Da Vinci, Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519
Italian essayist, treatise writer, fabulist, scientist, engineer, and artist.
The following entry presents criticism of Da Vinci's writings on philosophy and the arts.
Often described as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leonardo was the painter of such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. In addition to possessing great artistic talent, Leonardo excelled as a scientist, experimented with philosophy, and wrote extensively on the myriad subjects he investigated. His writings, sketches, and diagrams, originally written as private journals and notes, were compiled after his death into the Notebooks. These works have been analyzed and discussed on the merits of their form, style and content, and in much the same way Leonardo's life has been the subject of close scrutiny by art and literary critics, historians, and psychoanalysts.
Born in the northern Italian village of Vinci in 1452, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a prosperous Florentine notary and a peasant woman. It is believed that he spent the first years of his life with his mother and was then raised by his father. Leonardo's education, which took place in his father's home, included instruction in music and art. Around 1467 he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, a prominent Florentine painter, sculptor, and goldsmith. In 1472, after being tutored by Verrocchio in painting and sculpture, Leonardo was inducted into the Florentine guild of painters. In the years that followed he became one of the most sought-after artists in Florence. Interested in science and mechanics as well as painting, Leonardo became a civil and military engineer for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in the early 1480s. He spent nearly twenty years in Milan, working on a variety of architectural and military projects, and keeping notebooks of his studies. Not only did he paint the masterpieces Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper during these years, he also completed a significant portion of a treatise on painting and prepared the foundation for proposed texts on anatomy, architecture, and mechanics. After Milan fell to French forces in 1499, Leonardo returned to Florence, serving as Cesare Borgia's chief architect and engineer from 1502 to 1503. Three years later he returned to Milan, where he was offered a prominent position in the court of French governor Charles d''Amboise. In 1517 the French king, Francis I, invited Leonardo to join his court at Amboise, his summer residence. Leonardo lived in a home provided for him near Amboise until his death in 1519.
Leonardo's artistic and scientific studies were guided by his conviction that vision is the “noblest” of all the senses. Knowledge, he believed, is gained through observation, and his art and science were based on his acute observations of nature. Containing preliminary notes and outlines for treatises on art, architecture, engineering, and several branches of science, the Notebooks began as the unorganized journals he left to his pupil Francesco Melzi. In addition to his notes, observations, and treatises on art and science, Leonardo's Notebooks also reveal his fascination with allegory; he borrowed from Pliny and Aesop to compose fables and a bestiary. Melzi's organization of the manuscripts resulted in the eventual publication of Trattato della pittura (Treatise of Painting) in 1652. Melzi's heirs allowed the journals to be separated, sold, and discarded, a state of affairs that has presented a number of difficulties for scholars and researchers. In addition, Leonardo's unique orthographic style has also posed problems. He wrote in a mirror script, from right to left, and his handwriting remained essentially unchanged throughout his lifetime, making the establishment of a chronology of his works by means of handwriting analysis impossible.
Despite the fact that Leonardo did not present his philosophical thoughts and views in an organized manner, but rather dispersed them throughout the Notebooks, critics have attempted to discern whether or not a guiding philosophy or a philosophical “system” can be found in Leonardo's work. Paul Valéry, attempting to explain why Leonardo is not often viewed as a philosopher, emphasizes that the quantity of notes and observations Leonardo left, as well as the disorganized manner in which he left them, call into question the nature of Leonardo's philosophical thinking. George Kimball Plochmann, however, maintains that Leonardo assuredly developed a philosophical system, one that is implicit throughout his writings. Its primary concerns are the concepts of existence and the nature of knowledge. This system, Plochmann concedes, is weakened by Leonardo's failure to make explicit the connection between his philosophical principles and the particular subject he was addressing at the moment. In his analysis of Leonardo's philosophy, Karl Jaspers also discusses Leonardo's views on knowledge and perception. Jaspers emphasizes that for Leonardo knowledge and one's understanding of nature is directly linked with vision and the supposed supremacy of vision over the other senses. D. van Maelsaeke, for his part, detects several similarities between Leonardo's natural philosophy and that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including a shared belief in the experimental method and in nature as a force with both creative and destructive qualities.
