Ask any given person who the most famous artist during the Renaissance was and the result would be nearly unanimous in the answer of “Leonardo Da Vinci”. But why is that? Yes, there is the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper to his name, but his legacy has extended beyond the world of paint and into other modern popular realms: of best-selling books (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown) and even world renowned video games (Assassin’s Creed II). For each reproduction of his character, the modern world seems to want more of Leonardo.
His ability to wield a paintbrush is undeniable, but other artists from this time could arguably be his equal, or perhaps even better in skill; so the question remains: why is it that these artists are not regenerated in such a way for each new generation to enjoy? Our interest in Leonardo stems from the wide range of his talents; while his art is known around the globe, his notebooks and inventions are possibly just as famous.
In fact, with the most recent explorations of Leonardo’s history, it is the scientific mind that is more subject to dissection.
Nearly five hundred years later and it seems that the fascination with the man’s complex brain has remained the same in the minds of the public. Simply put, Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius extending eras, trends, and cultural change; people were amazed by his ability during his time and people continue to flock to see his work from all over the world today. There is more to his art than just symbolism and color which attracts viewers, and I believe that his knowledge that extends into the math and scientific world heavily contributes to this.
Da Vinci was indeed an excellent painter, but it was his use of science which made his art untouchable in quality by attempts from his peers. By obtaining an interest in the understanding of proportions early on in his adult life, Leonardo, and subsequently his art, was able to mature in a radical way quickly. Since he was raised away from home for a majority of his life, Leonardo was forced to teach himself how to paint during his childhood, rather than under the eye of a master or a father of the same trade until he was much older.
This self-motivated need to learn more had never left him, and it is unsurprising that he decided to take up the study of anatomy in the late 1480s; an obsession that follows him throughout his entire life, an aspect of Leonardo’s interest which I will address later. A wonderful example of the artist’s attention to proportion is his Vitruvian Man (c. 1487) which follows Vitruvius’ human sizing references down to every last word. Leonardo’s interpretation of the famous text of De Architectura in visual form is the most accurate of any artist’s rendition of this time and far and beyond the most well-known for this reason.
Leonardo quotes Vitruvius and adds his own comments in his notes, making sure that he is accurate on all accounts during his study of man. The continuation of his study of human forms extended all through his lifetime; and later in his life Leonardo was able to study the body on a much more personal level. Leonardo always took an interest in the workings of the human body, and used his knowledge to his advantage in order to fascinate the people who would see his work. Within his dozens of notebooks, numerous pages are dedicated to the study of the human figure.
As a younger man, Leonardo was able to take his basic understanding of people and ability to observe in order to create his work. But as he grew older, the artist became more intrigued with being able to comprehend the human body as an organic machine, rather than just a subject to paint. As his projects increased, so did his need to learn. At one point, Leonardo had listed 116 books of interest dedicated toward surgery, anatomy, and medical studies of humans. Unsatisfied by learning through text alone, he then took to studying humans into his own hands, literally.
At this point, he began to partake in dissections of humans and observed the human in its barest form first person. Not only did Leonardo try to understand how organs and muscles worked, the man also learned the correct terms for these human innards and their uses as well, as clarified in his detailed notes about the dissections that he was present for. Where most artist of this time drew what they believed to be true (and sometimes falling victim to adding things to the body which do not truly exist), Leonardo was determined to create his work to be as true to the subject which he was observing as possible.
There are endless notes about each body part at multiple stages of deconstruction: calves, feet, shoulders, the back, the face, and genitals. He even makes a point to figure out how fetuses are formed and to learn how copulation works in an anatomical sense. There were no bounds for Leonardo’s curiosity, and because of this, no limit on how developed he could make his art. One aspect of the human body that managed to stump even Leonardo’s great mind, was the way in which human eyes work, though he was determined to understand why.
