Several ideas and images sprang to our mind when the name Leonardo da Vinci is mentioned. Most people associate it with famous artworks such as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper while some equate the name to the scholastic concept of the Renaissance man. Numerous accounts demonstrated Leonardo’s contribution in the field of arts and sciences, thus his name become an archetype of a genius. He fascinated the world with his advanced ideas and creative imaginations; moreover, he provided his successors with knowledge and guidelines through his discoveries and achievements. Through his intellect and creativity, Leonardo da Vinci portrayed a significant role in the evolution of modern civilizations.
Leonardo da Vinci was born at the dawn of the Renaissance period. The 14th to 16th century was an interesting borderline of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment Period that inspired Leonardo’s curiosity and observation. The Italian society in his youth was characterized by people with enthusiastic interest in learning and humanism. The concept of humanism during the Renaissance was described by Alfred Burns as “the growing self-awareness expressed in new styles in art and architecture and in the search for the vanishing intellectual treasures of an idealized classical age” (197).
The promotion of humanism and self-awareness brought questions and disagreement in various aspects of society. On the other hand, the pursuance for art and architecture was supported and financed by art patrons, thus ingenious artists were recognized during the Italian Renaissance. One of the recognized advocates of art during the Italian Renaissance was Lorenzo de Medici, who became famous for making Florence a “community of pleasure” (Taylor 25).
Leonardo’s interest in the arts was favored by his time for he was given the opportunity to work with the greatest artists of his era. He worked as an apprentice for Verrocchio and later on he was admitted to be a part of the Guild of Painters (Brown and Rankin 212). His early artworks were commissioned by patrons belonging to religious groups; therefore, it basically consisted of religious icons and commemorative art pieces.
The early part of Leonardo’s professional life was spent in Milan, where he worked in the court of Ludovico, duke of Milan. There, he gained extensive experiences and technical skills in designing for the court’s lavish events and occasions. Rachel Taylor used to describe that “when the wave of Renaissance was crescent in Italy, the powers were five – Florence, Naples, Venice, Rome and Milan – all jealous and splendid” (99). Therefore the city’s excellence also marked Leonardo’s preeminence.
During his stay in the court of the duke, he documented his learning and experiences in the field of architecture and engineering by compiling writings and detailed drawings of his designs and ideas. The so-called compilations, which are also referred to as the notebooks and manuscripts, reflected his inquisitive attitude towards the governing principles of matter and knowledge. Aside from Leonardo’s court duties, two of his significant art pieces, the Horse and the Last Supper, were also completed during his stay in the court of Milan.
At the fall of the Duke’s power over Milan, Leonardo found his way back to Florence. Not long after this, he worked for Cesare Borgia, a political figure in Italy, as a military architect and engineer (Brown and Rankin 212). Taylor suggested in her book that Cesare’s policies implicated death and violence (350), thus Leonardo considered his return to Florence to work for other patrons. Upon his arrival, he was commissioned to paint the Battle of Anghiari and later on he started working on the famous Mona Lisa.
Subsequently, he again visited Milan to work for the French king and according to Brown and Rankin, it was “a period when he influenced Milanese painting even more than during his early residence there” (212). He moved to Rome and stayed in the Vatican to work for the Pope and later on, he spent his time traveling to various places in Italy. He settled in France, where he spent his last days “attended by loving friends and at peace, in his chateau of Cloux, near Amboise” (Brown and Rankin 212).
The grandeur of Leonardo’s time witnessed the complex transition of the Western civilization. The notion of enlightenment favored and nurtured the formation of Leonardo’s genius, and in return, he endorsed the acknowledgement for man’s potential and power of reason. Various fields of knowledge that benefited from his achievements would include the realms of art, engineering, architecture, mathematics, physics, optics, human anatomy, ornithology and aerodynamics.
The Renaissance and its distinguished figures changed and influenced the culture that was formed and influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The society’s classic approach of simply approving or rejecting developing doctrines and customs evolved into a modernistic method that involved analysis and critical thinking.
The Enlightenment Period, together with the fame of Humanism, paved the way to scientific revolution. The intellectual reformation is considered as one of the significant events in our history for it influenced and provoked the “general mind to be more and more preoccupied with the larger problems beyond, which the new knowledge has brought fully into view” (Kidd 1). The transformation was a progressive step to a higher form of learning that encompassed the political, social, economic and religious principles of Western civilization.
