Leonardo da Vinci

12 Aug

I           The Polymath

On 2 May 1519, a little over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest polymaths that ever lived, died (possibly) of a stroke, according to Francis I of France, who was a close friend.  He was 67 years old.   The sixteenth century biographer of Renaissance artists, Vasari, said Leonardo was filled with repentance in his death throes, saying that he “had offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done”.  He sent for a priest to confess and receive the Holy Sacrament.

A score of years later, Francis I was reported by the sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini as saying: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a great philosopher.

It is salutary to reflect on the life of this great man five centuries later at a time when we encourage our children to specialise.  The argument advanced is that specialisation assists them in building focused careers.  They will thrive (at least as long as there is a demand for that specialism), if not flourish.  However, the clarion call to do so leads them to learn more and more about less and less so that they end up knowing everything about nothing.  This is not to say they become generalists – learning less and less about more than more – because then they will end up knowing nothing about everything.

The point is that education should be about encouraging young people to follow their interests, grow in the directions which help them lead whole and fulfilled lives and develop a sense of balance.   The more talented ones could strive to emulate Leonardo da Vinci.

II          What do we know about Leonardo da Vinci?

In mid-April 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born “out of wedlock” in Vinci, a town in the Tuscan hills within the territory of Florence, which was ruled by the Medicis, the banking and political dynasty.  His father was Piero Fruosina di Antonio da Vinci and mother, Caterina di Meo Lippi, a peasant.  His father was prolific in more ways than one.  He was priapic, for instance. Leonardo ended up having three step mothers and 12 step siblings, the last having been born when Leonardo was 40 years old.   Leonardo received an informal education during which time he studied Latin, geometry and mathematics.

When he was 14 years old, he was a studio boy in the workshop of Verrocchio, a painter, sculptor and goldsmith. At the age of 17, he became an apprentice and trained for seven years under Verrocchio.  During that time, he developed a wide range of technical skills in drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, woodwork, drawing, painting, sculpting and modelling.   You name it, Leonardo da Vinci did it.

Vasari recounted an apocryphal story of the time when he collaborated with his teacher, Verrocchio on a painting, The Baptism of Christ (the depiction of a young angel holding Jesus’s robe).  He was so much better than his teacher that Verrocchio put down his brush and did not paint again!

In Leonardo’s lifetime, it was very difficult for artists to survive leave alone flourish.  However, because he was multi-talented and hardworking, he was able to secure one patron after another.  In between, he painted for monks.  One masterpiece, The Last Supper, was done for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

On top of his amazing artistic talents that saw the creation of The Mona Lisa (in addition to The Last Supper), Leonardo devised a method for defending the city of Venice from a naval attack during the Second Italian War. Working for Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI (in those times, while Popes took the vow of celibacy, they brushed the commitment aside when they felt the urge to do so) as a military architect, he created a map of Borgia’s stronghold, i.e. a town plan of Imola. So impressed was his patron that he hired Leonardo as his chief military engineer and architect.   He then produced another map for Borgia of Chiana Valley in Tuscany together with constructing a dam from the sea to Florence the city to create a regular supply of water (through canals) throughout the year.

When Francis I of France recaptured Milan, he commissioned Leonardo to draw up plans to create an immense castle town.

Leonardo, who had a troubled birth, lived in troubled times.   To ensure that he was successful he had to keep reinventing himself, holding down one commission after another.   Even when at the age of 65 he became paralysed in his right arm (he died two years later of a stroke) he was working and enjoying what he did.

III        The lessons learnt from Leonardo’s life

There are lessons that we and young people can take away from Leonardo da Vinci’s life.

First, it is not where and in what circumstances you start but where you finish.   Being born out of wedlock was not a salutary beginning.  Just consider the word that described such a person in those times, an expletive today.

Second, Leonardo led a tempestuous life but dealt with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes with equanimity.  He turned the denominator of adversity into the numerator of repeated triumphs as evinced in the legacy of his paintings, sculptures, maps and engineering works.

Third, he did not grumble at the darkness when confronted by it, but time and again, lit candles that dispelled it.   And all these features helped him to become a giant of his time and an exemplar to us all.   His life was outstanding – a beacon for us and the pupils in our care.

Fourth, he dug deep into every specialised discipline he could find, often in multiple disciplines all at once.    He was curious and keen to know about the mysteries of the milieu in which he was born and lived.  He left notebooks which were analysed in the 19th century. They revealed that he was an anatomist, architect, artist, botanist, designer, engineer, geologist, musician and scientist.  He made many discoveries which were not understood leave alone appreciated by his contemporaries. For instance, he was the first person to design a helicopter.

He was constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge and did not accept conventional beliefs.   A constant dreamer, he frequently gave shape to his dreams and converted them into realities.

Finally, as a polymath, he built connections between the various disciplines in which he excelled.   As an artist, he understood the structure of the human body, so painting became a science.   He was as proficient in wielding a scalpel as a brush or pencil.   He made the concrete abstract and the abstract concrete.  He coalesced art with science.   Simultaneously, he engaged constantly in divergent thinking and seldom accepted that things should be as they were.  He questioned everything and refused to run with the consensus.  According to Ian Warwick, writing in The Times Educational Supplement, Leonardo “looked at his world with what Zen Buddhists would call a beginner’s mind, predicated on a commitment to question what we think we know and believe”.  This attitude helped him create new horizons.

The last word in the last notebook he wrote was “etcetera”, symptomatic of his approach to life, which was that learning does not stop, even when life does.   There is always more to learn, more to question, more to which one could aspire, because that is what life should be about – making things better for those who inhabit this world and those who follow in the years and centuries to come.

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