Inspired History: Leonardo da Vinci

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by William Hansen

One of the more remarkable aspects of our spiritual lives is our capacity to actively participate in the past. When we delve into the personalities of individuals whose accomplishments seem to have changed the course of history and when we look to their lives for inspiration, we are allowing them to take part in the formation of our own identities and that of the time in which we live.

Here at Pure Inspiration, we believe that engaging with inspiring figures from the past is an extraordinarily powerful way for us to acknowledge the fact that greatness can be found anywhere and everywhere, and that any one of us has at any moment the power to change our world. It is with this in mind that we will visit the lives of some of history's most noteworthy visionaries--Leonardo da Vinci, and in future issues, William Blake, Viktor Frank l, Johann Sebastian Bach, Harriet Tubmann, and a number of others. We'll visit them in the spirit of celebrating the ephemeral psychic link that unites us to them across time and that, in turn, creates within us the same propensity for artistic illumination, altruism, and perseverance in the face of any and all adversity.

Nowhere is the innate human capacity for spiritual and intellectual enlightenment more striking than when we look, as a starting point, to the life of Leonardo da Vinci.

A Mind Like A Mirror

The first thing one notices upon looking a little bit closer at the life of Leonardo da Vinci is that he did just about everything. Most of us think of him as being primarily a painter, due in great part perhaps to the seemingly paranormal allure of The Last Supper and, of course, the Mona Lisa. In reality, however, Leonardo only completed a handful of paintings during the course of his life, indeed scant few in comparison to many of his contemporaries. He was known to cause great heartache among his patrons for either refusing to paint for them or simply moving on to something he considered more important though he might be far from completing what he was working on. While many would assume this aversion towards completing tasks might be a result of spreading oneself too thin, to Leonardo it seems there was no division between all of his interests, no lines dividing painting from any of his other pursuits. To him, whatever was powerful enough to hold his attention from one moment to the next was part and parcel of his life's one central objective: to know everything and, in doing so, to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Therefore, while it is true that Leonardo was by no means exclusively a painter, it is still quite clear that painting was what he did best, and that it was the mechanism through which he filtered the unbridled energy he had for his many other intellectual activities. He once wrote that a painter must be "the master of every individual and everything." Thus, in order for painters to appropriately capture the world, they must be intimate with every last minute detail of what they are copying, or, in another sense, of what they are creating. It is with this in mind that one can understand why Leonardo was compelled to study everything from anatomy to architecture, botany, geography, sculpture, engineering, music, astronomy, mathematics, and a host of other fields that at first sight may seem to have little to do with painting but that, to Leonardo, were nothing short of essential.

What's more, it was not enough for Leonardo to simply study these fields, for with every new intellectual discovery there came some kind of practical application. For every one of his fields of interest there are a score of inventions, and just as many ideas that never quite came to life--including, most famously, his sketches of a flying device that resembles a modern-day helicopter.

He believed that all individuals possess their own kind of originality, their own outlet for its expression. Underlying everything da Vinci strove for was the notion that inspiration must always come from nature first, from our own observations. "No one should imitate the manner of another," he says, "for he would then deserve to be called a grandson to nature and not her son. Given the abundance of natural forms, it is important to go straight to nature rather than to the masters who have learned from her." This is not to say that da Vinci did not believe in learning from those around him or from those who came before him, but rather that he believed that all individuals possess their own kind of originality, their own outlet for its expression, and their own tools for discovering the form that each of these might take.

The Last Supper

Consequently, it is almost as if Leonardo is saying to us that we should not look to him for inspiration in the spirit of celebrating him as someone separate from us, or as someone we should try to imitate; rather, we should celebrate him in the spirit of his connection to us through nature and of our own ability to appreciate its beauty. Thus, we are the offspring of the same inspirational source, one that still surrounds us and calls to us for articulation.

Setting the Stage of Renaissance Italy

The juxtaposition of both the momentous historical circumstances and the humble personal beginnings into which he was born in April of 1452 certainly provide us with the clearest representation of just how inspiring da Vinci's life really was. The illegitimate son of a Florentine notary and a peasant girl, his talent, dedication, and even his eccentricity would eventually transform him into one of the most famous artists in all of Europe. As if it were not amazing enough simply to contemplate what it must have been like to share the company of all of the great artists that surrounded Leonardo in Renaissance Italy, or to consider all of the events transpiring at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century in Europe and abroad--to measure against all of this the extent to which da Vinci carried out a central role in so many artistic and technological upheavals provides something of a vantage point from which to assess his otherwise immeasurable greatness.

This was the time of Columbus' journey to the new world; the time of unprecedented political commotion in Italy, which featured, amongst others, the infamously unpredictable de' Medici family. From a purely artistic standpoint, it was the time of Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Perugino, and countless other masters who forever changed the course of art history. From among all of this, right in the heart of arguably the most concentrated period of intellectual and artistic advancement in recorded history, da Vinci rises as a balanced, humanistic, and nonetheless ceaselessly dynamic beacon amidst a storm of change.

