Failing on the Side of Greatness: The Life and Thought of Leonardo da Vinci
“Leonardo? Phfff. Totally overrated.”
Among humanity’s not-ever-thought sentences, this must rank as one of the not-ever-thought-est. Nearly six hundred years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is still humanity’s human: our great example, held up to the universe, to justify our existence as a species. “We made this man once,” we argue, “let us persist, and we may make another.” Da Vinci is the “universal man” whose grand failures (and there were many) render him, if anything, a more stunning figure than his celebrated successes.
And he was a real bastard. Born out of wedlock to a rising-star notary in 1452, he was packed quietly away to live with his grandparents, far from his father’s legitimate family and the eyes of rumor-hungry Florentine society. Leonardo never stopped feeling the sting of his awkward social position, or the loneliness of having been abandoned. His notebooks pulse painfully with allegories expressing the agony of parental neglect, all the more raw for being so desperately hidden in the language of self-distancing mythology.
As an illegitimate son he received no formal education, a deficit he would scramble to correct in later life, and instead spent a rural youth engaging with the wonders of the countryside. One of the most beautiful things about him was the fact that his childhood sensitivity to the beauty of life in all of its forms did not leave him upon entry into the practical world of adult things. He was a vegetarian out of fondness for animals, bought caged birds at the marketplace just to set them free, and would get angry if he heard people boasting of their hunting exploits. That all life, and not just that of humans, is worthy of respect and protection is something he brought to the European consciousness, and would merit him a place on a list of humanism’s benefactors on its own.
Of course, there is slightly more to Leonardo than an advanced perspective on our connection with the animals. Leonardo’s gift for drawing manifested itself early, and his father, recognizing a solution to his what-to-do-with-Leo problem, signed him on at about the age of fourteen as an apprentice to the Florentine artist-of-all-trades Verrocchio.
It takes a bit of imagining to conjure the world that Leonardo then found himself in. We think of Leonardo or Botticelli as tortured geniuses slaving over their great canvases and forget that, most of the time, they were designing disposable amusements for the wealthy, engineering special effects for public celebrations, or painting clock faces for the local convent. An artist’s studio in the 15th century did anything and everything asked of it. Verrocchio was just as happy to design costumes for a wicked awesome de Medici party as to craft and place the grand globe sitting atop Brunelleschi’s dome. Serious commissions and frivolities jostled against each other for workshop space, and an artist was expected to be master of all of these.
This was Leonardo’s environment for a decade, as he learned the new techniques in oil painting brought from the north while taking copious notes on casting bronze and producing the pyrotechnic illusions that were all the rage with the nobility. It was, if anything, a better education than that received by the legitimate children of the middle class. In place of Latin and theology, he learned chemistry and engineering, art and mythology, book-keeping and politics.
Leonardo the Artist bloomed in this atmosphere, and came to his full flowering in Milan, but it is Leonardo the Thinker we’re going to focus on. Towards the end of his career he repeatedly claimed to be painting-weary, and only produced new works under patronal duress, but he never stopped learning and inventing. When left to his own devices he actively sought engineering work, or artistic work that had a clear engineering challenge to it, such as the giant bronze horse of Milan he never had the chance to actually cast. His notebooks abound with ways to make life easier through automation—stables with mechanisms to regularly feed the horses and remove the manure, armored assault vehicles that ran themselves, automatic weaving mechanisms, machines that harvested the wind and water, and on and on, each aspect of which was rendered from multiple perspectives, with a care to detail unheard of in previous engineering logs. In effect, he taught the continent how to properly and thoroughly carry out a technical drawing, setting a standard for precision, clarity, and detail that we are still chasing to some degree.
While monarchs planned grand projects to glorify themselves or to produce profitable land, Leonardo dreamed up ideal living communities that would improve sanitation, reduce disease (Italy was still regularly wracked with plague in da Vinci’s time), and reduce crowding. While the philosophers were at work trying to create hard philosophical distinctions between humans and the rest of nature, Leonardo filled pages with diagrams from the dozens of autopsies he carried out on humans with the aim of comparing human internal structures to animal ones. And just as his engineering diagrams ushered in a new era of technical drawing, so were his anatomical diagrams the most accurate representations to be found anywhere until centuries after his death.