The propagation of self awareness and modern thinking brought positive and negative changes in the economic and social aspects of the Western civilization. The recognition of artists and notable scholars, as depicted by the fame of Leonardo da Vinci, influenced the flow of trade and commerce. In European countries like Italy, cities such as Florence, Milan and Naples flourished. On the other hand, the method of tax collection was implemented to supervise the increase in trade goods.
Movements that aimed for learning and education produced interesting theories and assumptions that motivated man’s quest for truth and expansion of his horizons. The Age of Enlightenment recognized critical thinkers who became famous for contemplating and debating about avant-garde ideas (Hudson 21). Scholars and critical thinkers guided and initiated modern discoveries, inventions and innovations that improved the economy of the Western world.
Moreover, political and religious controversies also emerged at the advent of scientific and critical thinking. In Europe, several ranks of power emerged in the form of monarchs, spiritual leaders, merchants and tradesmen, scholars and artisans. The period of enlightenment and the succeeding years depicted a sweeping portrayal of political and religious reformation.
The concept of religion was separated from politics because of the humanist principle, which differentiate the distinct boundary between human and divine control. Humanist beliefs and principles intensified but were not universally accepted; therefore it was attacked by counter-arguments that justify the role of idealistic and religious attitudes towards politics. These contrasting views and beliefs about politics and its religious connections were highlighted in the works and theories of several Renaissance philosophers.
The Age of Enlightenment introduced several Renaissance Men, who individually imparted significant marvels of intellect and creativity. And as stated by William Hudson, it was as if “their lives opened itself out to them in all its vast and varied possibilities and they were eager to enter into their great heritage” (7).
There are several names from the Renaissance Age that surfaced in the course of evolution and transition of the Western civilization, but the fame of Leonardo da Vinci soared higher than the other for he exhibited exceptional qualities and eccentric fancies. The interesting and unique fusion of excellence in two exclusive areas of knowledge – the arts and sciences, was depicted by his accomplishments as a rational scientist and mystical artist.
Leonardo’s paintings and art contributions were highly popular but it is interesting to note that “there only remain six of his authentic paintings, and two of them were unfinished” (qtd. in Brown and Rankin 211). His study of perspective, examination of proportion and analysis of light and shade were fundamentals of innovative and modern arts. Sketches and details of his fascinating interests were accounted in several of his notebooks entrusted at various European libraries and museums. Some of his notes reflected the complex and controversial topic of dissection, which enlightened basic issues concerning human anatomy.
He declared various assertions in human proportion, one of these was his citation that “the span of a man’s outstretched arms is also equal to his height” (qtd in MacCurdy 217). He delved into unacceptable domains of his time by studying human cadavers in order to understand the unknown; moreover, his philosophy and skepticism reflected the rise of scientific thinking from the unexplained. Scientific observations of his surroundings were recorded together with his theoretical assertions and it anchored the essentials for the study of Botany and Geology. His technical experiences in the field of engineering and physics, together with the application of scientific principles contributed to the development of Western technology.
Some of these contributions included his experiences in building war engines, works specializing with hydraulics, and discoveries of possible energy sources. He also provided avant-garde theories in mathematics that foretell the discoveries of modern researchers (Brown and Rankin 211). Leonardo portrayed in his manuscripts an intense fervor for aviation, which was primarily influenced by apparent observation of birds.
He documented several notes containing his interest with flight and he called it the “Treatise on Birds” (qtd. in MacCurdy 211), which he divided into four parts. He continued on studying birds consequently influencing the birth of Ornithology; and at the same time, he persisted on propagating ideas about the flying machine thus providing rough beginnings for Aerodynamics.
The quest for knowledge in a creative approach delineates Leonardo da Vinci in a civilization situated between the borderline of savagery and enlightenment. His accomplishments in understanding and in attempting to understand the unknown through scientific approach enhanced the basic political and cultural principles influencing a society. His triumph was earned through the synthesis of intellect and creativity, which encompassed the multiplicity of human civilization.
Brown, Alice V., and William Rankin. A Short History of Italian Painting. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914.
Burns, Alfred. The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Hudson, William H. The Story of Renaissance. London: Casell, 1912.
Kidd, Benjamin. The Principles of Western Civilization. New York: Macmillan Company, 1902.
MacCurdy, Edward. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Volume 1). New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938.
Taylor, Rachel A. Leonardo the Florentine: A Study in Personality. London: Richards Press, 1927.