Writers, artists, journalists, educators, historians, scientists, engineers … and dreamers of every stripe – all have reason to revere the legacy of the archetypal Renaissance Man. S&R is proud to honor Leonardo Da Vinci with our 100th mast.
Since we launched over a decade ago S&R has always reserved a space at the top of the page for a figure we admire and respect. Our first “scrogue” was the inimitable Lord Byron, who seemed, in our minds, to embody the best of scholarliness and roguishness. Since then we’ve honored the likes of MLK, Babe Ruth, the Dixie Chicks, Muhammad Ali, Stephen Hawking, Colin Kaepernick, Jane Austen, Black Lives Matter, Bob Dylan, Oscar Zeta Acosta, WB Yeats, Harper Lee, Malala Yousafzai, Mary Shelley and Captain America. And lots more.
Today we arrive at a landmark – our 100th masthead. We talked about who we felt was most worthy of this tribute, and while dozens of names were discussed, it was pretty clear all along that Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps the most brilliant person in the history of the planet, deserved the nod.
Below we have some thoughts from the staff. We encourage you to weigh in with your own.
A few years back Denver was visited by a traveling Da Vinci Machines exhibit.
Leonardo was so damned far ahead of his time the actual technology to build most of his inventions didn’t exist. He was as pure and true a visionary as ever lived. This show, though, brought his ideas to life and allowed the visitor to examine them as physical artifacts.
In a way, there was something wonderfully whimsical about the whole enterprise. Across the world, children with unfettered imaginations scribble and doodle out their fantasies, often when they ought to be listening to their teachers. Some of the inventions in their minds are wondrous and fantastical, owing to an innate creative faculty we humans have, at least until the educational system, responsible parenting and the ugly realities of late-stage capitalism beat it out of them.
What happens when that child is a supreme genius? What happens if that child lives in a society that nurtures creativity and flights of fantasy (or at least tolerates them)?
I wish I’d been a better photographer at the time, but I did manage to capture something of the magic on my three visits.
And my enduring impression, I think, is that there was a good bit of Calvin (as in Calvin & Hobbes, not John Calvin) in Da Vinci.
I can’t imagine a better honoree for our 100th Scrogue.
Leonardo da Vinci always amazed me because of the breadth of his talent and imagination. The phrase “Renaissance Man” was designed for him. That phrase, which sums up a person with multifaceted talents, is so much more elegant and nuanced than the currently popular “polymath.”
He was willing to experiment with his work, rather than sticking with the known and accepted methods of production. Yes, he had notebooks full of things that he could not have produced because the technology to do so did not exist. But he tried new ways of working with existing materials that, well, didn’t always work out. His most famous experiment was The Last Supper, a painting that began to deteriorate almost immediately. Da Vinci had used a different way of painting in an attempt to buy himself time to perfect his final image. But the trade-off for being able to revise was eventual impermanence.
His existence at that intersection of art and science was amazing. His anatomical studies to accurately portray limbs and faces just right were astounding in a period where dissection was a clandestine, illegal affair. In many cases, he devoted entire notebooks to preparatory studies for works that never materialized, as if the final piece were almost inconsequential compared to the knowledge and skill that he gained in the formative stages.
His obsession with revision and the possibility of a more perfect version of his work led him to obliterate, repaint, and alter his works continually. “Finished” was not the most desired state for his paintings. That level of need to tinker endlessly with an image is probably much more normal for a digital artist than it would have been for an artist limited by drying times and commissions.
Da Vinci’s overarching premise seemed to be “this should work.” Even if he couldn’t always prove it. Even if he couldn’t always build it. Even if he couldn’t always capture what was in his head perfectly, he could keep trying. The quest to explore the possible was his great legacy and inspiration.
If anyone was ever a convincing argument for the belief that extraterrestrials of superior intelligence and technology have visited Earth, lived among we humans, and produced ideas, inventions, and artworks of genius more advanced than the eras in which they lived, it’s Leonardo Da Vinci.
Seriously, he was Boeing, Bell Labs, and Lucasfilm centuries before the technologies upon which those companies are based even existed.
In Da Vinci, mere mortals such as I see the epitome of intellectual and motivational curiosity. He studied whatever discipline he encountered — be it anatomy, aeronautics, art, sculpture, engineering, architecture, nature, physics, painting — because he was curious about the natural world around him and the intellectual world within him.
He foresaw — he imagined and designed — what could not be built in his time. The bicycle. The helicopter. The submarine. And many more. That we know.
But his genius lay in connecting what he saw, what he imagined, to everything he saw and imagined. He believed the ability to see — saper vedere, or knowing how to see — mattered most among humanity’s physical senses.
