Leonardo: Renaissance polymath
Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452, at Vinci, Republic of Florence d. May 2, 1519, Cloux, Fr.), was perhaps one of the world's greatest. He was an accomplished painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper _(1495-97) and _Mona Lisa (1503–06) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. But it is his notebooks that reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time, and which continue to fascinate.
There has never been an artist (in the widest sense of the word) who was more fittingly, and without qualification, described as a genius. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo came from an insignificant background and rose to universal acclaim and it was this background that influenced his later development and industry.
Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a local lawyer in the small town of Vinci in the Tuscan region. His father acknowledged his artistic talents and paid for his training, but we may speculate that the strangely self-sufficient tone of Leonardo's mind was not perhaps affected by his early ambiguity of status. He seemed to acquire the industry of the lawyer, but the free thinking and expression of the artist, and this combination appears to have produced an explosion of interests and talents.
The definitive polymath, he had almost too many gifts, including superlative male beauty, a splendid singing voice, magnificent physique, mathematical excellence, scientific daring… the list is apparently endless. This overabundance of talents caused him to treat his artistry lightly, seldom finishing a picture, and sometimes making rash technical experiments. The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, for example, has almost vanished, so inadequate were his innovations in fresco preparation. But it seems unfair to criticise his innovations.
As far as his qualities are concerned, he had a keen eye and quick mind that led him to make important scientific discoveries, yet he never published his ideas beyond his journals and manuscripts.
He was a gentle vegetarian who loved animals and despised war, yet he worked as a military engineer to invent advanced and deadly weapons, mainly through the need to work. These duties took him away from other experiments that he preferred to work on, especially flight and those areas connected with the heavens.
He was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance, yet he left only a handful of completed paintings. In many ways his 'cartoons' (sketches) seem more worthy of their experimentation and observation (they are a testament to enquiry) than to their final execution. His technical expertise has been overshadowed by self-advertising, but bruilliant men like Michelangelo.
But it is the notebooks, above all, which fascinate me. Here, Leonardo poured out his ideas and desiogns. He wrote and revisted, reworked and reformulated. He returned to his observations better informed by these notes and produced some inventions that were so ahead of their time.
It is the epitome of Personal Development Planning – bringing together observation/experience – reflective thought – recording – reviewing – revisiting – reformulating – planning and execution
MacCurdy, Edward, translator & editor, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Volumes I and II, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1958.
An out-of-print English translation of some of the notebooks of Leonardo, including some high quality reprints of his illustrations. Selections are organized according to topic.
Richter, Jean Paul, editor, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970.
This is a two-volume translation of some of Leonardo's notebooks. While the content of this translation overlaps somewhat with the MacCurdy volumes, the arrangement and a substantial portion of the text are different. This edition provides Italian transcripts adjacent to the English translations, as well as numerous reprinted drawings and sketches from Leonardo's notebooks. These illustrations are free of copyrighted restrictions.