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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Leonardo's Genius

Virtruvian Man, 1485,
Leonardo da Vinci
If we were pressed to come up with a synonym for the word "artist" perhaps the best course would be personification and the first choice would be Leonardo da Vinci. It would be an almost universal choice. Of course the same name might be used as a synonym for "genius" and "draftsman" and "inventor" and "engineer." There is so much depth to this man that even though he's one of the most written-about artists ever, he's still manages to be something of an enigma. Actually, I think he intended it that way. I mean, anyone who writes backwards, in a script that's barely legible in the first place, and in Medieval Italian too, no less, has got to have a serious desire to be enigmatic. Add to this the fact that what he was writing was so far over the heads of most of his contemporaries, it's doubtful many would have known what he was talking about anyway.
Design for a Flying Maching, 1488,
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary. By the age of 18 he was working in the atelier of Verrocchio where his genius was evident in drawing, painting (which at that time meant fresco), sculpture, poetry, composing (music), philosophy, and athletics. An athlete? Yes, he specialized in the broad jump and the high jump. Later, he added architecture, engineering (civil, mechanical, aeronautical, and military) and readily adapted to the new art of oil painting as it became popular in Florence. In fact, of all his skills, many feel painting may have been his weakest. Whatever the case, he was a one-man band, what we might call today, a multimedia conglomerate. Had he perfected the science of cloning he would still have been a busy man. Which, of course, was one of his problems. A mind such as Leonardo's was never at rest. Even though he flourished on as little as four hours of sleep a night, according to those who knew him, he was infamous for starting projects, pursuing them until they no longer presented an intellectual challenge, then never finishing them.

Study of a Horse, 1490,
Leonardo da Vinci
According to Florentine art history, we are probably fortunate in at least one instance for this one distressing vice on Leonardo's part. Sometime around 1498, when he was at the height of his creative powers, the city fathers of Florence presented him with an enormous block of white marble which would be his to do with as he pleased with no restrictions other than those imposed by the stone itself which was some thirteen feet in length but less than 18 inches in depth and no more than 36 inches in width.  However the problem was not the limitations, but the fact that Leonardo had so many ideas as to how to utilize the block that he characteristically could not make up his mind. So, he let it slide, which was just as well. Three years later, Michelangelo made that block of marble his David.

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