While Leonardo's writings concerning philosophy are scattered throughout the Notebooks, his views on the role and nature of painting were written in complete enough form to be compiled as the Trattato della Pittura (1651) or Treatise of Painting (also referred to as Treatise on Painting). Ludwig H. Heydenreich provides a detailed historical analysis of the Codex Urbinas, which contains the Trattato della Pittura. Maintaining that the Codex Urbinas served as the archetype for other versions of the Trattato, Heydenreich asserts that Leonardo's student Francesco Melzi compiled the manuscript around 1550 from his master's original writings. Heydenreich goes on to discuss the content of the treatise, noting that it covers such topics as perspective; light and shade; color theory; practical applications of drawing and color; and the proportions, anatomy, and movement of the human form. Emmanuel Winternitz, analyzing the Paragone, a section of the Trattato that compares painting to other forms of art, contends that although Leonardo praises painting as the highest form of art—superior to poetry, music, and sculpting—upon closer examination of his arguments, music is demonstrated to be an art form just as noble as painting. Other critics have also explored Leonardo's contention that painting is the highest art and vision the “noblest” sense. Claire J. Farago states that Leonardo's defense of painting's superiority is rooted in his belief that painting is a science based on perspective, and that painting relies on the skill of the artist to truthfully depict the forms of nature. The visual images of a painting, Farago explains, are, in Leonardo's estimation, superior to music and to the verbal images of poetry because they can be received as a whole. In his comparison of the role of vision as a tool of knowledge in Leonardo's and in Shakespeare's work, Richard Fly illustrates that Leonardo's valorizing of painting at the expense of poetry is based on a pair of factors: that the vocabulary of poetry is finite, and this limits its powers of representation; and that the “insubstantiality” of the language of poetry reduces the sensual impact poetry has upon its reader. For Leonardo, Fly concludes, the main function of the eye is the objective, scientific scrutiny of nature.
Offering general appraisals of Leonardo as writer, Augusto Marinoni and Robert J. Rodini both discuss the style of Leonardo's works. After summarizing the history of Leonardo's reputation as a writer, Marinoni discusses the literary value of several of Leonardo's manuscripts. The critic notes that Codex B and Codex Trivulziano lack any certain style or literary value, but he concedes that the works were written for utilitarian rather than literary purposes. In conclusion Marinoni maintains that as Leonardo did not “submit himself to a complete literary discipline,” his writings lack “orderly expression.” In Rodini's examination of Leonardo as both a “writer and humanist,” the critic discerns an intense interest in “the potential and the limitations of language.” Rodini finds that Leonardo's writing style reveals his “anxiety” concerning the inadequacy of language to convey his thoughts, and suggests that Leonardo's experience of feeling “marvel, dismay, and inadequacy” in response to language parallels his reaction to “the drama of universal flux” and to the phenomenon of “death and renewal.”
Trattato della pittura de Lionardo da Vinci nuoamente dato in luce, con la vita dell' istessoautore [A Treatise of Painting,1721] (treatise) 1651
Tabula anatomica Leonardi da Vinci … e bibliotheca … Magnae Britanniae Hannoveracque Regis depromata, venerem obversam e legibus naturae hominibus solam convenie,ostendens [Treatise on Anatomy] (treatise) 1830
*Les manuscrits de Léonardo de Vinci … Fac-similés … avec transcription littérale, traduction française, præface et table methodique [Notebooks of Leonardo in the Library of the Institut de France] 6 vols. (notebooks) 1881-1891
The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. (treatises and notebooks) 1883; revised and enlarged, 1939
Il Codice de Leonardo da Vinci nella biblioteca del principe Trivulzio in Milano [Codex Trivulzio] (notebooks) 1891
†Il Codice Atlantico di Leonardo da Vinci nella biblioteca Ambrosiana di Milano [Codex Atlanticus] (notebooks) 1894-1904
* This publication contains facsimiles of the manuscripts housed in the Institut de France.
†The Codice Atlantico contains Leonardo's writings from approximately 1483 to 1518. It comprises 1222 pages and almost 400 designs and is considered the most important single manuscript in the Notebooks.
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SOURCE: “Leonardo and the Philosophers,” in Leonardo da Vinci: Aspects of the Renaissance Genius, edited by Morris Philipson, George Braziller, 1966, pp. 350-71.
[The following essay was first published in French as the preface to Leo Ferrero's 1929 work, Léonard de Vinci, and reprinted in slightly revised form in Valéry's Variété III (1936).The translation by Malcolm Cowley originally appeared in volume 8 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by Jackson Mathews (1956-75). In this essay Valéry seeks to determine why Leonardo is not often recognized as a philosopher, despite his penetrating intellect. He proposes that it is because Leonardo“does not separate understanding from creating. He does not like to distinguish theory from practice, or speculative thought from an increase in external power.”]
