Andrea del Verrocchio (b. 1435, Firenze, d. 1488, Venezia), The Baptism of Christ, 1472-75, Oil on wood, 177 x 151 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci, Drawing of drapery,late 15-early 16th century, Source A.E.Popham, The Drawings of Leonardo.
Leonardo da Vinci, Weimar Sheet, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. View of a skull "exploded" through the refined graphic technique utilized by Leonardo to show the internal parts of organisms and machines. In this case, the vertical "explosion" throws into relief the fundamental organs of the mind and senses: the ventricles of the brain and the optic chiasm.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, ca.1499-1500, 141.5 x 104.6 cm, National Gallery, London.
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). ca. 1490 or 1483-1490, Oil and tempera on panel, 40.3 x 54.8 cm, National Museum, Czartoryski Collection, Cracow.
Leonardo Da Vinci, St. John the Baptist. ca.1513-1516. Oil on wood. Louvre Paris, France.
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.
Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (unfinished), ca. 1480, Tempera and Oil on panel, 103 x 75 cm, Vatican Museums.
Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c 1515, Source http://www.drawingsofleonardo.org/.
Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of the Arm showing the Movements made by Biceps (ca. 1510).
Leonardo da Vinci, Self-Portrait, ca. 1512, Red chalk, 33.3 x 21.3 cm, Biblioteca Reale, Turin.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, detail, 1503-1506, Oil on wood, 189.5 x 120 cm, National Gallery, London. Leonardo employs erial perspective in his landscapes in the background of his paintings, the rules of aerial perspective create the illusion of an infinite distance into which the scene gradually fades and blurs.
Leonardo Da Vinci, St. John the Baptist. detail, ca.1513-1516. Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris. Saint John, in shadw, emerges from the background through modulations in the brightness of the light. Gradations of shadow are infinite and the border between shadow and light is blurred. This translates into the absence of a sharp outline around the figure of Saint John.
Piazzale degli Uffizi
The Mind of Leonardo –
The Universal Genius at Work
March 28, 2006-January 7, 2007
Although commonly known as a “universal genius," the exhibitions dedicated to Leonardo have mostly focused on some specific area of his activity: art, anatomy, technology, studies on water, on flight, etc.
The Mind of Leonardo offers ia different point of view, inviting viewers to explore the his mode of thinking and unitary conception of knowledge as the effort to assimilate, through bold theoretical syntheses and inventive experiments, the laws that govern all of the wondrous operations of man and nature.
Leonardo's approach gives rise to a different image, one that helps dissolve the often-shrouded aura of mystery and myth of Leonardo: a mind tenaciously endeavoring to decipher rational processes that animate the phenomena of the physical world as well as “motions of thought”, driven by desire to achieve a perfect imitation of nature in drawing and painting.
The exposition of originals (the Saint Jerome from the Vatican Museums, the self-portrait from Turin, the 'exploded skull' of the Weimar Sheet on display for the first time in Italy), is accompanied by innovative educational tools, including: 3D animations and high-definition reproductions, functioning models carefully constructed using historically accurate techniques and materials (of particular interest is the world premiere presentation of the mechanical lion designed by Leonardo for the arrival of Frances I in Lyonne in 1515), digital stations with access to interactive contents, virtual reconstructions of some of Leonardo's lost works and films which illustrate for the first time sensational new discoveries in his drawings and paintings (in particular related to the Adoration of the Magi).
The aim is not so much to emphasize the extraordinary breadth and variety of his interests, as to highlight his constant recourse to certain fundamental principles and concepts, daringly transferred through visual and structural analogies from one field of research to another.
Leonardo: origins of the Modern Manner With the permanent exhibition of the three most important works painted by Leonardo in Florence before his departure for Milan in 1482, and with the exceptional loan of the Saint Jerome (conceived around the time of his move), this hall is the first section of the exhibition.
It is fitting that the young Leonardo’s masterpieces should be accompanied by altarpieces painted by artists who worked with him in the shop of Andrea del Verrocchio. The presence of works by Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi, but also by Luca Signorelli (and Piero di Cosimo) serves to recreate an atmosphere and a group of artists whose production shows how fruitful was Verrocchio’s workshop, the place where Leonardo’s gifts budded and his mind molded.
