Ones that are canonised as genius are often imagined to be those with some superhuman abilities as if touched by the divine hand. Yet, perhaps true genius arises more from some fleeting moment of insight after years of immersion in a particular activity. This resonates with the story of Leonardo da Vinci, an ambidextrous polymath who bridged art and science.
The region of Tuscany, near the city of Florence was where young Leonard spent his formative years. Although his father was a respected notary in the local community because he was born out of wedlock, he did not receive a surname, thus he was simply called Leonardo da Vinci, “Leonardo from the region of Vinci.” Being illegitimate and thus not allowed to attend any school he spent a lot of time on his own as a child. In the 15th Century, around the region of Vinci remote from the city centre, there was nothing to entertain the curious mind of the precocious young boy except the scene of countryside. He used to wander about a forest nearby and observed the flow of a river and birds ascending into the sky. One day when he snuck into his father’s office he found a stack of papers there. He decided to draw on them what he observed outside. Every day, he spent hours and hours recording the ever-changing face of nature. He often questioned why birds can fly, and why the flow of a river is so powerful. He was slowly drawn to the mystery of nature and simultaneously his imagination expanded.
Because he was an illegitimate child, he grew up without any formal education. Without any formal education, he was unable to read Latin, and consequently not accepted to any academy. Nonetheless, due to the extraordinary quality of his drawings, his father managed to secure an apprenticeship position for his 15-year old son in the studio of the prominent sculptor Andrea Del Verrocchio in the city of Florence. This was where young Leonardo developed his craft, ferociously absorbing necessarily skills from the master. He learned various techniques ranging from fresco techniques to bronze casting and architectural engineering, and above all, how to turn his imagination into reality.
After apprenticing in the workshop of Verrocchio, young Leonardo continued his uncompromising pursuit of beauty and perfection in the city. Florence at that time was ruled by Lorenzo de’ Medici who earned his fortune in the currency exchange business and became, de facto, the ruler of Florence. When the Pope asked the Medici to send him the best Florentine artist to work on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Lorenzo proposed the names of 12 artists, somehow excluding Leonardo.
At Uffizi gallery in Florence, there is Leonardo’s early work, titled “The Annunciation”, which is still on display at the present time. The way in which he renders flowerbed and drapes of the angel Gabriel is so exquisite that even his contemporary Botticelli would have envied his mastery.
The technical brilliance, as well as innovative and contemplative qualities, are still vividly visible to the museum visitors. His virtuosity was so remarkable that clearly there were no artists from the same era who could stand in his competition. He was certainly the best amongst others. So why was Leonardo excluded from the Medici’s social circle?
Unfortunately, Leonardo did not receive formal education, and thus did not read Latin. The Medici, on the other hand, loved the classics and preferred to surround himself with rather intellectual nobles with similar intellectual taste. Leonardo was more scientifically minded. Following his curiosity, he learned about nature by simply observing it, but with more intensity and patience than ordinarily so, and at times, by employing an extreme method, such as dissecting corpses.
Having felt tired of dealing with the politics, he left Florence to Milan to work for the Duke, not merely as a painter, but also an architect and a military engineer. He was an artist, scientist as well as an innovator, and all these qualities manifested in his masterpiece, “Last Supper” painted on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
Another disheartening reason why Leonardo left Florence to Milan was that he was sick of seeing artists living from commission to commission. What it meant was that they tended to complete their work fast, and by so doing, they were able to take up many commissions. And not only that, but also they often busied themselves with forging political connections and making shrewd manoeuvres instead of perfecting their own craft. Hence, few paintings of his contemporaries have stood the test of time.
The fate of the history is often as tragic as a fiction. Years after Leonardo’s departure to Milan the city of Florence was stricken by the epidemic of the religious Reformation. Had Leonardo remained in Florence, not only would he have fallen victim to the religious revolt, but also he would have been forced to compromise his pursuit of beauty. Whether in the 15th century Florence or in the 21st-century globalised world, what we see in the art world may not have changed. Contemporary artists today seem to spend little time on their craft, but often find themselves spending more time on politicking and playing power games.
The uncompromising pursuit of the truth and following his curiosity seem to be what made Leonardo Da Vinci the epitome of genius. His art symbolises the unique and truthful way in which he lived his life.
Walter Isaacson. (2017). Leonardo da Vinci. Simon & Schuster.