Polymath: A person of great and varied learning; a person of encyclopedic learning.
In his capacity as a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a musician, a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer, an inventor, an anatomist, a geologist, a cartographer, a botanist and a writer, Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist, exemplified the essence of a polymath.
Leonardo di ser Perio da Vinci (Leonardo, son of Messr Piero of Vinci (which renders his monicker “da Vinci” obsolete)) was born in Vinci, Florence, on April 15, 1452, in accordance with the Julian calendar. His father was a notary, Peiro da Vinci, and his mother was Caterina, a peasant. He was born out of wedlock, and spent his childhood largely under the care of his father’s family; his uncle, in particular, was noted to have taken a special attention to him. Da Vinci was apprenticed under Andrea del Verrochio of Florence at the age of fourteen, with whom he later collaborated with, and mastered a vast spectrum of skills, including but not limited to the leather arts, carpentry, metalworking, drawing and sculpting. When da Vinci was twenty, he began his own workshop. Da Vinci’s interest in the anatomy began early, with his uncles demonstrating dissection on plants, then small animals. This evolved into da Vinci exploring cadavers at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. His drawings of the heart and vascular system, muscular structures and the skeletal system, amongst others are some of the first recorded.
Da Vinci’s apprenticeship to Verrochio turned to collaboration, and they are both credited with “The Baptism of Chirst”. Verrochio would often claim that da Vinci had long surpassed him, and da Vinci, on his part, often worked with Verrochio, even after acquiring his own workshop. Around this period, painting techniques from Northern Europe arrived with Hugo der Goes’s work. This, coupled with da Vinci spending much of his youth in Florence, a city liberally peppered with the works of Donatello, Masaccio and Ghiberti, inspired and influenced him greatly. Florence had recently come into money, so to speak, with the establishment of the Medici Bank and the flourishing trade it produced. This meant the Church was no longer the sole patron of the arts, although they were still responsible for the more lucrative, large-scale projects, ranging from allegorical paintings to alter pieces. The Humanist Philosophy was also popular during this period, the High Renaissance, and man’s relationship with humanity, God and the universe in general, was no longer under the Church’s sole purview. This led to secular subjects, as well as the ever present classical themes for the patrons characterized by their status as commoners, however wealthy. Da Vinci was especially inspired by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (Panel #1, Adam and Eve, part of the Florence Baptistry), Massacio’s “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” and Donatello’s “David”.
Da Vinci is shown to be politically inclined, and was sent as ambassador to Ludovico Sfoza, Duke of Milan, by Lorenzo de Medici, who commissioned him to make a silver lyre as a peace offering to the Duke. He spent much time in Milan, where he often advised and worked as engineer, architect, painter and sculptor. He organized pageants and parades for the Duke, and painted “Virgin on the Rocks” and the “Last Supper”. The latter was painted in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Da Vinci lived in Milan until Ludovico, Duke of Milan, was overthrown by the French, upon which he went to Venice. Da Vinci was held in high esteem by the French king, Francis I, who was impressed enough with the artist, that he was welcomed with open arms to France, and who ensured, to the best of his ability, that da Vinci never left. It is even rumored that da Vinci breathed his last with the king at his bedside.
The Last Supper (worked on between 1495 and 1498, tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic) depicts the last supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples, and because of da Vinci’s unorthodox choice in medium, the mural suffered much decay, and has been restored multiple times. Like most of da Vinci’s other works, the Last Supper epitomizes Renaissance painting, characterized by emphasis on observation, perspectives, light, tonal variation, physiognomy, and at the same time advocating much freedom for the artists themselves. The Last Supper, depicting the moment when Christ reveals that one of their number will betray him, correspondingly projects the despair all the Apostles feel at the revelation. They are portrayed in groups of three, and while some looks surprised, others look downright horrified.
Perhaps the most famous painting in the world, and the most copied, the Mona Lisa, (worked on between 1505 and 1507) believed to have been commissioned as a portrait of Lisa Ghirardini, the wife of a merchant, was a work perpetually in progress. It was never delivered to the commissioner, and remained with da Vinci when he shifted to Milan, and later, France. It is housed in the Louvre, France. A technique da Vinci employed to great effect in the Mona Lisa is “sfumato”, also known as “Leonardo’s smoke”, which includes omitting boundaries, through which shadow and light model contour visibility in the painting. The Mona Lisa is noted for her indeterminate expression and enigmatic smile. The extent of detail in the landscape in the background has also been commended, and it is noted that da Vinci was the first person to use an imaginary backdrop for his sitter. There is certainly something more alluring than simple beauty, and the Mona Lisa was, in fact, stolen in a fit of national pride by the Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, who wanted her displayed at Florence, and not Paris. Although the subject, her cause for mirth, and Leonardo’s own intentions may never be unequivocally determined, her air of mystery attracts a large crowd, and many hypotheses. The painting is an icon of art everywhere, and of Leonardo da Vinci himself.
Following his successes in Florence and Milan, Da Vinci moved to the Chateau d’Amboise, France, at the invitation of King Francis I, with a few of his apprentices, where he died on 2 May, 1519, reportedly ruing that he never finished as many paintings as he should have, or even would have liked to have.
Da Vinci’s expertise was not limited to solely art, and his writings include papers on geology, aerodynamics, war machinery, architecture, gravity and optics. His peculiar brand of writing has long been the subject of awe – he favored mirror writing, the possible explanation for which is the fact that he was left handed, and in moving across a page when writing from left to right could smudge the ink previously applied by his moving hand, whereas moving his hand from the right to the left of the page would spare him of this disaster. Indeed, it has been observed that unless da Vinci was writing with the express desire of having another to be his intended viewer, he never wrote in the normal fashion. Da Vinci was, in addition to being creatively inclined, a man of the sciences. He invented the bicycle, the helicopter, the airplane and the parachute well before contemporary man even existed. He did not separate art and science, but painted with the accuracy of a precisely knowledgeable scientist, and made detailed, but theoretical, plans for his inventions. Da Vinci’s work is renowned for his detailed knowledge of the human anatomy, botany, geology, light and shadow. He was often inspired by people, live models, who he would follow all day, if he found their faces interesting. Being both a procrastinator and a perfectionist, he left very few completed works of art, but was possessed with an insatiable curiosity, astounding powers of observation and an immense thirst for knowledge.
Da Vinci, fickle of mind and heart though he was, has brought home the bacon in regard to mastering all his interests, obsolete though many (such as his studies on the sciences and his mechanical inventions) of them may have seemed in his day. He has proven that “artist” may well include talents far removed from the conventional definition of the term, and can even be expanded so as to include both enthusiasts of visual art, in the traditional sense, as well as those who employ the techniques of art in different spheres of knowledge. He has employed his powers of observation to garner knowledge in areas firmly associated with the sciences (optics, the anatomy) to utilize in his artistic endeavors, which result in excellent results, owing to the fact that they are both accurate (match with detail) and precise (continuously match with detail). The fact that though he has, today, a grand total of fifteen completed works to his credit, he has managed to master all forms of expression, symbolizing the most accomplished polymath to have lived.