The personality and work of Leonardo da Vinci remains an intriguing subject for the later generations fascinated with the work of the great painter. His importance to posterity is not limited to his pictorial work since he is also widely known for his scientific ideas and theory of art.
Leonardo’s insights into art and science remain in his writings, in particular manuscripts and notebooks that survived to this day. This paper will reveal personal exploration and appreciation of Leonardo’s thought embodied in his written work.
Exploring the notebooks of the great master, the paper will try to summarise Leonardo’s ideas about painting and other subjects. It will also render the author’s personal reaction to the notes and their impact on later generations of scholars and painters, as well as their significance in the life of the great master.
Leonardo da Vinci did not only rely on intuition in his painting; instead, he used a wealth of scholarly ideas to underpin his artistic creation. These ideas found ways into his notebooks that contain hints on various topics including architecture, mechanics, painting, and human anatomy.
For reasons never explained, the artist never published his works in his lifetime although some of them were clearly intended to be bound together as the so-called Treatise on Painting. One of the versions why Leonardo never publicised his writings was advanced by technological historian Lewis Mumford who assumed that “Leonardo kept notebooks as a private journal, intentionally censoring his work from those who might irresponsibly use it (the tank, for instance)” (Wikipedia). Explorers of the great master’s written work believe that he had kept most of his notes which he assembled and bequeathed at the end of his life to his disciple Francesco Melzi (da Vinci 1999, 109). In any case, the publication of Leonardo’s work was postponed till the nineteenth century when his writings finally saw the world. To this day, the assembly of Leonardo’s notes in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan (Codice Atlantico), the Library of the Institut de France, the Louvre, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the Victoria and Albert Museum in Britain, the British Museum and a host of private collections remain “our greatest source of knowledge about Leonardo’s movements, friends, pupils, reading and mental habits” (da Vinci 1999, 109).
1. Treatise on Painting (Trattato della Pittura)
As stated above, Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting is not a coherent book written by him with the explicit purpose of publication, but rather a collection of disparate notes united by a common theme. However, subsequent researchers have arranged these notes into a more or less consistent whole. This work can be attributed, at least in part, to the efforts of Raphael Trichet Dufresne, of Paris, who released a part of the notes in 1651, having arranged them in a form of a treatise (Richter 1888).
The prologue to the book of painting introduces the scientific background against which the guidelines for painters in the subsequent chapters will evolve. In this part, Leonardo argues for the necessity of theory in painting that will allow the artist to adjust his works to the complex workings of the human eye. Thus, studying the human eye, a painter can learn to represent reality in the most realistic way. This argument for scholarly foundation in art represented a breakthrough from an old, medieval spirit and technique of art, calling for a well-grounded work that will appeal both to emotion and reason.
In the first part of the treatise, Leonardo describes the linear perspective, a method he extensively applied in his painting. The artists describes the elements of perspective, the nature of the outline, the pyramid of vision, offering empirical proof for its existence, outlines the relations of the distance point to the vanishing point, every time connecting the notion of perspective to the functions and structure of the human eye. This anatomical knowledge, in Leonardo’s opinion forms the grounds for the effective representation of visual objects. Perspective, in his own expression, is “nothing else than a thorough knowledge of the function of the eye” (Richter 1888, 3).
Leonardo’s work on perspective is a comprehensive guide to artists willing to convey objects exactly as they appear to the human eye. Today, painters most probably learn the basics of linear perspective in art schools in their introductory courses; at the time when Leonardo was writing his notebooks these ideas could perhaps have been a revelation to many, and it is a pity he failed to put together and publish his book.
Exploring the best way to present the perspective, the painter points out limitations of the human eye: “The eye can never be a true judge for determining with exactitude how near one object is to another which is equal to it” (Richter 1888, 3). The function and peculiarities of the human eye are invoked throughout the work, reflecting the anthropocentric perspective of the Renaissance that put man at the forefront of all scholarly and artistic endeavors. Art, as Leonardo understands it, is not centered on pleasing God; on the contrary, it is all about studying the human being and imitating plausibly the sight of objects as it appears to the human eye.
The rest of his Treatise on Painting is devoted to many issues relevant to the painter such as juxtaposition of light and shade, perspective of disappearance, theory of colors, perspective of colour, portrayal of proportions, and even elements of botany that, in Leonardo’s view, have to be learned by painters. The description of various artistic elements is rather detailed, even though the reader has to remember that scholars have put the text together out of a scattered variety of pieces, and is obviously intended as a guide to beginners. Thus, in Line 247, Leonardo has this to say of the human eye and the way it perceives darkness and light: “when you are drawing any object, remember, in comparing the grades of light in the illuminated portions, that the eye is often deceived by seeing things lighter than they are” (Richter 1888, 8). Once again, the artist mentions that the human eye is “deceived”, demonstrating the effect of scholarly discoveries on art. This fact points out that the artists of the Renaissance era already conceptualised the world in two shapes: the obvious, visible world as it appears to humans, and the way things really are as they would be measured by scientific instruments.
