honorable notary, established from a long line of notaries in reference to “Ser” before his name. Notaries drew up contracts, deeds, and other legal documents giving this occupation importance and admirable status. As for Leonardo’s mother, her presence isn’t mentioned but other sources, name her Catarina, and that is all that is known. (Issacson 2017) It is also unclear why Ser Piero did not marry her because after welcoming his son, Leonardo, eight months later he married a woman named, Alberia. (Wamsley 2008) Some speculate that Catarina was a peasant girl with a lower status than the Vinci family and a love affair was to blame. (Issacson 2017) The relationship between Ser Piero and Catarina are unknown but Leonardo’s illegitimacy and is a significant factor in shaping Leonardo’s live, alongside the absence of a mother’s nurture.

There is little known about Leonardo as a boy. Most historians agree that his Uncle Francesco had a significant influence on the young Leonardo. Unlike his father, Francesco was not a notary instead he was a country gentleman who was dependent on the family income. (Wamsley 2008) His freedom to leisure with Leonardo and teach him about life in the countryside would indeed seed his love for the natural world. It is important to note, that since illegitimate children were denied rights for inheritance and were prohibited from privileges in education. He was educated with basic reading, writing, and arithmetic that would be suited for apprenticeship in a trade but would not be taught to service in the family notary. (Issacson 2017)

That being said, it is with the upmost likelihood that Leonardo and Francesco spent much time exploring and learning as one would with an older brother. It is during these years, where Leonardo acquired skills of observation and techniques for experimentation through dissection of animals, such as lizards, newts, bats and locust, which, would later grow into his interest of the human body. He began to record his discoveries and write connections he could see among his observations. (Wamsley 2008) Vasari claims that he had a love for music and played the lyre very well as a young boy. Ser Piero took notice of his son’s intelligence, his inquisitive nature and his skilled draftsmanship. It is no doubt that Francesco and Leonardo developed a close relationship and had an emotional and nurturing relationship with their conversations that stimulated the mechanics of the mind resulting in the development of a profound appreciation of the world and the wisdom that great insights bear. His father and Francesco maintained their relationship throughout Leonardo’s life eventually naming him heir to his estate after Francesco’s death. (Issacson 2017) Leonardo’s curiosity about the world was driven by the natural forces of thought and reason. His curiosity allowed him to develop keen creative insights for how the natural word works at a young age. It is, indeed, a characteristic that remains apart of him. It is rooted deep within creativity and a force that inspires wonder that makes up the source in everything that is Leonardo Da Vinci. He writes, “All our knowledge has origins in our perceptions.”

{ FIG-3} Verrocchio (with Leonardo), Baptism of Christ, 1470-75 In the mid 1460’s, Leonardo’s days spent with Francesco would come to a halt when Alberia, Leonardo’s stepmother, died during childbirth after 12 years of a childless marriage. (Issacson 2017) Ser Piero shortly remarried to a woman named Francesca Lanfredini, the daughter of Ser Giuliano Lanfredini, a powerful Florentine notary. (Issacson 2017) Ser Piero and Leonardo left the countryside and moved to Florence. While Leonardo’s time spent drawing and sculpting, Ser Piero decided to take Leonardo’s work to Andrea del Verrocchio, an all-around craftsman of the arts. (Issacson 2017) Verrocchio was enlightened by Leonardo’s skills, and in 1466 an apprenticeship was in an agreement for Leonardo to learn in the master’s studio. There where he would live and learn the processes of the decorative arts and (Vasari) techniques such as linear perspective, chiaroscuro, and sfumato that himself would have a hand in perfecting in the history of art. He remained an apprentice of Verrocchio for nearly 10 years. (Vasari)

During this time, the studio atmosphere was inspired by the rediscovery of the classical style of the Ancient Greeks, which, powerfully influenced most of the works commissioned. This style can be characterized by the idealized forms of the human body, and the dramatics of movement. The merging of these classical Greek dramatics, new compositional construction techniques, and themes from the Byzantine art style can be seen in the works of Verrocchio’s studio. His paintings where often assisted by the experienced apprentices impart because his attention was more directly towards sculpture. (Vasari) The “Baptism of Christ” [Fig-3] by Verrocchio depicting St. John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus while two angels watch as they kneel beside the River Jordan. The angel on the far left of the scene was painted by Leonardo, Vasari states that when Verrocchio seen the heightened mastery in the angel above his own, he vowed to never paint again and he didn’t.

