Leonardo da Vinci

The Annunciation, circa 1472, Google Art Project image, Uffizi Gallery,Florence,Italy

Leonardo is arguably the best known artist in the history of the world, and his small work, the Mona Lisa, is probably the best known painting. His massive rendition of the Last Supper is a close second. Both paintings are so familiar to virtually everyone that to include them here is needlessly redundant.

This is exactly the kind of thing that chapped Michelangelo’s ass.

Leonardo has maybe fifteen surviving works, and he didn’t do much more than that when alive. Michelangelo has far more, perhaps fifty that are easy to list, and when you consider that some of his works consist of projects like the Medici Chapel which contain five or six other works within them, it gets a little difficult to make a proper tally. Is the Sistine Chapel a single work? Really?

Michelangelo worked like a dog from get on to get off, rarely slowing down. Leonardo took lots of long breaks to eat bacon and stare at his knuckles. He was always dragging his feet over some project or other, allowing himself to stop just short of actually completing something that had never been done before, and the people loved him for it.  This drove Michelangelo crazy.

Leonardo dressed like a fop, talked in exaggeratedly cultured tones, and what was the absolute worst sin in Michelangelo’s publicly vindictive point of view, never had anything but praise and respect for Michelangelo.

Although well known for his engineering skills during his lifetime, most of the public adulation for Leonardo came only from his art. It wasn’t until later when scholars got a shot at his notebooks that the truly scientific side of Leonardo became public knowledge and the legend of Leonardo grew by yet another order of magnitude. Had Mickey been around for that he might have opened his wrists.

He would first have argued against it. How do these doodles redound to so much credit? Da Vinci actually built very little. His grandiose vision covered a far greater number of impractical designs than they did ones which could actually work. When a three year old in Nebraska drew a series of ones and zeros across a piece of paper in 1879 we didn’t give him credit for inventing the binary code, yet if a da Vinci doodle simply implies at a modern innovation we hail him as a visionary inventor.

So does Michelangelo have a point? Is Leonardo really the genius we all make him out to be, or is he some kind of Renaissance P-Diddy who was good at gaming the system?

I don’t know the answer to that. I think Michelangelo may have been somewhat justified in his jealousy and criticism. I suspect that da Vinci’s work ethic might have been among the poorest of the great artists. But his genius? Well consider this.

Let’s say you are sitting at your super-computer trying to work through some knotty engineering problems involving turbulence and flow. These are among the more complex calculations in engineering. Now imagine that your computer renders a study of some subset of fluid dynamics for you. Got it? Well I’ve seen the result of some of that kind of work and it looks a lot like this:

Leonardo da Vinci, the Deluge, sketch

Sorry, Mickey.

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10 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci

  1. EllieAnn says:

    Both great artists–and so different! Great post

  2. Lee Broom says:

    You make these heroe of mine seem more like contemporaries. Thanx fp.lb.

  3. I have been painting people more. So several ears ago I bought a book with 120 drawings he did of the human body. He did the bones, muscles, facial details. Doctors used to take close to dead bodies and open them up to see how things worked inside. I would bet that Leo did the same thing. When looking through this book I see both doctor and artist. I mean there are even range of motion sketches. The man was brilliant.

    • foxpudding says:

      I’ve often wondered about that. We know that scientists did that and hired artists to render the revealed musculature. I’m sure that avenue of learning would be available to da Vinci, but I’ve always been amazed by how much of those inner workings can also be revealed through careful observation of the living. It is a kind of mental process which reveals the hidden through observation of the exposed, a kind of inferential learning. Someone once said that talent strikes what others cannot reach while genius strikes what others cannot see at all. That is why in the end all of our speculation is beggared by the simple fact of the man himself. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I love this post! He is my favorite of all time next to Parmigianino!

    • foxpudding says:

      Thanks. Parmigianino is a beautiful artist. His self portrait in a convex mirror is stunning, and he looks so modern you can imagine meeting him just down the street.

  5. Pingback: Of Ghosts and Gears | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

  6. Pingback: Albrecht Dürer | The Automat

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