Overall, the Treatise on Painting is a highly interesting work that shows how Leonardo integrated his scholarly explorations with artistic work. The two areas to him were by no means incompatible since his painting, while also manifesting a great talent, is not purely intuitive. Instead, it is based on strong logic substantiated in the artist’s own observations and scientific findings. The same attitude can be traced in the closing section of the treatise that contains Leonardo’s written sketches for his portrait of Bernardo di Bandino, the Last Supper and a few others. The fact that his work calls for a thorough understanding of natural science and math in particular is demonstrated by Leonardo’s own admonition: “Let no man who is not a Mathematician read the elements of my work” (Richter 1888). Art for mathematicians is an understanding that shines through the treatise, underscoring the author’s reliance on mathematics to help in creation of more convincing and true-to-life drawings.
2. Leonardo about Nature
While art was perhaps a primary concern to Leonardo in his works, he also had a lot to say about nature. These ideas are summarised in the collection published by Edward McCurdy in 1923, complementing and expanding the work of Dr. Richter. Opening his remarks about nature with the praise of the sun and claiming that there is not in “the whole universe a body greater and more powerful than this”, Leonardo expresses regret over the failures of the earlier philosophers to acknowledge that the sun is in fact larger than it appears from the earth (McCurdy 1923, 86). He also explains why the sun is larger in the west, once again displaying an in-depth knowledge of mathematics and ability to apply it to explain the phenomena of everyday life.
Leonardo’s account of various celestial bodies and natural objects demonstrates a mind inquisitive and deeply interested in things that a lazy mind would leave unquestioned. Another reason for his eagerness can be that in those times, humans felt less empowered by scientific knowledge and so more interested in investigating what was going on around them. Leonardo thus has a lot of theories to advance that strive for an explanation of various natural phenomena that present a mystery to him, substantiating his claim through the application of various theories and suggestion of physical experiments to prove his ideas. For example, he proposes to explain the circles on the moon “by the different degrees of thickness of the vapours which are situated at different altitudes between the moon and our eyes” (McCurdy 1923, 92).
Throughout his notes on nature, Leonardo reveals his ability as a theorist studying various natural phenomena. Unlike modern physicists typically concerned with a specific narrow problem, Leonardo probes into different areas of the physical world, including water, skies, celestial bodies, heat, seas, mountains and others. The wide range of ideas continues to impress scholars with the scope of interests and importance of his ideas in very different areas (Wikipedia).
3. Other Interests of Leonardo da Vinci
The scope of Leonardo’s written work is as broad and diverse as his interests. His interest in the construction of flying machines, for instance, was reflected in the designs that abound in Codex ‘On the Flight of Birds’ kept in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. In this work Leonardo analyses the way birds rise in the air, “paying particular attention to the mechanics of flight, as well as to air resistance, winds and currents” (Italian National Museum of Science and Technology). This research formed the foundation for his later experimentation with flying machines that were not followed by anybody until the 20th century. It is surprising even that humanity had not succeeded in inventing the flying machine until such a late time while Leonardo in the early 16th century arrived at the conclusion that “a bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements” (MacCurdy 1938, 511).
Leonardo, as one who often depicted human body, was interested in its proportions and shape, devoting many pages of his notebooks to jotting down his insights in this area and guidance for other painters and scholars. For instance, he advises that “the true knowledge of the shape of any body will be arrived at by seeing it from different aspects”, following with an incredibly detailed description of various muscles and bones (MacCurdy 1938, 103). His preoccupation with the internal structure of the human body reveals the weight he gave to science in the exploration of reality, not only to mathematics, but anatomy as well. His manuscripts are full of drawings of separate parts of human body that reveal an interest in interior structure.
Leonardo’s interest in the architecture is also exemplified in his manuscripts. In particular, Codex Arundel, Codex Atlanticus (Codice Atlantico), and Codex Trivulzianus contain studies in architecture that demonstrate the artist’s interest in buildings, their composition and proportions. Scholars of Leonardo’s work hypothesize that “the sketches of churches and fortresses in Ms. B (ca. 1487-1490) indicate Leonardo’s intention to compile a treatise on architecture” and indicate that even Leonardo’s earlier work of the late 15th century demonstrates outstanding expertise in contemporary architecture and creative ability (Pedretti 1962, 23).
The written work of Leonardo da Vinci can be of great interest to scholars of his art as his scientific insights are closely correlated with his artistic findings. In fact, it seems that to the great thinker the distance between the two spheres of human intellectual endeavor is blurred, and he sees art as continuation of science, offering his disciples to follow his guidance. Although his works were never published in his lifetime, the work is clearly intended for instruction of artists and scholars of the physical world. With an immense scope of ideas, Leonardo’s ideas in many ways foreshadowed the scholarly revelations of the following centuries, amazing scholars with the power of his mind.
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MacCurdy, Edward. 1938. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Vol. 1. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock.
McCurdy, Edward. 1923. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Note-Books. New York: Empire State Book Company.
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