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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The First Renaissance Man

Self-Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci,
With the possible exception of Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, no artist has accumulated as much verbal baggage as Leonardo Da Vinci. All three could rightly be credited with being "legends in their own time", though in the race to be the most colorful, Leonardo finishes a poor third behind the other two. Of the three, Leonardo is by far the most intellectual. Michelangelo, though primarily a sculptor, dabbled in painting and architecture while jotting down a few mediocre sonnets. Picasso, while primarily a painter, has dabbled in sculpture and ceramics. Leonardo, (so far as we know) never tried sculpture insofar as stonecutting was concerned, though he did work for some time on an enormous bronze equestrian statue which was never completed,  However, he dabbled in just about everything else. Indications are that his first love was drawing from which sprang an interest in painting, engineering, anatomy, and writing.   

Virgin of the Rocks
(first version), 1483-86,
Leonardo da Vinci

The Renaissance brought us a rebirth of learning in all the arts and sciences of the time, and in so doing, was responsible for the birth of the term "renaissance man". Though others down through the ages have had this honorary title bestowed upon them, Leonardo rightly deserves it first and foremost. The Mona Lisa and Last Supper aside, his painting, Virgin of the Rocks (c.1484) alone would put him first amongst the painters of his time. His design portfolio contains everything from military fortifications to stage sets and parade floats. His anatomical drawings done from cadavers were not only the first of their kind but rank as medical research of the first order. His mirror-image writings were both deeply analytical and profound.   
Born around 1452, Leonard showed signs of genius from childhood. He was also an opinionated man:  "That painting is the most praiseworthy which is most like the thing represented." We usually think of him as a modest, quiet man but:  "...I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else, whoever he may be." Coming from a lesser man, both quotations might be easily dismissed or laughable, but from the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, we stop and read them twice, pondering what he might have known that we don't.

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