Why is Leonardo da Vinci so significant to art and culture?

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chadphares eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Even nearly 600 years from the time he was born, Leonardo da Vinci remains a renowned artist, mathematician, writer, and inventor. He is particularly significant to the worlds of art and culture thanks to the lasting legacy of his works and ideas. 

His status as one of the world's all-time great artists is cemented thanks to the fact that two of his paintings are among some of the most beloved pieces of art ever created. He began work on what might be the world's best-known painting—The Mona Lisa—in 1503. This was just a few years after he finished his three-year project of painting The Last Supper on the back wall of the dining hall in the Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery.

Because da Vinci was an inventor who challenged ideas of what was possible, his cultural significance remains today. Though the helicopter wasn't invented until the twentieth century, da Vinci's fifteenth century sketches are believed to have established the framework for these flying machines. He is also credited for inventing early iterations of scuba gear, the parachute, and the first robot.

jessnieto13 | Student

Leonardo da Vinci is known in history as the "Renaissance Man," because he was a key figure during the Italian Renaissance and his work contributed to help bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Europe had experienced a prolonged period of cultural, economic and intellectual deterioration as a result of religious wars, the bubonic plague, and widespread poverty and starvation. During this time, Europe had long since moved away from Greek and Roman classicism that was focused on the advancement of society in philosophy, art, architecture, music, and literature, and the Church had instead become the central organization of society. As a result, Europe had become incredibly superstitious and religious, and there no longer was a place for science and reason in society. To pursue scientific endeavors was to be deemed a heretic, arguably the worst of punishable offenses at that time. For this reason, art and culture during the Dark Ages were heavily connected to the church without much room for freedom of expression. In the 14th century, however, parts of Europe began to emerge from the Dark Ages and find their way back to classical teachings. The Renaissance was characterized by a 'rebirth' of the study of antiquity and the emergence of 'humanism,' which was the philosophy that emphasized the value of human beings on both the individual and collective level to think critically and rationally. The importance of humanism during the Renaissance is that it helped create a new mode of ethics and thinking that moved away from the acceptance of dogmatic and superstitious teachings of the church and allowed for the development of individual agency, and thereby, the development of secular study and pursuits.

In this backdrop emerged Leonardo da Vinci. In his lifetime, he was an inventor, a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a scientist, a musician, a writer, an engineer, a mathematician, an astrologer, a geologist, a botanist, and a historian; in his life and work, he embodied the essence of the Renaissance. An endlessly curious individual, he pursued and mastered an extremely wide range of interests and subjects, and paved the way for their inclusion in a modern society. In art, he incorporated the classical teachings of painting and sculpture which emphasized the rendering of reality using math, knowledge of anatomy, and science. Thus, his paintings and sculptures took on the quality of being "life-like" because he paid attention to the proportion and scale of his subjects when rendering his work--far different from the art that characterized the Dark Ages which did not seek to display a person or a scene as it appear in real-time to the human eye. Not only were his works realistic, but they included secular imagery that had been absent from art in the Dark Ages, like his Mona Lisa or his many landscapes. He helped create a space for artistic expression that attracted patrons of the arts to support his endeavors, changing the nature of art from being solely commissioned for and by the church and bringing it into the hands of ordinary people at large.

As art tends to play a key role in culture, as da Vinci's life and work helped radically transform art, he played a role in transforming culture as well. His rigorous study of the human body's anatomy not only changed the standard of it's representation in art, but it also greatly contributed to the field of health care and medicine because he was one of the first to study and sketch the human body with such accuracy and detail. As a humanist, his life and work helped challenge the accepted cultural practices that centered on the dogmatic teachings of the church and opened up a space for the revival of secular thinking, reasoning and study--which allowed for the emergence of modern science, philosophy, and art, as well as many other subjects. Leonardo da Vinci is a fascinating figure in history who has had a widespread and far-reaching impact on society, particularly in the areas of art and culture.

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