The Italians were known for their use of one point perspective during the Renaissance time period. It created consistency and normality within the art, and the public was amazed by its accuracy. But Leonardo was not fully convinced by this technique: “It is impossible for a painting, even though executed with the greatest perfection of outline, shadow, light, and color, to seem in the same relief as the natural model, unless that natural model is looked at from a great distance with one eye. ” The problem of monocular viewing, Leonardo argues, is that it is not in accordance to how humans actually see an object.
He rationalizes that each eye produces the image of the object viewed in a different location, which produces depth; though the problem with this phenomenon is that it is not producible through paint. There is only one canvas for which the viewer to see, but they are looking at an image through two eyes. Being able to get around this drawback of paint frustrated the man to no end. Ultimately, he knew that there was no way around the fact that a painting could never be an exact copy of what the eyes can see, but he never stopped trying to fake it as best he could.
The device he came up with was brilliant, and simple: to blur the objects in the background in order to give a lifelike focus on the object which he wanted the viewer to look at. This had never been done before, as there was emphasis on making sure every nuance of detail was correct. Leonardo understood that by looking at each object in his field of view separately created a fake observation, since when he was actually focused on one subject, his eyes could not focus on the area around them.
With the desire to understand proportion, there was a curiosity for geometry, and by learning the methods behind this math form, Leonardo’s work benefitted greatly. By collaborating on De divina proportione with mathematician Fra Luca Pacioli when he was younger, we are able to infer that Leonardo held an interest in furthering his knowledge of math for his personal benefit. As a teacher and a friend to Leonardo, Pacioli helped refine the young artist’s understanding of geometry. He would describe shapes and volumetric shapes to
Leonardo, hoping that image representations of his ideas would help explain the concept that he was trying to get across to the people whom would read his book. Some examples of Pacioli’s shapes illustrated by Leonardo include “The Regular Solids”. The book is filled with carefully rendered drawings such as these, giving the reader a very reasonable chance to understand the idea Pacioli is giving. The fact that Da Vinci wished to complete this large series of pictures is helpful insight to the artist’s interests as well; Leonardo is known for completing very few of his works, as he started many projects and gave up on them midway through.
But each of his shapes in De divina proportione are considered carefully and drawn with equal care, so it leads us to believe that Leonardo took great intrigue in the subject matter that he was supposed to draw. From this push from Pacioli, Leonardo was able to merge his artistic ability and his newfound mathematic knowledge into a cohesive partnership. Pacioli’s “golden ratio” is a method in which Leonardo relied upon to help the outcome of his work for all his life following this collaboration.
What the artist was interested in was the method of blocked proportions: the largest section of the piece divided by the smaller section is the same size as the whole divided by the largest section, and so on until the measurements of the object are infinitely looping into smaller mathematically correct shapes. Through art, Leonardo was able to put to use the basis of nature’s math: the Fibonacci code. The golden or “divine” ratio derives its name from its similarities to god, being that it is one of a kind, a trinity proportion, is indescribable in rational terms, and always similar to its own self.
When these proportions are used in visible terms, it creates a pleasing visual that is not obvious or complex, rather, it produces a thoughtful composition which is able to capture the viewer attention. The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, I argue, are his most well-known and critically acclaimed pieces due to the fact that he uses the golden proportion to perfection, thus creating a very pleasing composition for the viewer without them even understanding why the image works. The Last Supper (c. 498), painted on a wall at Santa Maria delle Grazie, uses the divine ratio in the composition as a whole, where the subjects and the architecture surround Christ in such a way that it makes the alignment seem simply correct. The eye is drawn through the image but will always end up on Christ’s figure; not because he is the most recognizable or in the middle, but because the Fibonacci sequence directs our eye there. The Mona Lisa (c. 1507) uses the golden ratio as well, but within the measurements of her face.
Her smile and subtle gaze is said to be mysterious and captivating, but she is just like any other woman of this time who was featured in a painting, so what is it that makes her so special? Leonardo was actually able to implement the divine proportions within her face, as the size of her face is relative to the position of her chin to the size of her nose and the position of her eye and so on. The Mona Lisa is beautiful because she is mathematically perfect. Leonardo’s understanding of proportions gained him praise, but it was not this talent alone that the man knew would please his audience.
