Leonardo da Vinci Introduction - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”