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Jonathan is a college professor specializing in art history and has a master's degree in fine art.
Leonardo da Vinci is one of history's most fascinating individuals. From his humble beginnings born in April of 1452 as the illegitimate son of an Italian notary through his meteoric rise in the Florentine art world up to his death (supposedly while being cradled in the arms of King Francis I of France in May of 1519), Leonardo pushed his considerable intellect to the absolute limits of human potential.
His most famous work is the Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous image ever created in Europe. However, many of his contemporaries thought his painting was constantly suffering due to his many and varied interests. Even though only about 20 works have been attributed to him, with more under debate, it's the 4,000+ pages from notebooks and other scraps of paper Leonardo used to record his ideas that show the true breadth of his talent. In these pages, we see his numerous studies of human anatomy, botany, engineering, painting, sculpture, architecture, astronomy, and even fashion design, just to name a few. These notes are regarded as great works of art alongside his paintings - not just for their artistic value, but for their testament to Leonardo's incomparable skill.
The many drawings he left behind are closely connected to the paintings Leonardo is best known for. He stated numerous times in writing that all of his explorations into various scientific fields made him a more skilled painter. Given that he believed painting to be the best way humanity could reach total understanding of the world, his dedication to science while still considering himself an artist is understandable. One well known work of this genre is the Vitruvian Man (1490) that shows Leonardo taking the writings of the ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius and creating a visual representation of the ideal ratios in the human body.
In the drawing, we can see evidence of Leonardo exploring the same kind of mathematical concept that the Ancient Greeks and Romans used to make the works that become the very foundation of the Italian Renaissance that also inform his uncanny skill in representing ideal human form.
Other drawings are more direct in their scientific nature, like The Fetus and Lining of the Uterus (c. 1511-13).
While inaccurate by today's standards with an impossibly spherical shape to the uterus and an incorrect representation of the uterine lining, it was a monumental achievement for its time. In sketches like these, Leonardo pioneers what are now standard methods of scientific illustration like cutaway and exploded views.
Some drawings are, in fact, studies for his painted works like the cartoon for Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John (c. 1505-07).
In drawings like this, we see Leonardo's mastery of the human figure that his scientific studies allowed. The people in the drawing are majestic, graceful, and have the same idealized form of the most iconic Classical Greek sculptures. Even Leonardo's trademark 'sfumato' technique, meaning 'smoky,' can be seen, which involves almost invisible variations in shading to make shapes appear shrouded in smoke or fog with shadows taking on an almost solid appearance.
While none of the sculpture Leonardo is said to have made survive to this day, we have plans and sketches for what must have been truly impressive works. The most iconic is a piece referred to as Il Cavallo (c. 1482-1493), or The Horse in English. This was a massive 24 foot tall statue of a horse meant to be a tribute to the father of the Duke of Milan, who Leonardo worked for as an artist and engineer. That engineering background was essential in Leonardo's detailed plans to take the full-sized clay model he made and cast it in bronze as the largest bronze sculpture ever made. Tragically, the bronze was taken from the project to make cannons to defend Milan against the invading French army. The French eventually captured Milan, and Leonardo fled back to his hometown of Florence as the French army used his clay model of Il Cavallo for target practice, destroying it entirely. Interestingly enough, the sculpture was finished almost 500 years later in 1999 by Leonardo da Vinci's Horse, Inc., a non-profit group started for the sole purpose of finishing the sculpture.
If that wasn't enough to show you that Leonardo da Vinci was far more than just a great painter, his inventions will certainly make the point crystal clear. Probably the greatest departure from his paintings were his weapon designs. His sketches for an Organ Gun (1480-82) designed for the army of Milan include two different layouts for a small multi-barrel cannon that is arguably the earliest semi-automatic weapon in Western history. It was even designed to be portable and easy to operate, making it the ideal tool for crowd control and defending a city from an advancing infantry force.
Many of his designs were so ahead of their time that they were impossible to build in Renaissance Europe. His flying machines are the source of countless gobsmacked stares when people see modern recreations because looking at Leonardo's Aerial Screw (1483) and Ornithopter (c. 1488) shows that he began exploring human controlled flight centuries before the Wright brothers began their experiments with the first airplanes.
Even though these early flying machines don't actually work, Leonardo's theories about how to get people flying are eerily similar to modern laws of aerodynamics. His sketches on the subject, like the Drawing of a Mechanical Wing (c. 1490), are so detailed and ahead of their time, that it's beyond fascinating to imagine what someone like Leonardo could achieve with even slightly more advanced technologies.
Even as recently as 2013, his inventions are opening up new creative possibilities. One of his lesser known inventions is the Viola Organista (c. 1470-80) which is a musical instrument combining the flexibility of the organ or piano with the lyrical beauty and tone of a viola or other stringed instrument. When a modern version of the instrument was finally finished, the sound was so intriguing that people were enchanted and left to wonder how music would be different today if such an instrument had gained popularity sooner.
That's really the takeaway when studying these areas of Leonardo da Vinci's career. His talents and capacity for creativity were in both the arts (such as Il Cavallo, a massive 24 foot tall statue of a horse meant to be a tribute to the father of the Duke of Milan) and sciences (such as the Vitruvian Man, which shows Leonardo taking the writings of the Ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius and creating a visual representation of the ideal ratios in the human body). In his drawing, he even invented his trademark 'sfumato' technique, meaning 'smoky.' It involves almost invisible variations in shading to make shapes appear shrouded in smoke or fog with shadows taking on an almost solid appearance. It was painting, he believed, that humanity could be best understood.
His contributions in science, especially, make even the most well versed scholars of his life wonder what else he could have achieved with slightly more modern resources. It was his work in the 15th and 16th centuries that helped us create those same modern technologies such as Leonardo's Aerial Screw (1483) and Ornithopter, which explored the possibility of human-generated flight. There was also his Organ Gun, which included two different layouts for a small multi-barrel cannon that is arguably the earliest semi-automatic weapon in Western history. That's the reason Leonardo is still so fascinating to this day, nearly 500 years after his death. He was a man ahead of his time in every sense of the word that help pave the way for the future he seems to have been meant for.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Homework Help Resource
27 chapters | 295 lessons