Yet, as perhaps had to happen to a person so out of step with his time, Leonardo failed more often than he succeeded. The number of his unfinished paintings runs even with those he completed, while his drive for experimentation and improvement hastened the deterioration of his finished products. His great bronze horse couldn’t be completed when the needed bronze was recalled for use in casting cannons (Michelangelo, always spoiling for a fight, would later throw this failure in Leonardo’s face during a public argument). His plan to capture a besieged city peacefully through a redirection of its water supply proved a lengthy and costly debacle. And, most psychologically disturbing, he never mastered flight in spite of years devoted to its study.
And that is the great, tragic theme of Leonardo’s life: his yearning unconsummated. What you see in his notebooks is a man spending every piece of himself trying to learn everything in the universe, so that he’ll finally see how it all hangs together, and never finding satisfaction. You see him master the sum total of a discipline’s knowledge, only to lash out at himself for still not having the unifying answers he sought. He was, in his own estimation, a case study in perpetual failure, redeemed only by being aware of how much he had yet to learn. For priests and astrologers, who pretended complete knowledge, he had nothing but contempt: “Many are those who trade in tricks and simulated miracles, duping the foolish multitude; and if nobody unmasked their subterfuges, they would impose them on everyone.”
No church nor God would stand in the way of Leonardo’s quest for answers. He worked on Sundays and cast scorn on those who would place arbitrary dogmatic limitations on man’s quest for knowledge. He seems not to have believed in an afterlife and was, according to Vasari, a heathen by reputation. In his religious paintings, traditional symbolism is eschewed to make way for moments of human truth. His Virgin Mary is a mother, playing simply with her child. His Adoration of the Magi is as notable for the novelty of its compositional approach as for the artist’s self-representation at the picture’s edge, gazing away from the commotion, pondering his own world entirely. Convents and patrons could ask for all the cherubim and traditional symbols they wanted, Leonardo would follow his own muse and represent the mysteries of existence according to his own brilliant but troubled soul.
Of course, in between moments of brilliance and despair, there was a lot of partying. The Italian fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were punctuated with manic celebrations organized by wealthy mercantile families aiming to display their dominance and pacify the commoners. And Leonardo relished it. He curled his beard and wore fine, rose-colored shirts, devised elaborate pranks, and surrounded himself with beautiful people (for that matter he was himself, by all accounts, strikingly handsome to the end of his days). Often disgusted with people (most, he once wrote during a dark moment, were little more than walking intestinal tracts), he nevertheless was obsessed with being useful and pleasing to them. Those periods when he had no practical or amusing work to perform, such as his dismal stay in Rome, were among the saddest of his life.
And so his reputation grew, as the man who knew everything, whose conversation held wonders, who was as gorgeous to look upon as his works were awesome to behold, who could play a lute as flawlessly as he could render a face, and who could be relied upon to strain every nerve of his electric brain to find ways to improve your life, if you would let him. As such, he was sought after by the greatest figures of Italian history—Lorenzo de Medici and Ludovico Sforza, Isabelle d’Este and Cesare Borgia, Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis I all lent him their protection and patronage at one point or another. His last protector, Francis I of France, paid all of his expenses just for the pleasure of his conversation, to be able to listen to the great man explain his understanding of the world.
Albertus Magnus, Peter Abelard—these are figures we moderns will never feel entirely at home with, and our descendants even less so. Their words and worries, hopes and decisions, are swathed in a psychological lexicon that takes a conscious act of imaginative abstraction to grasp, so as much as we admire them we never feel that they are of us. That is not the case with Leonardo. I suspect he will be as warmly welcomed into the sympathies of humans in 2214 as now; his fevered need to do and know everything resonating with something inside all of us who know that time on this planet is short and precious, while his empathy with all living things and overriding need to be useful to his fellow humans can only grow in attractiveness as we make the turn from creatures unified by religion to people sharing an interest in each other. We’ll feel at home with his darkness, as we’ll feel exulted by his moments of synthesis, and always feel his secure hand pushing us forward, to learn what he could not. His notebooks are our spiritual home, and will be so long as there is a universe to question.
In English, two classic works are by Kenneth Clark (1939, revised 1967) and Serge Bramly (1988), either of which will do you well as an overview of da Vinci’s life, though they necessarily can’t include some of the more recent Leonardo discoveries, like the Isabella D’Este portrait that finally surfaced just within the last year. Then it’s a good idea to head into his notebooks themselves—there are some neat collections out there that strive to put together in categories the thoughts which Leonardo scrawled haphazardly through seven-thousand pages of surviving text and drawing. There are even several free versions of the text available to you pad-owners out there, meaning you could start engaging with Leonardo’s brain right now!