The mere mention of the name Leonardo da Vinci often evokes thoughts and memories of his most famous works of art: “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” paintings. However, historians and art enthusiasts recognize da Vinci not merely as an artist but more accurately as a genius and the epitome of the “Renaissance man.” The Renaissance period in history was characterized by unprecedented technological, artistic and scientific advancements in virtually all aspects of life. The period witnessed the rise of great artists including the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and many more.
However, da Vinci stood out from the rest because of his extensive skill in a multiplicity of disciplines, all against the background of having had a relatively humble beginning as an illegitimate child in an era when illegitimacy weighed heavily on an individual’s life and prospects of success. Thus, Leonardo da Vinci’s greatness is traceable not only to his achievements as an artist but more conclusively from his philosophy of life. He viewed himself as being intricately interlocked with nature and science. This led to his curiosity, versatility and unmatched expertise in the multiple fields of art, engineering, anatomy, aeronautics and other natural and life sciences.
Da Vinci as a Great Artist/Painter
Leonardo was introduced to art and painting at a very young age, eventually developing into a self-taught master, having received little formal education. He showed promise from his drawings as an adolescent, about 14 years old, and that motivated his uncle to apprentice him to Andrea del Verrocchio, a renowned painter in Florence at the time. Upon receiving that opportunity, he undertook the endeavor with so much passion that there was no doubt that he was headed for greatness. Leonardo spent the next decade of his life learning and perfecting his skills in sculpting, painting and studying mechanical arts. His incredible talent was first manifested when Verrocchio recruited him to assist in the painting of “The Baptism of Christ.” Legend has it that da Vinci’s skill was so magnificent that his angel in the painting impressed his mentor to the point of never painting again. By the age of 20, da Vinci was already receiving commissions for his own paintings and in no time, he had surpassed his master, a testament to his famous assertion that “Only a mediocre student does not surpass his teacher.”
Da Vinci’s art distinguishes him from the rest because of its accurate and intriguing capture of human emotions and behavior, which are most elaborately depicted in his two most famous paintings, “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” In the Mona Lisa, for example, her smile is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the painting. When observing at a distance, one gains the impression that her lips are turned up a little at the ends, whereas on close observation it is obvious that they are turned in the opposite direction. The play of lighting with shadow accounts for the difference. Da Vinci was able to achieve such accurate expressions through his study of human anatomy where it is said that he dissected the faces of several cadavers as he sought to understand the function and relation of the lip muscles as well as the functioning of the eye. Consequently, he understood that seeing detail is a function of the center of the retina but the outer part thereof is more suited to seeing shadows and edges.
The painting of the last supper also demonstrates a great detail of human emotion and behavior. Looking at the painting, one sees Jesus’ hand stretched out as he apparently says the words “One of you will betray me.” One also notices the emotion on the disciples’ faces and their behavior where they are seen to converse with one another and with Jesus. Their faces show surprise and disbelief as the question, “Is it me, Lord?” is asked. The two pieces of art are only a representation of da Vinci’s mastery in capturing human emotion, which he always sought to achieve. He is said to have recorded expressions of human emotion in his notebook as he walked around, later using them in his paintings.
Da Vinci as a Great Engineer and Visionary
Leonardo’s exemplary work in the field of engineering can be traced to his time as a military engineer for the Duke of Milan between 1482 and 1499. His engineering exploits had begun while he still lived and worked in Florence, where he had begun designing ladders for potential use at the time when Naples was a great military threat to Florence. However, he later moved to Milan where he put his engineering talent to greater and more extensive use. While there, he was engaged in projects such as architecture, the design of weapons, building of canals and clearing of marshes.
However, da Vinci’s claim to greatness as an engineer and inventor emanates from his studies and futuristic inventions and designs. Many of the weapons, machines and mechanical devices he designed at the time were so advanced that contemporary technology and science could not facilitate their realization. For example, examining his notebooks reveals that, from his studies of birds and bats and their flying mechanisms, he was able to prepare some amazing designs of what he referred to as flying machines. However, the helicopter, whose mechanism of operation bears much resemblance to da Vinci’s designs and engineering principles came into existence centuries after da Vinci’s initial ideas. Additionally, Leonardo’s notes reveal designs of advanced war machinery including tanks, multi-barreled machine guns, mortars, grenades, and missiles. Thus, it is evident that Leonardo da Vinci was centuries ahead of his time.
There is no doubt that by any standard, Leonardo da Vinci was a genius polymath who not only fits the definition of a polymath by being knowledgeable in multiple fields but was actually a master in all those fields. He was a master painter, an anatomist, a great engineer and inventor. Despite his claim to greatness via his many talents, painting and art constitute perhaps his greatest and obviously, most famous, exploits. He always found a way to incorporate art in all other fields in which he took an interest. In fact, he occasionally managed to complete a couple of pieces of art and paintings even while executing other duties. His unique ability to capture human emotions in his paintings endears him to generation after generation and immortalizes his mastery. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, alongside his other works like “The Last Supper” and “The Vitruvian Man”, is the best evidence of how great a man Leonardo da Vinci was. However, establishing what really made him great requires an understanding of his motivation or philosophy of life (found within his elaborate notes) – curiosity. He was perhaps the most curious man to have lived and that impelled him to imagine things in ways that can only be termed genius.
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Stanley, George E. Leonardo Da Vinci: Young Artist, Writer, and Inventor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Weidemann, Christiane. Leonardo Da Vinci. Prestel Publishers, 2010.