The earliest work by Leonardo exclusively is thought to be an ink sketch of Arno Valley dated August 5, 1473. (Wamsley 2008) The sketch reflects Leonardo’s exquisite use of perspective as it describes his observations of the changing air, light, and color of the landscape in correlation with distance. This work can also suggest that Leonardo posed an extraordinary sense of sight allowing him not only to record nature but would suggest he had a photographic memory in which this landscape was drawn from. The sketch captures the relationship between science and art, a theme that would embody the soul of his work, and thus extend the nature of himself.

{ FIG-4} The Adoration of the Magi.1481 Leonardo Da Vinci. 1452- 1519. Oil on Linen In 1476, Leonardo opened his own small workshop and for the few years he worked on several private commissions including “Madonna and the Flower.”(Wamsley 2008) He then had acquired a contract for the an altarpiece commissioned by the friars of the Augustinian monastery San Donato, a work known as the “Adoration of the Magi.” [Fig-4] (Issacson 2017) Leonardo eventually lost interest and abandoned the commission. The painting remains unfinished but the cartoon leading up to the work reveals a tremendous amount of insight to the manner, in which Leonardo worked. In the drawing, he depicts a palace like background that stands as ruins with a stage like platform. The Virgin Mary and the infant Christ are placed in the center with the tree of life adjacently behind them. The stage like foreground is filled with life- people of all ages, animals, men on horse, and even a camel. All the figures are sketched first in the nude, starting from skeleton, tissues of organs and muscle, then to the flesh, and finally clothed. Their clothing had to move as natural as they did moved in the nude. As well as the individualism seen in their faces- by expression and feature, a unique characteristic that opposes the figures trending in the classical style. Every detail included in his works has a refence to the natural world, each movement, color, shape, paying close attention to the relationships that exist between all things. Each component in his work, is created with a true thought, purpose, and grace. He constructed his compositions as he seen the world as a place of perfection in its crafted design, beauty in its wonder, and above all a mystery that provoked him to seek the knowledge. It is those very things that come through and express the nature of Leonardo’s universe.

Leonardo da Vinci died May 2, 1519 in France. It is said that he died in the arms of the king. His spirit is alive through his work, and embodies a perfect symbol of humanity, one that teaches us to not only stop and look at the roses but use all our senses to appreciate and wonder about everything. There is a reason behind the design. He was a creative genius that observed life in detail. He did not limit his exposure to just one area; rather; remained curious about all matters in the world around him. He was an iconic figure that not only dominated the Italian Renaissance, but also shaped our present-day society. Leonardo’s level of insight and profound knowledge still to this day leaves the most creative minds still wondering how Da Vinci came to his conclusions. The lens through which Leonardo seen the world would be noticed. His vision is something that cannot be taught, it was a gift. The gift of creative insight, and it is such that has made humans exceptional. Just as we admire the Mona Lisa and her captivating gaze and reminisce on Leonardo’s work we find ourselves in a level of mystery and curiosity wondering who he was? And often times those same questions mirror the center of what is human. It is our creative insight at the source, that propels civilization to further grow and discover. Leonardo da Vinci inspires that in all and is perhaps the enigma of the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in history. Art that has been, is and will be the highest form of human expression. The absence of a mother’s embrace leaves one to wonder why the Mona Lisa was the only painting that traveled with him. The conjecture lies only within speculation that no matter how keen the connection is with the creativity of the universe, the human aspect still wonderings what a true love of a mother feels like. It is in her eyes, that tell the story of how deep the ocean of the soul goes and the beauty of a deep grief can truly be. His overall tone in expression comes from a deep appreciation for the creative nature, that our world displays a perfect composition and his passion was to understand the creation of it. His mindset, his lens, is uniquely his own and that is why Leonardo’s legacy mirrors who we are, and who we want to become as human beings.

Works Cited and Consulted

Atalay Bülent, and Keith Wamsley. Leonardo's Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo Da Vinci. National Geographic, 2008.

Suh, H. Anna. Leonardos Notebooks - Writing and Art of the Great Master. Black Dog & Leventhal Publisher, 2013.

Issacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. New York CIty: Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Vasari, Giorgio, et al. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects . C. Scribner's Sons, 1896.

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