This essay was written to serve as preface to a first book by Leo Ferrero, and I cannot let it be reprinted here without saying, to those who never knew the young writer, how much the loss of his person meant to Letters.1
Invoking Leonardo da Vinci almost at the beginning of your career, you have placed beneath his name a treatise and meditation on pure aesthetics. Many philosophies have finished or even perished in that field of speculation. Nothing could be nobler than your undertaking, or more venturesome.
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SOURCE: “Leonardo da Vinci as Philosopher,” in The Resources of Leonardo da Vinci: Papers Delivered at Southern Illinois University, November 12th-15th, 1952, edited by George Kimball Plochmann, Carbondale, 1953, pp. 28-39.
[In the following essay, Plochmann asserts that, despite the fragmented nature of Leonardo's writings, his work was informed by a philosophical system. The critic concedes, however, that Leonardo failed to provide connections between his distinct areas of study, and that his philosophy lacked a “single guiding principle.”]
Just as men who see the tattered remains of The Last Supper feel certain that behind its hopeless flakes was once a dominant form, so may readers of the Notebooks be sure that looming over the miscellany is an integral system of ideas in which part with part make a catena, and in which every part is an intimate subdivision of an articulated whole. The philosophical interpretation of Leonardo should exhibit his work as a limning, at least, of a set of self-expanding coherent ideas which intend the real world.
An interpreter is unlikely to be more than partly wrong about Leonardo's crisp sentences, and almost never can he be wholly and comprehensively right, because the original is so spotty. This sketchiness applies chiefly to the middle range of magnitude, however: of the system as a whole, I do not believe Leonardo was in...
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SOURCE: “Leonardo as Philosopher,” in Three Essays: Leonardo, Descartes, Max Weber, translated by Ralph Manheim, Harcourt Brace & World, 1964, pp. 3-58.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in German in 1953, Jaspers provides “an account of Leonardo's philosophizing, describing first the character of his thinking, then its content, and its reflection in the painter's way of life.”]
Leonardo has left us a few marvelous paintings in a poor state of preservation, notably the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, a self-portrait whose authenticity is doubted, but which all who have seen it remember as the face of one of the world's unique great men, and thousands of pages of notes and sketches. In addition we have the reports of contemporaries and his influence on other painters, who echoed his ideas in their works. The barest glimpse of Leonardo can still be gained from the ruins and fragments of his painting, from his daily notes, and from his influence on others.
Leonardo is famous as the universal genius who could do everything, as the artist who inaugurated the classical art of Italy, but whose tragedy it was that he failed to complete many of his great projects. Since Vasari it has been generally held that he squandered his talents and is consequently inferior to Raphael and Michelangelo, who...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Treatise on Painting [Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270], Volume I: Translation, by Leonardo da Vinci, translated and annotated by A. Philip McMahon, Princeton University Press, 1956, pp. xi-xliii.
[In the following essay, Heydenreich reviews the content, construction, and textual history of the Treatise on Painting. He also assesses the significance of the treatise, discussing its influence on other painters.]
THE CODEX URBINAS LATINUS 1270 AND ITS COPIES
The Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library, which contains the earliest known compilation of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, stems from the collection of the Dukes of Urbino.1 This famous library, founded by Federigo da Montefeltro in 1472, was left to the Roman Curia in 1626 along with the rest of the ducal domain, upon the death of the last of the line, Francesco Maria della Rovere. Unknown, or at least ignored, the volume remained in the Papal library until Guglielmo Manzi brought it to light again in 1817, and published it for the first time.2
How and when the Codex came to Urbino remains a mystery, as, for that matter, does the rest of its history. Nevertheless it is possible to establish upon the basis of textual and stylistic clues that it was written about 1550 under the supervision of Francesco Melzi, Leonardo's friend...
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SOURCE: “Leonardo as a Writer,” in Leonardo's Legacy: An International Symposium, edited by C. D. O'Malley, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 57-66.
[In the essay that follows, Marinoni traces the critical opinion of Leonardo's literary work from the disdain it garnered from early scholars to the “mythological” image of Leonardo established by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics.]
The fame of Leonardo as a writer—if we can speak of real fame—remained for some centuries limited to the Treatise on Painting, which was in great demand and deeply appreciated by the artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A medal struck about the middle of the eighteenth century can be considered a symbol and synthesis of this fame; it bears Leonardo's head on the obverse and a crown, a pen, and the words scribit quam suscitat artem on the reverse. This means that Leonardo was considered as great a writer and theorist on art as he was an artist. Yet when real men of letters, not artists, set about examining Leonardo's original writings with the intention of publishing them, their disappointment was keen. At first Ludovico Antonio Muratori and Antonio David, and later the professors of the University of Pavia, after examining Leonardo's papers, expressed their dismay at that chaotic mass of fragmentary notes which they judged absolutely unfit for publication....