That one word — how — distinguishes Da Vinci from the rest of us. We can see. But Da Vinci knew how to see, how to feed his mind with the connectedness of his many observations of the natural, artistic, and natural world.
Others here speak more eloquently than I ever could about Leonardo’s genius and vision as a scientist and inventor. His contributions to that which we can knowledge are surpassing those of – well, everyone else in human history in all likelihood. I remember as a 4th grader learning that he’d envisioned a form of helicopter in the late 1500’s. I walked around for weeks wondering how someone who’d seen only birds fly could have imagined such a device.
But as I became less interested in science and more interested in art, I became enamored of La Gioconda – the Mona Lisa. There is something in that painting that is not in the work of his great and brilliant contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael. Their work offers brilliant depictions of, in Michelangelo’s case, the human body as near perfect representation of human life force and, in Raphael’s, the depiction of human body as religious ideal.
I have often pondered what that something is that makes Da Vinci’s Gioconda different, and I have visited the Louvre on more than one occasion and have spent hours gazing at what is really merely the portrait of a rich Florentine merchant’s wife, once staying so long that I had the honor of being thrown out of the museum by the famous Louvre sweepers – the guards who clear the museum at closing time. I have seen many of the greatest art works of Western Culture, and La Gioconda has no peer – it is the greatest single work of portraiture, certainly, and the greatest work of art in any medium, in my opinion, produced by that culture.
If put to the question of why Da Vinci is great, as perhaps this short reflection asks me to be, I likely would answer “Go look at the Mona Lisa.” It is a highly unsatisfactory answer, I know. I have used it in the past.
So here is something else.
Michelangelo gives one the body – the living, breathing body….
Raphael gives one the body – as representation of the purity of an Ideal…
Leonardo gives one – the soul inhabiting the body….
Perhaps it will help you understand if I paraphrase an old Russian proverb.
It is very far and very high to reach Da Vinci. It is very close to God….
Actually, for all I respect Da Vinci, thinking about his accomplishments just makes me sad. His was the perfect mind in the perfect place at the perfect time. His knowledge was encyclopedic for the time. Between his knowledge, vision, and talents, Denny nailed it with saper vedere. I don’t know that life as we know it today could produce another like him. We’ve so much knowledge in so many domains that we’ll never have another true encyclopedist. We can still have visionaries, e.g., Hawking, but their milieu tends to be sorely restricted now. And for whatever talents people bring to the table these days, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, Da Vinci helped set the bar where it is. One can aspire to the greatness of his mastery, but he’s already been there and done that. In painting, maybe photorealists could put up a good show of technical acumen to match his, but something’s missing, something that Jim mentioned…soul.
If we have any hope of our contemporaries ever matching his greatness, it will be in the expression of soul. Those artists exist. Hell, we’ve got a couple right here (tip o’ the hat to Dan in particular). But the environment and the scope of the work is different, which is as it should be. My sorrow comes from seeing how narrow the scope must necessarily be these days. I think if we’re to have any hope for another luminary like Da Vinci, we’ll need to make first (and continued) contact with something beyond our normal ken, whether it be alien or otherwise otherworldly. We’ve milked this rock for all the cultural synergy its worth and now we require an infusion of new influences from outside if we’re to experience anything like another Renaissance.
Until that happens, I’m thrilled to have masters like Da Vinci to look back upon, and I’m grateful for the soul-seers we have among us. Meanwhile, I’m left with a visceral feeling of hiraeth, a yearning for a Golden Age I’ve never seen and will most likely never see.
I’m honored by the mention. But I don’t think even the most stretched-out, tenuous of comparisons of Da Vinci’s work and what I do is apt. Da Vinci expressed his love of mankind through inventions which, in my opinion, enhanced what he already saw as the perfection of the human form and its finite yet vast, under-utilized, and undiscovered abilities. His flying wing frame is a good example of this. The wings were based on bat wings, as I understand it.
With photojournalism and bits of poetry here and there, I’m just trying to figure out what makes us visually beautiful and attempt to make people looking at my work see the beauty in others that they often overlook or think is nonexistent. In a perverse sense it is my attempt to bring us all closer to god, because as an atheist I think we are god and have spent millennia mistakenly believing in some mystical sky spook instead of ourselves.
But if I were a theist I would say that Da Vinci must have been touched by God, big ‘G’ God, every god held in fearful or joyous reverence by every religion on Earth. To have conceived of a flying machine 400 years before the Wright Brothers ever got a construct of cloth and wood off the ground doesn’t just make Da Vinci a man ahead of his time, it makes him a man whose mind in some way was able to bore its own temporal vortex into the centuries laying ahead of mankind and mine it for practical ideas. To see what we’d need and what we wanted to be.