As a young man of about fourteen years, Leonardo began an apprenticeship in the artist's workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in 1466. As with any other developing artisan, what da Vinci learned in this workshop would come to define the approach he took towards his work for the remainder of his life. Interestingly, it was customary in the mid- to late-fifteenth century for the individual personality of an artist in one of these shops to hold much less influence than might be assumed nowadays. In other words, as an apprentice, Leonardo would be working for the benefit of the establishment for which he worked, rather than trying to distinguish himself in the public eye. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that even the more advanced artisans of the time commonly worked with any number of other artists on a given project, so that, for example, a sculptor might begin a project and then pass it along to his colleague even in the early stages without having a second thought as to personal authorship. Being that, in addition to artistic endeavors such as sculpting and painting, Verrocchio's workshop dealt with a wide array of architectural and engineering contracts, one can see how da Vinci was exposed quite early on to an incredibly diverse cross section of disciplines.
The Baptism of Christ

This photo shows the two angels that were painted by Leonardo
Though, as mentioned, the singularly celebrated personality was not really a fixture of the community in which da Vinci began his apprenticeship, it was not long before he distinguished himself in a rather palpable manner. When Verrocchio passed along to Leonardo a painting he had almost finished (The Baptism of Christ), making Leonardo responsible for two of the painting's angels, there was no mistaking upon its completion the difference between the work done by each--even within an environment where collaboration was entirely normal. Leonardo's angels outshined everything around them, and Verrocchio was so dumbstruck that he reportedly vowed to never paint again.

Living in Florence after the termination of his apprenticeship, he completed his first independent painting, The Benois Madonna (also known as the Madonna and Child with Flowers ), in 1478. A few years later he moved to Milan to serve under the duke, where he was to spend the next seventeen years in a position of relative freedom--considering the power of his friends and patrons and the proliferation of his reputation. In addition to completing both Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper during his stay in Milan, Leonardo made stunning innovations in other fields through his studies in anatomy, architecture, and engineering--even going so far as to test his flying machine in 1496. When the French invaded Milan in 1499, Leonardo began a sixteen-year-long period of
travel that took him first to Mantua, where he sketched the famous Isabella d'Este, the "First Lady of the Renaissance." Knowing of her reputation for subjugating artists to her will, da Vinci would never agree to paint Isabella's portrait, despite her seemingly desperate pleas and her many efforts to call in favors with Leonardo's closest associates.

The true personality hidden behind that illusive smile will most likely forever remain just out of our grasp.

At some point during this time, around 1503, da Vinci also began work on what was to become the most famous portrait in history--the Mona Lisa. To this day, speculation over the identity of the subject of this portrait continues to fuel one of the more intriguing debates in art history circles. Many contend that da Vinci used himself as the model for the painting, but the true personality hidden behind that illusive smile will most likely forever remain just out of our grasp--as da Vinci surely would have liked it. Regardless of the mysterious subject, what's even more interesting to contemplate is what it was exactly that indicated to Leonardo that this painting was more special and more inspiring than any other he had ever completed. We know he felt this way because for some reason he decided to take it with him to France when he moved there in 1516. Either way, the sfuma-to, or blending effect, used in the painting gives it an unmistakable inner glow, one that da Vinci himself must have known would create the most palpable other-worldly connection between the painting and its audience.

Three years after moving to France, da Vinci passed away in 1519. As is widely conjectured, he died in the arms of Francis I, the King of France.
Mona Lisa

It is hard to imagine anyone having the kind of instinctual trust in one's self so consistently displayed by da Vinci. From a broad standpoint, da Vinci carried into his adult life the liberal approach to art embodied in the cultural norms of his early education--not in the sense that he would always allow any other artists to collaborate with him, but rather in the sense that he would recognize the manner by which everything he learned could be poured right into his paintings, and also in the sense that he could desert any project on which he was working if he was so compelled, regardless of how far along he had progressed towards his goal. In fact, he was infamous both
for the amount of time he would spend conceptualizing a project before beginning it and for the often casual manner with which he would leave that project behind. In one famous story relating to an enormous bronze horse honoring the Sforza family that Leonardo never successfully completed, a group of men were discussing a line from one of Dante's poems when Leonardo happened to walk by. When they asked for his opinion, da Vinci, noticing Michelangelo approaching, told the men to ask his opinion instead. Known for being exceptionally competitive, Michelangelo reportedly insulted Leonardo for being a notorious, shameful quitter. One can only imagine that da Vinci, the pacifistic vegan who used to purchase pet birds in order to set them free and who presumably faced very few challenges to his intellectual superiority, did not take this very well. Serge Bramly notes, as could be expected, that Leonardo was never quite free from the kinds of distressing emotions that accompanied his own whimsical nature, as when he writes to himself, "Tell me if anything has ever been achieved; tell me ... Tell me if I have ever done anything," and so on. Still, da Vinci never failed to stand up for himself in the face of anyone who didn't agree with his practices, even at times having to do so in a court of law. Furthermore, the paintings he was able to complete stand right alongside and often rise above those of his most gifted contemporaries who were perhaps not as inclined to sacrifice their work when compelled to move on to other pursuits.

