Leonardo da Vinci biography

At the top of my blog is a picture of the Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci. He drew this when he was about 38 years old around 1490. He was not the first to draw such a figure trying to arrive at the correct proportions of height, arm span and leg length to fit into a circle or square but he studied such measurements with detailed diligence and his drawing skills are unsurpassed, so his is the one to remember.

I have finished a slow, pleasurable read of a Christmas gift, Walter Isaacson’s most excellent biography of the wondrous Leonardo da Vinci. I read his excellent biographies on Ben Franklin and Einstein some time ago and I very much looked forward to his work on da Vinci. Extensive historical research, close consultation with modern experts and his own keen appraisal of Leonardo’ work, all rendered in fine prose, make this book a true pleasure to read. Go get it now and wonder at the close portrait of a remarkable human, artist, scientist, engineer, dramatist, entertainer, raconteur, and the list goes on. Isaacson shows us how Leonardo’s great powers of observation and intuitive connections of phenomena and patterns over many interests and his entire life span that he recorded beautifully in thousand of pages of journal, both drawings and writing in his famous mirror script, mark him as a singular genius.


His portrait by his adoptive son and student, Francesco Melzi. Imagine him a younger man with curly locks, bright complexion, and athletically vigorous, who was bright and creative and very social.

I knew that Leonardo was gay, but I did not know that he was a great dandy, known for his fine clothes in pink, lavender and other such colors, that he was regarded as quite handsome, that he was arrested twice as a young man for the religious crime of sodomy but was released when proof was lacking, that he was regarded as the true life of the party for his wit, parlor tricks, and imaginative sharing of his knowledge, that he left unfinished many commissions because he lost interest, found their completion too difficult, or he kept them for himself. He worked on the Mona Lisa for decades, refusing to relinquish it to his sponsor, and carrying it with him around Italy and finally to France where he died.  He was a vegetarian and pacifist, even when he worked for the notorious  Borgia clan (he resigned after several months evidently pretty disgusted by his close up experience of internecine war).

I did not know that he was one of the great anatomists of his day and very likely ours. He dissected many pigs, horses, and humans, recording his observations in beautiful drawings and precise prose. I wondered at his gaining access to corpses because I thought that the all powerful church at that time frowned on such practices, but he seemed to escape censure there. This was probably an early facet of the Renaissance whereby curiosity about the natural world became valued over religious orthodox prohibitions. Leonardo also moved about with some serendipity. He left his native Florence to live and work in Milan for many years; during his absence Savonarola took and lost power in Florence. This religious fanatic made bonfires of the vanities famous as he organized the burning of books and artwork (remember this is Florence, one of the great centers of medieval and Renaissance art and intellect) as well as prosecuting many for prohibited sexual practices. Leonardo’s tenure in Milan ended with the defeat of his princely patron after a long time and so he returned for awhile to Florence after the Savonarola craze had ended.  Such a loss was avoided by this circumstance.

Consider this example of his diligent genius. He wondered why the heart valves of the aorta closed so as to prevent any blood from regressing into the heart once pumped out to the body. The common assumption that continued up until the 1960s was that the weight and pressure of the blood once the aorta was filled pushed the valve closed. Leonardo looked at human and pig hearts, even watching a pig heart beating and later making a glass model to observe fluid flow. He did not accept the assumption because his observations showed that the weight and pressure would only collapse the valve’s membranous flaps against the sides. Instead he thought that the turbulence caused by the flow through the valve from one space to another pulled the valve shut. Once we had the modern technology to image a working heart, we discovered that he was right. Wow!

Leonardo’s religious beliefs were not explicit; he certainly followed the church and was not in any way heretical or was not even obviously heterodoxical (ignoring here his sexuality). He wrote at one point that he would not “write or give information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by an instance of nature”, “leaving such matters to the minds of the friars, fathers of the people, who by inspiration possess the secrets.” He was one of the early modern and greatest empiricists and an artist of fertile imagination who combined art and science into a life’s work, including putting on spectacles and plays for his patrons, for which he was maybe best known in his lifetime. Go figure.

Now time to travel on.

hie you to the NCMA

Yes, hasten to the North Carolina Museum of Art to see two temporary exhibits on M. C. Escher and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The first is one of the most complete exhibitions of Escher’s art and he had a long career.  I knew the Escher impossible space ones, but those seemed mundane next to his earlier ones exploring long and deep perspectives.  He produced phenomenal art from late teens to his death in 1972 at age 73.  Escher was especially inspired by Da Vinci because of their shared passion for geometries and mathematical patternings.


M. C. Escher

Da Vinci’s work is represented by a wonderful exhibition of the Codex Leister (now owned by Bill Gates and thank you, Bill), his journals, written in mirror writing, that concerned his scientific and engineering efforts to understand and control water, how fossils come to be at the mountaintops, how water which always runs downhill can emerge in mountain springs, how to measure water pressure, and well, I hope you get the idea.  Many pages written in a fine delicate hand with very precise drawings mostly on the margins.


Leonardo da Vinci

In a couple of passages in the Codex Leister da Vinci presents a view that the earth is like a body, the ocean its heart, its rivers the blood vessels, the mountains its bones, the vegetation its flesh.  So he knew about Gaia early on in the development of positivistic science; indeed he was one of the creators of science and engineering, both imaginal and practical, even as he was an artist of enormous range and power.  Talk about a hero, who first walked the dialectical path between mysticism and positivism showing us the way.

On a wall in the Escher exhibit was a quote from da Vinci in which he discussed how looking at a rock face one can see shapes and objects emerge or listening to chimes one can hear words and melodies.  This is from his Art of Painting.  And it also fits with the paleolithic cave art in Europe, where the beautiful paintings of animals take advantage of the natural contours of the walls (and who knows, the shadows from the torch or candle).


Altamira bison

So hie yourself to the NCMA if you can; it is well worth it.  And look for this guy wandering the dialectic.


da Vinci’s man in proportion