Verrocchio, his mark visible in the Baptism of Christ (commissioned around 1470), seems, responsible for the general organization of the scene and for the figure of St. John, at least. But this panel clearly shows the participation of assistants of differing capacity, outstanding among them Leonardo, who worked on it around the middle of the 1470s and whose contribution is not limited to the famous angel viewed in profile.
Before this (around 1472) Leonardo had painted the Annunciation, a work in which the 20-year-old artist displayed all of his talent, devising optical illusions to ensure a correct reading of the painting from a determined view-point.
Then, in 1481, he was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi. The variety of expressions, the articulation of stories unfolding in the background, the inspiration from Hellenistic models, the pathos of ecstatic faces and the twisted postures of the writhing bodies make of this panel — which, like the Saint Jerome, remained unfinished due to the artist’s departure for Milan — a figurative text that anticipates the advent of the "modern manner", while simultaneously revealing the fervent innovation of Leonardo’s mind.
These three famous drawings date from the years prior to Leonardo’s departure for Milan (1482); three sheets with different subjects, but all proclaiming him an innovational precursor of future trends.
The view of a landscape appearing on folio 8P from the Uffizi is innovative. Although the strong influence of Northern painting on the Florentine artists of the day can still be seen, the great distance that separates this landscape drawing from coeval (and subsequent) ones is immediately apparent. Dated August 5, 1473, the drawing bears witness to Leonardo’s early concern with directly imitating nature. It probably depicts the castle of Montevettolini on its rocky spur and the hill of Monsummano opposite it, with the Fucecchio marshes drifting into the distance between the two heights. Landscape from life, then; where the amazing aspect is the throbbing pulse of life that the artist, years in advance of others, manages to instill the landscape, evoking wind over cliffs and waving fronds.
In December 1478 Leonardo began to paint — in his own words — "two Our Ladies". The subject was one of the most frequently used, and Verrocchio’s workshop produced many versions of the Virgin and Child of highest poetic expression. In the drawing where a girl-like Madonna holds a restless child in her arms, the artist remains faithful to the expressive line of his master and his circle, but imposes on the figures (portrayed with a new naturalism) gestures that are the mirror of the soul. He instills in them, in fact, the "motion" and the "breath" that are the salient features of Leonardo’s art and that were to prove determinant for the birth of the "modern manner".
This "manner" is even more emphatically heralded in the preparatory drawing for Adoration of the Magi (1481), where, despite the small size of the support, those characteristics of dynamism, pathos and variety which represent the cornerstones of a figurative language that was to come to the forefront some twenty years later, are expressed with ease (and to the highest degree).
Recent diagnostic investigations on Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, conducted by Maurizio Seracini, have revealed that the painting was carried out in two distinct stages, during two different time periods.
During the first stage Leonardo applied, on a panel made of an assembly of ten poplar planks, a ground consisting of layers of coarse and fine gesso bound with animal glue. He then developed a detailed brush drawing with lamp black and natural resin. This was covered with a thin priming of lead white, transparent enough that the drawing would remain visible during the painting phase. The only area that Leonardo went on to paint substantially was the sky, which is made of a mixture of lead white and a little ultramarine. He also applied occasional highlights to some of the figures and parts of the architecture.
A second stage came much later, when another artist added several layers of paint made of red and brown earth pigments, copper resinate and a lot of charcoal in oil with some resin. These monochrome layers do not follow the lines of the underdrawing, instead largely obscure it.
In summary, Leonardo’s magnificent creative moment in the Adoration is represented by the superb preparatory drawing, which can once again be admired thanks to the results of scientific studies.
In the preparatory drawing on paper, Leonardo first traced the architecture and a large covered structure on top of meticulously-drawn lines of perspective. He then went on to fill in the scene with figures and horses, sketching first in charcoal and then adding greater detail with iron gall ink.
The Face of the Genius Leonardo was probably the best known man of culture of all times. And yet his personality, his deepest motivations, his character and even the image of his face seem to challenge any universally accepted definition.
Thus it was fitting that the voyage into the mind of Leonardo proposed by this exhibition should begin with both the severe, penetrating gaze of the Genius’famous self-portrait, and his face seen in profile in the earliest representation in painting.
The spectacular “exploded” skull on the Weimar Sheet evokes one of the key concepts of Leonardo’s art-science: the specular relationship between the anatomical structure, on the one hand, and the expression of the motions of the soul, on the other.
In Leonardo's Studio Despite the fact that he called himself a "homo sanza lettere" ("man without letters"), Leonardo formed over the years a conspicuous library, which included texts of natural philosophy as well as those of literary, technical and artistic culture. With the authors of these texts Leonardo engaged in dialogue that was never passive, subjecting even the most fully accredited doctrines to the strict control of reason and the proof of experience. The number and variety of the books in his library reflects the curiosity of a mind reaching out in all possible directions of research.
Integrated with the library is Leonardo's writing desk, the place where the creative exercise of his mind assumed the form of verbal discourse interwoven with sketches and drawings, executed either free-hand or with sophisticated instruments.
Leonardo collected a library of over 150 volumes, comprising both printed books and manuscripts. A selection of texts by the authors with whom he engaged in particularly intense dialogue is presented here.
He was primarily an engineer and an artist; in this environment he worked and spent most of his life, drawing from it crucially important intellectual stimuli. This section documents some of the most significant of these, which contributed in various ways to defining the concepts developed by Leonardo in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture and military art.
For Leonardo, the study of nature meant mastering those sciences deemed to have received a practically definitive systematic organization in the preceding centuries: first of all geometry and the physical-mathematical sciences, such as optics, the science of motions and of weights. Accordingly, Leonardo attempted to assimilate the mathematical tradition of antiquity and the medieval one of mechanics.
This section documents some of Leonardo readings in those areas of natural philosophy — such as the theory of the four elements and anatomy — that remained bound to the qualitative approach, devoid of mathematical reasoning, of Aristotle and of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine.
The most effective expression of the incessant working of Leonardo's mind is found in his extraordinary manuscripts and drawings. The writing desk was the place where the Genius' left hand made visible signs the motions of his mind.
The grammar of forms: proportion and analog Leonardo conceived form as a malleable entity, according to rules of geometry and proportion that havecharacteristics of absolute regularity and harmony. He attempted to show the presence of these laws in all spheres of nature: from human body to animals, from the tree branches to rivers, from geometric shapes to fossils. This concept of the infinite malleability of forms was central to his activity as artist, designer of machines and investigator of phenomena of the physical world.
He studies proportions of the human body and its commensurability with perfect geometric forms (circle and square). This was scientific analysis that had both cosmological meaning (the correspondence between micro- and macrocosm) and artistic (correctly representing the human figure and designing architecture based on proportions of the human body). In his drawing, Leonardo subjected the Vitruvian Man to a series of original developments.
The conclusions reached in his geometric investigation of laws of equilibrium were transferred by Leonardo to fluid mechanics and the living world. The extraordinary series of sketches illustrating balance of human figures accompanied Leonardo’s obsessive concern for equilibrium, not only of forms but also of corporeal masses, in his studies on the flight of birds, on rearing horses and on the postures of interacting figures in his paintings and drawings.
Like a sculptor who models clay, obtaining different shapes with the same amount of material, Leonardo transformed squares into rectangles, cubes into parallelepipeds, pyramids into other equivalent pyramids, etc.
To Leonardo, even the shapes of living organisms were transformable. For example, the similarities between man and birds are sufficient to allow the human body to fly. In the Battle of Anghiari, the transfiguration of a horseman into a centaur is the artistic pendant of this vision.
Leonardo strove to isolate from the multiplicity of nature’s manifestations a small number of archetypal geometric forms. These forms, that are privileged by nature, reflect the working of universal laws of order and proportion. These nature’s matrices are considered by him as models not only for his production as an artist but also for his technical and scientific work.
The equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, on which Leonardo worked during his first stay in Milan (1482-1499), was one of the most audacious artistic and technological challenges of the Renaissance. Leonardo’s approach depended on the study of the perfect proportions for the horse and on the definition of the muscular conformation of its pose.
Motion: the universal agent Leonardo's conception of man and nature was quintessentially dynamic. Nature is the theater of incessant phenomena of transformation, governed by the same laws to which mankind and all living organisms are subject. His tendency to bring human emotions too within the framework of a strictly naturalistic approach led to the intense physical analysis of the "moti mentali" that inspired his representations of human features in drawings and paintings.
For him, understanding the causes of motion by systematically investigating its manifestations was the only way to discover the rigorous laws that govern nature. This knowledge is indispensable to the painter who strives to imitate its splendid works.
In seeking a unifying principle, Leonardo isolated four basic "powers", to whose action all observable phenomena are subjected: motion, force, weight and percussion.
The concept of the "four powers" falls within the context of Aristotle's theory of the elements (earth, air, fire and water, in addition to quintessence) to which Leonardo adhered, although fascinated by the Platonic concept of equating the forms of the elements with those of the five regular solids.
Augmentation and diminution in the natural "powers" take place in "pyramidal" — that is, strictly proportional — manner. For Leonardo the velocity at which a falling body drops increases in uniform manner, just as that of a weight thrown vertically upward decreases uniformly. In the same way, force augments with velocity and attenuates with distance. And weight and percussion increase in proportion to velocity. The pyramidal law represents for Leonardo a universal constant.
For some years Leonardo believed that the possibility of devising mechanical systems capable of remaining in perpetual motion without the application of energy was a feasible hypothesis.
In a text dating from the end of the 15th century, however, Leonardo notes the impossibility of perpetual motion: "I have found among the other vast credulities of men, the search for continuous motion ..."
Leonardo dedicated remarkable attention to the movements of man, concentrating on “actuating” motions. His comparative studies of the strength of man and of birds, in connection with his ambitious project for human flight, are especially fascinating.
The eye of the natural philosopher, who investigates causes, and that of the artist, intent on recording the variety of attitudes, appear as the expression of the project that guided Leonardo’s mind: unifying scientific knowledge and the artistic representation of nature.
Symmetrical to Leonardo's analysis of the motions of man are his studies on the motions of the natural elements, water and air in particular. In this field of research too, the results of the extraordinary analysis that he undertakes to discover the laws that govern fluid mechanics, become fundamental to his activity as an artist, allowing him to faithfully reproduce the dynamics of the elements that mark the face of nature.
Water held a special fascination for Leonardo. He exerted unprecedented effort to disclosing the laws that govern its motion, also with the aim of realistically portraying its bursting impetus. This is witnessed by Leonardo's extraordinary drawings of watercourses and whirlpools, which are directly dependent on the ingenious experiments he devised for his studies of hydraulics.
Leonardo achieved important results in understanding phenomena such as hydraulic pressure and the behavior of currents as they encounter obstacles.
Leonardo's study of the motion of the air was closely linked to his studies on water. On several occasions he states that an understanding of the movements of swimming fish is essential for grasping the principles of the flight of birds.
In his maturity, Leonardo's investigations were focused on observing the way in which birds exploit winds and air currents. From this research came pioneer knowledge on the operation of winds and currents, on the anatomical conformation of birds, and on the versatility of their adaptation to the forces of air.
Along with studies aimed at exploiting natural energy, Leonardo shows a fascination for the uncontrolled explosions of the elements. Bearing witness to this are a conspicuous number of drawings depicting scenarios of cosmic devastation produced by the combined action of the forces of air and winds, water and fire. The furious action of the elements is however portrayed in a manner perfectly in keeping with Leonardo's conclusions on the modes of diffusion of natural energy.
In the actions of the human body, in the motion of water waves and in other natural phenomena, Leonardo saw a law of harmony at work: each individual movement is combined with all of the others in orderly manner to form a harmonious ensemble. This harmony emerges not only in his works of art but also in his studies of mechanical contrivances. In fact, Leonardo deems harmonic the motions that take place in an orderly kinematic sequence, such as those of automatons.