This man was able to come to conclusions in science that no artists were able to even touch upon; and for that, Leonardo embodied the talent that they all wished they could be. In conclusion, as Leonardo’s scientific studies became more in depth, his art benefitted from his observations. Most of his famous pieces came at the peak of his studies and show the best representations of his use of science in art. It is the great process that this man goes through, in order to come to terms with things that he does not fully comprehend, which makes him a greater artist than any of the others at his time and extending throughout all time.
An artist is not just someone who can pick up a paintbrush and portray what they see in a believable way, but someone who is intrigued and inspired by the world around them, to learn and to record what they have learned, in order to benefit the world with their findings. Leonardo da Vinci may have drawn, but he drew with science, and for that, he is the most well-known Renaissance artist. Works Cited Anna Suh, edit. , Leonardo’s Notebook (New York: The Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers,2005).
Finished work can only show so much of how an artist works, especially when most work that is seen by the public was commissioned for very specific purposes. Leonardo actually did not have that many finished pieces in all to look at. Luckily, he has a vast collection of sketches and written ideas which give people today an idea of how Leonardo actually thought, rather than a vague speculation from his most famous artwork. An in-depth analysis of his sketches is vital to see the math genius behind the curtain of a master artist. Carlo Pedretti, edit. , Leonardo da Vinci, The European Genius, (Cartei & Bianchi Edizioni:2007).
This potentially gives me the exact background that I have been looking for- where does the inspiration for Leonardo come from? What makes his upbringing different than other artists of his time? There will be parallels but there will be differences as well. Hopefully the differences will be significant enough to show why his art and way of thinking is unique. Eugene Muntz, Leonardo Da Vinci: Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science (Hoo: Grange, 2006). When Leonardo Da Vinci is mentioned, most would think straight to the artwork that he created, such as the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper.
But he was much more than just that, just as this book suggests. This looks critically at the well-known and lesser known strong points of Leonardo’s mind. James S. Ackerman, “Leonardo da Vinci: Art in Science,” Daedalus , Vol. 127, No. 1, Science inCulture (Winter, 1998), 207-224. The combination of art and science is what separates Leonardo from his peers. What exactly is the science within his art? I have never before been exposed to such deliberate planning and attention to layout as with I have with Leonardo. Composition is his specialty, and while it is accomplishable without science and math, he was able to perfect it.
Nicholas Wade, Hiroshi Ono, and Linda Lillakas, “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Struggles with Representations of Reality,” Leonardo 34. 3 (2001): 231-235, accessed May 17, 2012,http://0-www. jstor. org. librarycat. risd. edu/stable/1576941. No single artist has an ability to understand everything that they wish to represent, even Leonardo. His studies show persistence to change his confusion, but his documented struggles help us understand the intimates of the man, rather than what the finished art perceives him to be. “Polyhedra & Plagiarism in the Renaissance,” last modified 1998,http://www. artmouth. edu/~matc/math5. geometry/unit13/unit13. html. When researching, I found that I needed more basic knowledge of the math aspect of Leonardo’s studies rather than just what the books on the artist were giving me. They kept on mentioning his use of the “golden ratio” but I was never really sure what this specific proportion actually was. This website helped to clear up that confusion as well as give me information on Pacioli and his studies. Sven Dupre, “Optics, Pictures and Evidence: Leonardo’s Drawings of Mirrors andMachinery,” Early Science and Medicine 10. (2005): 211-236, date accessed: May 10,2012, http://0-www. jstor. org. librarycat. risd. edu/stable/4130311. Some of the lesser known ideas that Leonardo had were the thoughts revolving around machinery and innovations. He was as much an industrial designer as he was a master painter, even though his blueprints were usually not released for the public’s pleasure. Of course some of his inventions were sold for the benefit of others, but much of what Leonardo created was purely for his own curiosity. He had a thirst to know how things worked, and his own studies show his need to solve his questions.
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