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SOURCE: “Goethe and Leonardo: A Comparative Study,” in Theoria, Vol. XXXIV, May 1970, pp. 21-47.
[In the following essay, van Maelsaeke highlights similarities between the philosophical thought of Leonardo and that of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He notes, for example, that in terms of natural philosophy, both men advocated the use of the experimental method, and both viewed nature as a force with both good and evil qualities.]
Goethe's providential encounter with Leonardo's art was one of the leading experiences of his human and artistic rejuvenation in Italy (1786-88). From his reading of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura in Rome (1788) Goethe may intuitively have inferred the similarity of both Leonardo's and his own views of the universe to those of Empedocles in whose cosmology the elements constantly interact under the influence of Love and Hate as respectively creative and destructive powers:
In turn they get the upper hand in the revolving cycle, and perish into one another and increase in the turn appointed by Fate. For they alone exist … sometimes uniting under the influence of Love into one ordered Whole, at other times again each moving apart through the hostile force of Hate, until growing together into the Whole, which is One, they are quelled.1
While creative Love allows all things to...
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SOURCE: “Supplement to Giovio's Leonardi Vincii Vita,” and “The Codex Huygens,” in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. 1, edited by Jean Paul Richter, University of California Press, 1977, pp. 9-11, 48-75.
[In the following excerpts, Pedretti discusses Leonardo as a teacher of art and analyzes the Codex Huygens,a compilation of Leonardo's writings that deals with, among other things, the form, structure, and movement of the human figure.]
The short biography of Leonardo da Vinci written by Paolo Giovio around 1527 has been well known since 1796, the date of its first publication in Tiraboschi's Storia della letteratura italiana.1 Giovio's account of the life of Leonardo, written in Latin, is based on information that he must have obtained from Leonardo himself. It was Giovio who reported that Leonardo intended to publish his own anatomical studies by means of copper plates.2 Furthermore, his report on Leonardo's studies on optics and painting is an unmistakable reference to the artist's activity after 1508. An Italian translation of Giovio's biography of Leonardo was published by Giuseppe Bossi as early as 1810.3 An English translation was included in the second edition of Richter's anthology,4 and again in the Goldscheider edition of Vasari's biography of Leonardo.5 Giovio's references to Leonardo,...
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SOURCE: “The Paragone: The Role of Music in the Comparison of the Arts,” in Leonardo da Vinci as a Musician, Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 204-23.
[In the essay that follows, Winternitz examines the Paragone, the section of Trattato della Pittura in which Leonardo reveres painting as the noblest of the arts. The critic maintains that upon close analysis of this text, music is demonstrated to be an art equal to painting.]
Leonardo's most interesting ideas about the nature of Music and her noble status as an art are included in his Paragone (comparison of the arts), a treatise animated by the intention to exalt the noblest of all arts, Painting, “the grandchild of Nature and relative of God.” Yet for the reader between the lines it is a fascinating spectacle to see how Music, the inferior sister of Painting, and “ill of many defects,” appears at closer study and at second thought to be an art equally as noble as Painting and a discipline in her own right, the figuratione dell' invisible. The Paragone, or Comparison of the Arts, is part of the Trattato della Pittura, a book arranged after Leonardo's death from his writings on the arts scattered throughout many of his manuscripts, including some now lost, by his pupil Francesco Melzi. Melzi's manuscript is now in the Vatican library, known as Codex Vaticanus (Urbinas) 1270. We can only...
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SOURCE: “Great Observers: A Comparative Essay on Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 146-66.
[In the following essay, Fly contrasts the differing conceptions of human sight reflected in the works of Leonardo and Shakespeare. For Leonardo, he declares, “the primary function of the eyes” is “the scientific scrutiny of the phenomenal world,” while for Shakespeare it is “the acknowledgment and expression of essential human relationships.”]
He is a great observer, and he looks Quite through the deeds of men.
(Julius Caesar I.ii.202-3)
My general subject in this essay is the role of vision as a mode of discovery in the work of two great Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare. The particular kind of comparison I want to make, and the crucial distinction I hope to reveal, can best be set forth by placing a famous passage from Leonardo's Treatise on Painting beside an equally famous bit of dialogue from a Shakespearean play. The Leonardo quote comes at the end of a long celebration of human vision when he caps an emotional crescendo with the exclamation, “but what is there which is not accomplished by the eye?” (23).1 The Shakespearean dialogue occurs at the emotional peak of his most powerful tragedy, King Lear, when the old king, exhausted by...