In Leonardo's view, even the consumption and metamorphosis of natural objects resulting from the action of physical and biological forces over the course of time are forms of movement. The changes that occur in man's body over the span of a lifetime and in the Earth's body over the course of the geological eras, as well as the consumption by friction of parts of machines are the various spheres in which Leonardo investigates this universal law. The incessant transfiguration of man and nature is one of the visions most deeply rooted in the mind of Leonardo.
Even the expression of feelings and emotions is considered by Leonardo to be a kind of motion, which triggers the action of the muscles, the contraction of the lips and eyes, the formation of wrinkles and, more generally, the gestures of communication.
He painted expressions from life and investigates the anatomical and physiognomic bases of character traits and emotional reactions. The Last Supper represents the supreme synthesis of this complex research.
Between the observation from life of emotional expressions and their representation in art, Leonardo inserts research of scientific nature. He studies physiognomy, that is, the relationship between permanent character traits and the appearance of the facial features. In particular, he dedicates himself to the study of the muscles responsible for emotional expressions and their cardiovascular repercussions.
In the Last Supper each of the Apostles reacts to the announcement of Christ's betrayal according to his own individual character. The emotional response of the Apostles is similar (a mixture of amazement, incredulity and fright) but is also different. The orchestration of these individual emotional reactions to form a dramatic image of great unity is the most fascinating aspect of the work.
The Science of Painting For Leonardo painting was supreme among the sciences, since it is based on the mathematical principles of perspective, it recurs to the verification of experience and is nourished by universal knowledge. The fundamental instrument for the painter is the eye, directly connected to the mind, and thus to the soul.
The "science of painting" consists of the process which, through the eyes, passes from nature to the mind and, by means of the hands, from the mind to the painting. Painting is "mental discourse", capable of imitating to perfection all of the natural forms and of endlessly inventing other forms.
Painting extends to the entire range of observable phenomena, which correspond to the "ten offices of the eye: obscurity, light, body, color, figure, site, removal, propinquity, motion and quiet." To explain the anatomical structure of the eye and the mechanism of vision, Leonardo recurs to penetrating observations and ingenious experiments. He adopts as his own the medieval theory according to which the images emitted by objects reach the pupil, producing vision.
In his anatomical studies as well as in his studies of Mechanics, Leonardo developed innovative techniques of representation and graphical procedures. Here drawing becomes a method of analysis and a language able to record the processes and conclusions of experimentation and theoretical reasoning.
The visual demonstration of the machine that the human body appears to be, recurs to the simultaneous delineation of form and function, of surface appearance and underlying structures, of the whole and its parts.
For Leonardo, shadows were a basic component of painting. On them, in fact, depends the effect of relief. He conducts a series of innovative experiments to determine their nature, size, shape and intensity.
Starting from the complex geometries of shadows, Leonardo's research extends to analyzing colors and the phenomena of their reflections. Falling within this sphere of research are his refined considerations on "sfumato".
The characteristic perhaps most greatly admired in Leonardo’s works is the refined sfumato of the flesh tones. Through the technique of sfumato, the transition between light and shadow in the subjects portrayed is realized by exceptionally delicate gradation. Based on the research carried out by Jacques Franck a convincing hypothesis has been formulated, which is compatible with the material evidence of the Mona Lisa as analysed by the Louvre’s laboratory, on the method employed by Leonardo to achieve these effects: the micro-division of tones, a procedure described in detail for the first time here.
In addition to linear perspective, Leonardo introduces two more kinds of perspective: that of colors and of "notizia", or the definition of the contours of bodies. Together, they constitute "aerial" perspective, a phenomenon generated by the air interposed between the eye and the object. The interposition of a greater amount of air (that is, a greater distance) makes objects appear not only smaller but also lighter in color with a bluish tinge, and with more blurred contours.
Leonardo extolled painting as the universal language, claiming for it the status of supreme science, since it, more than any other form of knowledge, approaches nature. The universality of the painter consists of his ability not only to imitate the works of nature, but also to breathe life into the infinite forms that exist only in his imagination.