It is hard to imagine anyone having the kind of instinctual trust in one's self so consistently displayed by da Vinci. "One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself," he once wrote. Though his legacy may be mysterious and, even in its finer moments, difficult to understand, we can assume that Leonardo ultimately believed in the usefulness of his intellectual whimsicality, that he knew it was necessary to trust his inspirations even when they were coming to him from so many different directions. From him we learn that visualizing and then capturing even a hint of what inspires us is often more important than understanding our revelations all the way through to their ends. His life and his collection of both finished and unfinished works testify to the fact that a mind in such close interaction with its inspirations is a mind capable of achieving the greatest spiritual heights, indefinitely dismantling the human perception of what is thought to be possible both within the confines of our minds and through the externalization of the mind's representations.

One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.
The Benois Madonna

The Notebooks

Virgin of the Rocks
Whether or not we can understand why Leonardo had this tendency to leave formal works unfinished, he did provide posterity with a relatively comprehensive record of his creative process. Over the course of most of his adult life, it was Leonardo's habit to keep notebooks in order to document and perhaps systematize the multitude of areas through which his phenomenally busy mind rapidly led him. As a result, he left behind nearly four thousand pages of notes and sketches, all of which now stand as evidence of a mind so passionately in search of knowledge and so bent on observation and creation that it never quite took the time to organize itself, if only for fear of missing out on what it might encounter next. Leonardo's notebooks are, therefore, an exceptional gateway into his mind, though they are also full of mystery and very rarely reveal anything regarding his personal life and feelings.

Interestingly, as the notebooks show, all of Leonardo's writing was done backwards, from right to left. Though it was extremely rare at the time, da Vinci was left-handed, and while many believe that he wrote backwards in order to confound anyone reading his notebooks and to add to his own mysteriousness, in reality he did so in order not to smear his writing as his hand dragged across the page. Nonetheless, this natural tendency to adapt, to adjust with seeming effortlessness, to be able to part with conventions that would otherwise stand in the way of solving a problem--even within the simple act of writing--penetrates every aspect of da Vinci's intellectual life. Also indicative of his mental processes is the fact that on any given page, there may be three or four different subjects being dealt with simultaneously, one leading seamlessly into the other by some flight of the artist's imagination, of which he never seemed hesitant to entertain. As Bramley notes, attempts at indexing the notebooks can contain up to fifty thematic headings.

Among the more remarkable aspects of these pages are Leonardo's notes and sketches on his inventions, which include everything from an olive press to therapeutic furniture, water pumps, lamps, mirrors, various weapons of war--indeed more practical contraptions than can be listed. Inventing seemed to tie da Vinci down, to keep him attached to the real world, immediately providing some kind of concrete result for the time he invested in a certain subject. "Avoid study," he wrote, "it will give rise to a work destined to die with the workman." In other words: be sure to create something that can be used by others in the future; an intellect, in his view, means little if it does not produce something practical, or, we might assume, something beautiful.

Accordingly, the "encyclopedia" he was able to create serves as a profound illustration of what the human mind is capable of producing when it takes elements from a variety of otherwise disparate branches of learning and sublimates them in such a way that their underlying symbiosis is revealed. Without implying that any one of us is capable of mastering every area of interest with which we come in contact, as da Vinci was consistently capable of doing in almost no time at all, from his example we can see the great functionality of narrowing down our interests to their strongest point and then allowing all other aspects of our lives to filter through that one lens. Situated at the very center of da Vinci's approach to his art was this intrinsic need to painstakingly study every last aspect of each and every detail that entered into a composition, so that when the creative process began, he was that much more able to narrow the gap between what was in his mind and what would eventually come to life upon the canvas. Thus, what may seem to be a relatively small number of completed paintings are complimented not only by the power of those that were completed, but also by the access provided to us via these notebooks of how the artist approached his subjects--namely, with a proclivity for observation and visualization so profound that it stripped away the boundaries between objects and revealed to him the inner connectedness of man with nature.

Vitruvian Man
Nature's Divinity

While many have speculated as to the true nature of da Vinci's spirituality, no one can disagree that the artist's perception of the role he was meant to play within his own world as well as within ours defined itself most clearly through his ability to dissolve the line that separates man from God and from nature--the same line that separates reality from representation, the everyday mind from the enlightened mind, and his very life from our own.

The famous illustration of the Vitruvian Man represents da Vinci's truest commemoration of his belief in the perfection of the human form, as it is a manifestation of the perfection of God and nature. From the symmetry and proportionality he observed in the human body, Leonardo extrapolated an interconnected philosophy of life and of the universe. In his words, "Man is the model of the world." While it is obvious to us today that there is in fact no universal set of physical proportions that govern the design of the human body, it is telling that we still struggle to see how this idea functions on a metaphoric level--in other words, how the idea of the universal human body represents the unification of all humans across all times and across all cultures. If it is anything, Leonardo's legacy and the inspiration it relays to us is precisely that unification.

Leonardo da Vinci Quotes

"Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art."

"I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death."

"It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things."

"Learning never exhausts the mind."

"The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves."

"Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve."

"Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind."