‘The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.’ – Leonardo da Vinci
Never has there existed a man of such intellectual and creative brilliance as Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s story is not one of destiny or power or need to rule over others. Leonardo’s story is one driven by obsession and the need for human innovation. The artist, inventor, engineer, architect, and perhaps the world’s first ever pilot (among countless other titles), represented true humanist thinking by pushing scientific and mechanical research beyond known limits. Leonardo da Vinci embodied the term ‘renaissance man’ – a true master of all pursuits. Leonardo lived a life of servitude to a higher purpose.
Although his many masterpieces may suggest he served the God of the Catholic Church, its clear Leonardo da Vinci’s mission went well beyond blind faith. Leonardo served and idolised the human condition and single-handedly propelled intellectual evolution. Leonardo pushed the boundaries of what man could achieve and create – he proved that perhaps men and gods are not so different.
The Life Of Leonardo da Vinci
‘As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.’
Born in the small town of Vici in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci’s name translates literally to mean ‘Leonardo of Vinci’. The young boy was unable to take his father’s aristocratic last name due to being born out of wedlock; Leonardo da Vinci was a bastard child. Still, Leonardo was a relatively privileged boy, living with his wealthy father and being afforded the time and freedom to exercise his insatiable curiosity. However, as a bastard, Leonardo would receive no early formal education and as such his prospects appeared bleak.
Leonard yearned to move beyond his birthright and find meaning in his work. This opportunity presented itself when his father secured him an apprenticeship under the esteemed artist Andrea di Cione. In di Cione’s workshop, a teenage Leonardo da Vinci could exercise not only his artistic skill but also skills in leatherworking, carpentry, and metal working – skills that would come in useful as he evolved into a keen engineer and architect.
Renaissance-era city-states such as Florence were ruled by corruption, money, and power. Fortunately, trade guilds had some say in the governing of the city and Leonardo da Vinci saw an opportunity to make a name for himself in one of these guilds. At age 20, the budding artist qualified for the Guild of St. Luke and rumours of his creative skill began to emerge. Word of this prowess reached Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Leonardo spent the years between 1482 to 1499 under the commission of Sforza. He was contracted to complete a variety of religious artworks, including the gorgeous Last Supper, which still stands as a monument to Christian heritage and artistic prevalence of the renaissance period.
During his time in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci was also given the freedom to exercise his architectural skill. Church domes in the renaissance were considered especially tedious and difficult architectural and engineering pursuits. Leonardo was trusted with the completion of the Milan Cathedral dome as well as various statues in the city-state.
The Second Italian War forced Leonardo da Vinci to flee Milan and he spent the next 20 years travelling Italy with clients such as the Borgia’s, the Pope, and the King of France. Most of his paid work would be completed through military engineering and cartography. Intiricate and detailed maps were a rare commodity at the time and were therefore extremely valuable to the various trade princes that ruled Italy.
Leonardo’s final service was to the King of France, whom he followed back to Amboise in 1516. Three years later, a 67-year-old Leonardo da Vinci died of a stroke.
‘’Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.’
It is difficult to summarise the life of a man such as Leonardo in a short space of writing. It’s even more difficult to summarise his works. However, I have selected three of what I consider to be his most influential and immortal artistic pursuits.
Certainly the most famous painting of all time, its origins lie in mystery. Theories state that this is the portrait of the wife of a Florentine by the name of Francesco del Giocondo. Still kept in France’s Louvre Museum, Mona Lisa’s enigmatic and even creepy smile follows viewers across the room. The Mona Lisa embodies the renaissance and, as a result, Western culture as a whole.
The Last Supper
Depicting the most dramatic scene from the Holy Bible, The Last Supper is also a graceful act of artistic excellence, with an added layer of religious vigour. It’s said that many of the Renaissance’s most beautiful creations were the result of divine intervention, that men were being driven by the will of God to create divinity on Earth. Although da Vinci was not especially pious, the intricacies and depth of this creation make for an excellent argument for other-worldly influence.
The visual representation of balance, perfection, and excellence. Seen everywhere from academic papers on human proportions to the tattooed skin of foreign tourists, the Vitruvian man was completed while Leonardo was studying the architectural work of the ancient Roman Vitruvius. The small depiction presents an interesting theory that like man-made structures, a man too can fit into the ideal proportion and movement.
‘I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.’
The above quote encapsulates the true legacy of Leonardo da Vinci. Through his constant work and creative endeavour, one would find it considerably difficult to find another man who has shaped both the modern culture and scientific discoveries to the degree that Leonardo did in a single lifetime. And yet, on his deathbed, these were the man’s final words. He found it to be a gross offence that he could not offer more to the world. How should the rest of us mere humans feel in comparison?
I have focused largely on the artistic and creative endeavour of Leonardo da Vinci because his cultural impact is of extraordinary measure. But many of his non-artistic creations were never completed for hundreds of years, simply because Leonardo’s thinking was centuries before his time. What we can all learn from Leonardo da Vinci is that the pursuit of something higher than ourselves is an honourable life path. That ‘something’ doesn’t have to be a god or divine being. Instead, like Leonardo, we can continuously push boundaries for all mankind and leave for future generations a world that is a little better off thanks to perseverance and dedication. And no, we won’t all be Leonardo da Vinci’s. But we can all be someone, offering something. And at the end of it all, we can only hope that we feel that we have not ‘offended God and mankind’ by not giving as much as we could have.