At the time of the Battle of Anghiari (1504-1508)
While forming part of the exhibition The Mind of Leonardo. The Universal Genius at work, presented contemporaneously in the Uffizi Gallery, this section represents a real "show within a show"; and this above all for the presence of over 30 autograph folios containing Leonardo’s splendid drawings. These priceless documents — many of them never before exhibited in Italy — illustrate Leonardo’s tireless activity in Florence from 1504 to 1506, in the midst of his fervent commitment to the project for the Battle of Anghiari, revealing the unitary vision distinctive of his efforts to master a variety of fields of knowledge, that we perceived today as irremediably separate from one another.
While he was defining the complex conception of the battle and experimenting with new techniques for painting it, Leonardo was also engaged in a series of innovative scientific studies and highly ambitious technical projects, so vast in scope as to make it almost unthinkable that they were conceived by the mind of one man alone: studies on anatomy, on channeling the Arno, on optics, mechanics, geometry, on the flight of birds, and so on. Each of these a highly specialized sphere of research, but all confronted with the synthetic approach distinctive of Leonardo’s mind, tenaciously endeavouring to decipher the few universal principles that govern all the wondrous operations of nature and of man.
In 1503 Leonardo received an important commission from the Florentine Republic, that of decorating a wall in the Sala del Gran Consiglio in Palazzo Vecchio with a representation of the city’s victory over the Milanese army at Anghiari in 1440. The conception of the monumental pictorial decoration, which remained unfinished and was covered over by Vasari’s frescoes in 1563, is here visualized through an exceptional selection of Leonardo’s drawings as well as through copies, including paintings, drawings and sculptures by contemporary or late generation artists.
Leonardo’s preparatory studies document with striking eloquence the extremely innovative conception of the gigantic mural painting, masterfully illustrating the confused fury of the clashing forces and the horses’ pounding hooves amidst the uproar of the battle, "where […] there occur infinite foreshortenings and bendings of those engaging in this discord, […] or it might be said, this most bestial madness" (Book on Painting, § 173).
The myth of Leda, widely known in ancient times, narrating the union of a Greek princess with Jupiter transformed into a swan and the birth of one or two pairs of twins, was handed down over the centuries in literary and artistic tradition.
Representation of the myth in painting and sculpture intensified toward the end of the 15th century and the first decades of the 16th, with the contribution of some of the greatest masters. Among these, Leonardo was the first to use it as an independent subject. Of his project there remain two drawings by his own hand and other more indefinite sketches, while ancient copies (paintings and drawings above all) of very high quality bear witness to the existence of a painting or cartoon that has not come down to us.
Leonardo organized his interpretation of the myth in a clearly defined scheme in which the young woman, entirely nude, appears at the centre; on one side he placed the twins, just emerged from the shell of the egg produced by this unnatural mating, and on the other a gigantic swan- Jupiter. This scheme suggests an alternation between the erotic moment and maternity, assigning to Leda a state of mind fluctuating between tension, uncertainty and tender melancholy.
In the years when he was working on the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo studied the way in which the muscles generate force. He discovered that the heart is a muscle, and that force is thus necessary to maintain life.
Contemporaneously he studied, from the viewpoint of physiognomy, the choleric human temperament, the salient characteristics of which are remarkable strength and a particular constitution of the heart. For Leonardo the hot-tempered man has a leonine appearance. A series of Herculean figures, reminiscent of those in the Battle of Anghiari, represent the artistic side of this research, midway between anatomy and physiognomy. In this way Leonardo elaborated a complex, original response to the stimuli from the cultural climate then prevailing in Florence, where Michelangelo was creating figures of heroic beauty (such as the David), while devoting himself to intense anatomical dissections.
Around 1506, in the Florentine hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Leonardo met a patient over hundred years old, who felt no pain, only extreme weakness. After his death Leonardo performed dissection on the body: "And I conducted anatomy to find the cause of such a gentle death." He thus discovered that the blood vessels in an old man become twisted and occluded, causing death.
While the studies of the Herculean figure concern man at the height of his strength, those focused on the dissection of the hundred-year-old man show above all how, with the passage of time, this force fades away.