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SOURCE: “The Weight of Words: Leonardo da Vinci and the Anxiety of Language,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer 1991, pp. 277-84.
[In the following essay, Rodini focuses on Leonardo's fascination with both the potential and the limitations of language, stressing that “Leonardo shared with his contemporaries the notion that language defines culture and the individual, and that our humanity resides in our capacity to articulate or to concretize abstractions.”]
All language, if you examine it scrupulously and pick its components apart deliberately, turns out to be made of the same loose texture.1
In an important book published in 1987 by Princeton University Press and entitled, Language and Meaning in the Renaissance, Richard Waswo considers at length the significance of language and language acts in the European Renaissance. He argues that “one of the principal defining energies of the entire Renaissance” was the “intoxicating and terrifying possibility of making meaning, reacted to and against in a bewildering variety of ways” (132). Situating Plato as a particularly important voice at the fountainhead of ambivalence to language, and noting St. Augustine's interest in the dichotomy between “sign” and “thing,” Waswo proceeds to trace the important echoes of Plato's anxiety from the fifteenth...
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SOURCE: “Leonardo's Defense of Painting,” in Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone : A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in the Codex Urbinas, E. J. Brill, 1992, pp. 92-117.
[In the following essay, Farago outlines the method by which Leonardo distinguished painting as superior to poetry, music, and sculpture. She also analyzes Leonardo's treatment of painting as a science, discussing his views on the creation of optical effects.]
AN OVERVIEW OF LEONARDO'S ARGUMENTS
The 46 passages compiled in the Parte Prima originate in various manuscripts of which only two are identified today.1 The heterogenous nature of the Parte Prima is due in part to its being an anthology of excerpted paragraphs and in part to the many sources of its richly conceived arguments. None of Leonardo's defenses of painting seem to derive wholesale from another source, but most of his individual arguments do have precedents, in some cases so many diverse precedents that it would be difficult to favor one at the expense of others. The passages are assembled thematically and arranged in roughly five subdivisions that reflect a humanist interpretation of the liberal arts. It is unlikely that Leonardo would have arranged his treatise in the same way.2 The organization is useful, however, because the range of his comparisons between painting and each of the...
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SOURCE: “The Tratatto della Pittura, Some Questions and Desiderata,” in Leonardo's Writings and Theory of Art, edited by Claire Farago, Garland Publishing, 1999, pp. 371-84.
[In the following essay, Gombrich calls for a new edition of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura, one in which the problems of the “derivation and date” of particular items are addressed, and one which provides an analysis of the relationship between Leonardo's theories and practice.]
In accordance with traditional usage I mean by Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura the collection of the master's notes compiled by Melzi and preserved for us in the Codex Urbinas 1270 (henceforth abbreviated CU), of which a facsimile edition together with an annotated translation with numbered paragraphs has been published by A. Philip McMahon (Princeton, 1956), (henceforth abbreviated TP McM).1 Despite its fragmentary nature and somewhat confusing arrangement it represents the outline of a project of awe-inspiring ambition, a project such as only Leonardo could have conceived but which even he could never have completed—the plan to record in words and diagrams all recurrent phenomena of the visible world which are the painter's legitimate province.
Naturally this gigantic enterprise has never been neglected by students of Leonardo, and yet it may be said that his individual...
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Farago, Claire J. “On Leonardo da Vinci's Defense of Painting against Poetry and Music and the Grounding of Aesthetic Experience.” Italian Culture IX (1991): 153-70.
Examines how Leonardo's argument for painting as a superior art form affects modern views concerning the “authority of word and image.”
Panofsky, Erwin. “The History of the Manuscript.” In The Codex Huygens and Leonardo Da Vinci's Art Theory: The Pierpont Morgan Library Codex M. A. 1139, pp. 9-13. London: The Warburg Institute, 1940. Reprint. Nendlen, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1968.
Discusses the textual history of the Codex Huygens, which consists of a compilation of Leonardo's notes on the form and structure of the human body, as well as theories on light and shade, and perspective.
Viglionese, Paschal C. “Leonardo and the Nature of Writing: A Page from His Notebooks.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies XV, No. 44 (1992): 11-16.
Attempts to show that despite Leonardo's emphasis on painting over poetry, an example from his notes shows that Leonardo conceived of writing, like painting, as a visual art.
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