Leonardo da Vinci Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.”

Principal Works

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.


Paul Valéry (essay date 1936)

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...

(The entire section is 11324 words.)

George Kimball Plochmann (essay date 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 9419 words.)

Karl Jaspers (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 16222 words.)

Ludwig H. Heydenreich (essay date 1956)

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 in the Vatican Library, which contains the earliest known compilation of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, stems...

(The entire section is 12438 words.)

Augusto Marinoni (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 5493 words.)

D. van Maelsaeke (essay date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 11432 words.)

Carlo Pedretti (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 11461 words.)

Emanuel Winternitz (essay date 1982)

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,...

(The entire section is 10420 words.)

Richard Fly (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 7010 words.)

Robert J. Rodini (essay date 1991)

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


(The entire section is 4599 words.)

Claire J. Farago (essay date 1992)

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.]


The 46 passages compiled in the Parte Prima originate in various manuscripts of which only two are identified today.1 The heterogenous...

(The entire section is 12081 words.)

Ernst H. Gombrich (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 9066 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 166 words.)