Leonardo also utilized the dissection of the old man to fix normal human anatomy, especially that of the cardiovascular system, in images. These drawings served essentially to produce comprehensive images of the body, in which the blood vessels are represented along with other anatomical parts (skeleton, outer contours of the body, etc.). Leonardo considers the isolated representation of an anatomical part to be a temporary stage in creating a complete anatomical image, capable of expressing the harmonious relationship between the various organs in the body.
Leonardo’s studies for a flying machine are based on the imitation of the organic devices created for birds by nature. In the Codex on the Flight of Birds, compiled in Florence in 1505-1506, studies on the manoeuvres of birds in flight alternate with projects for mechanical contrivances that attempt to reproduce those natural operations. Leonardo is convinced that the similarities between human anatomy and that of birds are sufficient to allow man, with the aid of mechanical instruments (of which he analyses the laws in the Codex), to take off and fly. He thus compares men and animals not only as regards physiognomy (as in his studies for Herculean figures) but also in his studies on flight. These researches, strengthening his conviction that it is possible for man to fly, induced Leonardo to perform in these years daring but ill-fated experiments of human flight.
Leonardo’s original five double folios exhibited here belong to the vast core of technical and scientific studies in the Codex Arundel dating from the time of the Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo here analyzes the theory and practice of burning mirrors, for which he foresees promising possibilities of exploitation on the industrial and military level. He also engages in defining projects for straightening the course of the Arno where it passes through Florence and for deviating the river by channeling it toward the plain of Prato and Pistoia, thus making it navigable. Such initiatives would have again generated huge economic benefits. Lastly, Leonardo makes innovative reflections on mechanics and on the flight of birds.
If we add to the themes dealt with in these five double folios the evidence of his contemporary intense application to the study of geometry (the transformation of solids and the squaring of plane figures in particular), to cartographic production, to engineering, to geological studies, and to anatomy, we can fully appreciate the dimension of the horizons of Leonardo’s research between 1503 and 1506, in spite of his demanding commitment to the great pictorial undertaking of the Battle of Anghiari.
Child of the Renaissance L eonardo da Vinci was born on 15 April 15, 1452 in the village of Vinci, just outside Florence, Italy. Dedicating his 20s to learning painting and crafts in Florence, he was then moved to Milan, entering the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, in whose court he later enjoyed a fair amount of success and notoriety.
Vasari mentions in his Lives of the most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (first published in 1550) that the greatness of Leonardo "was seen by all mankind in Leonardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease..."
Besides Vasari's statement and Leonardo's personal notebooks, a wealth of information indicative of his personality still remains. Two contradictory characters emerge from these accounts. One is an outgoing, confident, intellectual, humorous and elegant gentleman, while the other is unconfident, stubborn, and ascetic. Most likely, Leonardo wore both faces. As an illegitimate son, Leonardo, though born into an affluent, prosperous family, was denied the opportunity of a formal education. Obtaining an apprenticeship at 13, he subsequently spent his life immersed in the study of a broad variety of complex and technical subjects. Yet despite his firm grasp of such matters and an apparently genius, he was still seemingly struck by feelings of intellectual inferiority that stemmed from a perceived notion that without such formal schooling. However, as he grew intellectually, he began to show an intense fascination in subjects such as the mechanism of biopoiesis, quite likely provoked by strong longing for the mother from whom he was separated when young. His feelings for her were so powerful and complex that the selection of motif and delineation in his paintings quite evidently suggests a preoccupation with maternity.
Leonardo was to remain single for his entire life; he failed to settle in one place on account of the dangers present in Europe in those politically and socially turbulent times; and was to travel to many countries at the behest of his talent. Living as he did during the Age of Geographical Discovery, he additionally developed a keen interest in the physical earth itself. His talent both benefited from, and blossomed under the Renaissance, an era of significant change and cultural enlightenment throughout society. Truly, he was a child of the age. In his final years, he accepted an invitation from the young king Francis I to enter into his service in France, where he was to spend the remainder of his life, living in Amboise, he died peacefully in 1519.