Honestly, ‘genius’ is an almost insultingly inadequate word to describe Da Vinci and his works. I’m thinking of Lady with an Ermine right now and I know I will never take a photograph ever that will be as visually good, as full of a love for a person in a precise, suspended moment in time.
The only thing I share with Da Vinci, the only thing any of us can credibly claim to share, is a desire to create enduring written and/or visual works and through them make the world a better place than when we started.
My soul is in every photograph I take, for I have no soul of my own.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. And Leonardo Da Vinci may have been the biggest giant who ever lived.
I’ve always been keenly interested in subject of influence. All artists, when young, imitate their heroes, and over time they incorporate them into their own ethos and hopefully become greater, as the echo of the greats is heard in their own work. As a young writer I adored Eliot and Yeats, and later discovered Dylan Thomas and Charles Wright. Pictures of those four hang in my home and it would be impossible to read my poetry without recognizing their influence in my work.
How can we possibly measure the influence of Da Vinci? Certainly centuries of artists and scientists have studied him. But beyond that, we are influenced by people who were influenced by him, and on and on. At a point, the things he did become so generalized, so ubiquitous, that he transcends conscious influence and becomes part of the DNA, whether we know it or not.
Have I studied his drawings and felt them incorporated into my photography? Not intentionally. But Eric Kim has a wonderful article entitled “30 Lessons Leonardo da Vinci Has Taught Me About Photography, Art, and Life,” and if we take that as a starting point, then work back through the centuries, I wonder if it’s possible, no matter hard you try, to not be influenced by LDV when you pick up a camera. I mean, for starters, at least one of those wonderful inventions of his was a camera.
I was especially drawn to this little device in the Da Vinci Machines exhibit noted above.
And, of course, there’s this:
Dandelions think they're bluebells. Moths believe they're butterflies. No one told them, or they wouldn't listen. What if I'm mistaken, begoggled, peddling DaVinci's madman machine toward high noon?
I feel like I really should know more about Da Vinci, but at this point I’ve either forgotten most of what I learned or I’m only imagining that I learned it in the first place. What stands out to me now about Da Vinci now isn’t what he did, however magnificent that is. Instead, what I think of is the things he inspired in others.
As a patron saint of not just artists but also scientists and engineers, Da Vinci is a common feature at places like NASA. The Vitruvian Man has been sent into space on space probes and Da Vinci’s writings have been sent to Mars. I’ve seen copies of Da Vinci’s works in cubes at engineering firms as well.
Da Vinci has shown up in good books by authors like Terry Pratchett (Leonard of Quirm), and he’s been depicted in poor books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Da Vinci appeared as a character in the movie Ever After, and his inventions featured prominently in the thoroughly campy (and in my opinion, so bad a movie that it circles back around to good again) Hudson Hawk.
Da Vinci has appeared several times in Star Trek, his works have been stolen in Doctor Who, he was summoned from the past in Bewitched, and there was an entire, albeit short-lived BBC series about his life.
Da Vinci has been referenced in computer and console games as well, from Leonardo’s Workshop in Civilization to being a supporting character in Assassin’s Creed to being a summonable wizard in Fate/Grand Order.
And there’s at least one role-playing game (ShadowRun) where it’s strongly hinted that Da Vinci was such a polymath because he was an immortal elf who bobbed his pointy ears to pass as human and ultimately faked his own death.
The thing about Da Vinci as a historical figure is that he was so beyond his time, you can imagine him creating or doing almost anything from casting magic spells to traveling through time to inventing artificial life with steampunk gears. He was so great that he can almost be a blank canvas upon which anyone can create their own version of the man.
There was a pretty ok TV series on SF, I think, called Da Vinci’s Demons, which provided work for many good but unknown British actors. It may be on Netflix or Amazon.
And there is magnificent book by Canadian author Timothy Findlay called Pilgrim in which Da Vinci (and Carl Jung) figure prominently.
The Science museum in London had a show several years ago about Leonardo’s inventions. Perhaps the most interesting thing was not the things that were actually built, but (as discussed above) the things he designed that were never built. There’s a whole ton of them.
I keep thinking about The Last Supper (which Cat mentions earlier) and how even at that stage in his career he was still innovating and trying new things, which in the case of that particular painting was a disaster and it began breaking down and falling off the wall almost as soon as it was finished, so that the painting we have now contains very little of his original work. The last restoration stripped away previous restorations, painting what would have been there in watercolor to indicate that it was restoration and not original work, leaving maybe 20% left that was original. The idea was that through using new scientific tools like infrared reflectoscopy we would be able to isolate what was left of the original work and remove later interventions. However in stripping away the restorations, parts of the painting’s identity, history, and evolution that made it the painting we know were lost.
It sticks with me as a sort of refutation of how Da Vinci worked, which was to expand, refine and carry forward ideas of people that had come before him.