There are three classes of people, Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo from or of Vinci) is believed to have observed. There are those who see and then there are those who see when shown. Finally, there are those who do not see.
There is no doubt to which class he himself belonged. An illegitimate child, formal education was barred to him. He never learnt Latin, in which most classical texts were written in Europe. He taught himself. He used his eyes, his hands and his remarkable mind to see and grasp what others didn’t. He taught himself mathematics, geometry, engineering drawing, botany and geology.
He also dissected cadavers, visited slaughter houses and cut open dead bodies to see how the organs functioned. He observed the flight of birds and asked how they flew. He wondered how a woodpecker’s tongue would look. And he dissected the dead body of a pregnant woman to understand how a foetus is formed.
When Steve Jobs called up Walter Isaacson and pleaded that the celebrated writer should work on his biography, the writer journalist, who had written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Einstein and Henry Kissinger was surprised. Jobs, who knew he was dying, persuaded him to start working on the project without telling him how serious his ailment was. One of the first statements Jobs made when they met, Isaacson recalled, was that he had been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.
The painter of Mona Lisa died in 1519 on May 2. Five hundred years later, he continues to create ripples. His first biography was published in the 16th century and Isaacson’s biography came out in 2017. One of Leonardo’s paintings Salvador Mundi was authenticated as his work only by 2016 and fetched in an auction over $400 million, or approximately 2,794 crore in Indian Rupees. Renewed attempts are being made to make Leonardo’s notebooks available online for scholars. A staggering seven thousand pages of his notebook have survived but only 40 odd pages are said to be available online or with collectors like Bill Gates.
While the world rediscovers the polymath, Isaacson recalls Jobs saying that Leonardo’s statement that ultimate beauty lay in simplicity had inspired him in Apple. Leonardo’s conviction that the arts were connected to science and nature, that everything in this world is connected, that it is important to understand anatomy, botany, engineering and even mathematics in order to create a work of art also impressed Jobs.
Both Leonardo and Jobs belonged to that special category of people who dared to dream, who allowed their imagination to soar and blend their understanding of the world with their creativity.
Not too many paintings of Leonardo have survived. Art historians put the number at around 20. This is probably because he was a perfectionist and did not complete many of the paintings that he started. “He was more interested in conception than in execution,” quips Isaacson before pointing out that he carried Mona Lisa for 16 years and the painting, presumably still unfinished, was in his bedroom when he died in France.He started painting Mona Lisa in 1503 when he was 51 years old. And when he died in 1519, it was still unfinished.
Nobody quite knows how many hours he spent on that one painting. But one can imagine Leonardo asking himself questions like, what is a smile? How are smiles different? What do they convey? Can different smiles convey different shades of meaning or emotion?
One is fairly confident in presuming the questions because his notebook reveals a man of insatiable curioanding of the world with their creativity. sity, one who incessantly asked questions— starting from why the sky is blue, Leonardo worried if the same set of facial muscles drove the lips as well as the eyes—both needed to form a smile. While the painter clearly wanted to depict happiness and tranquility, the smile on Mona Lisa’s lips is both enigmatic and alluring.
Mona Lisa, which was part of the royal collection of King Francis of France and later found a place in Napoleon’s bedroom, became a French national treasure after the Revolution. But its popularity grew after the painting was stolen in 1911. The media outcry did not allow the culprits to sell it and the painting was recovered from Italy two years later.
Leonardo grew up in a period of political turmoil in Italy. Each city was virtually independent and the local ruler, a Duke, enjoyed both political as well as financial power. This was also a period of religious unrest and protests against the Vatican and the Catholic Church were growing. The cities were often at war with each other even as the period witnessed invasions by France, Germany and Spain.
Therefore, when Leonardo chose to leave Florence for Milan and sought a job there, his job application highlighted his ability to make weapons of war. That was because the rulers in Florence, the Medici family, were bankers and patrons of the arts. But the rulers of Milan at the time, the Sforza family, were warriors.
It was nevertheless a paradox because Leonardo was a vegetarian and did not approve of either slaughter of animals or war. But his job application to the Duke of Milan, all of eleven paragraphs, were all about his skills in fortifying the defence of the city and his ability to make military equipment. It was only in the last paragraph that he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that he was also a painter.
Art historians have agonised over Leonardo’s distractions. If only he had concentrated on his paintings, they suggest, the output would have been more and the world would have been richer. But other scholars have been quick to point out that Leonardo in that case would not have been Leonardo!
He would not be hailed then as one of the pioneers of modern medicine. He would not be credited with inventing the aerial views long before drones. He would not have invented cranes and movable bridges or the parachute and scuba gear. Long before the aircraft was made, his drawings and sketches confirmed his belief that it was possible to make flying machines. He is also known to have manufactured what is said to be the world’s first helicopter! It was a contraption that was used in the theatre to bring angels down to the stage.
Leonardo da Vinci also left drawings of tanks and armoured cars long before they were made. But while the rulers of Milan benefitted from his expertise, they lost the war to France. One of the largest bronze sculptures that the artist was commissioned to make, an equestrian statue of a late ruler on horseback in battleground, was never made because of the French invasion. Some 60 tons of bronze that Leonardo was to use had to be surrendered for manufacturing cannon balls. And the clay model that had been put up in the palace grounds was destroyed when the French troops used it for target practice from afar.