A Renaissance Man

** Note — the following post was begun on Sept. 4.

We’re on the night train from Milan to Bari, an all-night ride from northern Italy to the extreme south, in the heel of the boot of Italy.  We left Lake Como this morning, albeit reluctantly, and spent the day in Milan, visiting two churches, Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan.  The Duomo of Milan is the most spectacular example of northern Gothic architecture in all of Italy.

Duomo of Milan

Santa Maria delle Grazie is, by Italian standards, not especially impressive but for the fact that the wall of the refectory is decorated with Leonardo da Vinci’s Cenacolo (Last Supper).

Santa Maria delle Grazie

There are Last Supper frescoes all over Italy, eight in Florence alone, three of which would be extremely famous if not for Leonardo.  Here is a gorgeous “Last Supper” by Ghirlandaio in the convent of Ognissanti in Florence, a one minute walk from our Florence apartment last semester.

Last Supper, by Ghirlandaio

Generally these “Cenacolo” frescoes are not in churches; they are in monasteries and convents, and they fill an entire wall.  This is true of Leonardo’s as well.  It’s in a room in the monastery adjacent to the church, a room which fittingly became the refectory where the monks would have ….supper, naturally.  Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man, an artist and scientist.  His painting style is both exquisite and realistic, incorporating his extensive knowledge of anatomy and nature, combined with a sense of beauty and harmony that was grounded to a great extent in mathematical proportion.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is not in good condition.  A true fresco is painted on wet plaster, and the painting literally dries embedded in the wall.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was painted using tempera on a dry wall, and given the conditions inside the building, it began to deteriorate badly within a few years.  The painting was completed in the late 15th century, and in the last half millennium the room that it decorates has been used as an armory by French troops who abused the painting; it’s been used as a prison; and it’s been hit in WWII bombing raids.  It’s also been subject to a parade of attempted restorations, some of which did not go well.  The most recent restoration was finished in 1999, and this is what  Leonardo’s Last Supper looks like today (most think this is a great improvement).


Last Supper – Leonardo

Leonardo’s Last Supper is celebrated mainly because of the sense of proportion, harmony, beauty and emotionality portrayed in the painting, combined with a use of perspective that integrates the painting into the entire room.  Unlike his younger contemporary Michelangelo, Leonardo was not a prolific painter or sculptor.  It often took him many years to complete a work, and he is famous, actually infamous, for leaving works uncompleted.  He had a tendency to get distracted by new projects.  Although Leonardo spent much of his childhood in Florence with his father who worked in a building on the Piazza della Signoria very near to what is now the most famous museum in Florence (the Uffizi), there is only one completed work by Leonardo in the Uffizi, an exquisite Annunciation.

Although the Uffizi Museum has an entire room called the “Leonardo Room” there is very little of Leonardo there.  The Louvre has a much more impressive and extensive collection of Leonardo’s works.

Currently a team of art historians is working to discover the remains of a Leonardo fresco that may be hidden beneath a gigantic Giorgio Vasari work that covers a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  In fact, using scientific equipment they have found evidence of some sort of painting underneath with paints that chemically resemble those used in the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo and Michelangelo were commissioned to fresco opposite walls of the Hall of the 500 in the Palazzo in 1504 with scenes of a historic battle.   As the art historians at the Palazzo explain it, Leonardo was working in cool weather, and again he chose to apply paint (in this case oil) directly to the dry wall.  In the cool temperatures the paint he had applied was particularly slow to dry, and began to drip.  So he decided to speed up the drying process by heating the wall with charcoal braziers, which may have actually exacerbated the oozing of the paint, creating a rather ghoulish effect.  He gave up on the painting.  The art historians I encountered at the Palazzo didn’t seem too keen on the project to locate the Leonardo underneath the Vasari, because they expect that the best that will be found is something that looks more like parody of a Salvador Dali than a Leonardo.

Here is a Rubens painting that is supposed to have been based upon a copy of the drawing (cartoon) Leonardo had made in preparation for his “fresco” in the Palazzo Vecchio.


Scholars are now paying a good deal of attention to Leonardo’s more scientific work.  It wasn’t that Leonardo considered himself to be pursuing the distinct disciplines of art, science and mathematics; to him they were essential aspects of the same pursuit.  The artist needed to be a careful and systematic observer of the human body and of nature in order to pursue painting and sculpture.  Leonardo famously dissected corpses in order to learn more about muscular and skeletal aspects of the human body.  His notebooks are filled with very accurate drawings of birds in flight, of water currents, of powerful horses and of plants.

Leonardo’s drawing of pouring water

 Those drawings result from observations of interrelationships in nature that clearly demonstrate the qualities of harmony, balance and proportion  —  qualities that surely have as much to do with aesthetics and beauty as they do with mathematics and science.  For Leonardo, to have scientific knowledge of the human body was also to appreciate its beauty; these are two aspects of coming to understand it.  Contemporary quantum physicist (and author of the Tao of Physics) Fritjof Capra, who has done an extensive study of Leonardo’s notebooks, considers Leonardo to be an early proponent of a more holistic science that was ignored in the aftermath of the more mechanistic science of Galileo, Descartes, and Francis Bacon, and has only recently resurfaced in the fields of quantum physics and ecology.

Leonardo was an inventor, an architect and an urban designer who seemed to feel that human design needed to be inspired by the design of nature – which was far superior.  Not only was Leonardo a vegetarian, but he also said this, “The virtues of grasses, stones and trees do not exist because humans know them… (they) are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters.”  For him to see nature as having intrinsic value and not just value that derives from being used or even appreciated by humans was relatively unheard of during his time.  Even today these sorts of views could get someone branded as an environmental radical or worse.

One wouldn’t want to take this too far, however.  Leonardo also was consulting with Machiavelli (when Machiavelli served as Florence’s foreign affairs advisor) on a scheme to divert the flow of the Arno River so that it no longer passed through Pisa, thus depriving Florence’s rival city of its access to the sea.  Although this project was (thankfully) abandoned before completion – like so many of Leonardo’s projects, it nonetheless doesn’t qualify as a plan that respects the intrinsic value of nature.  And although Capra describes Leonardo as a peaceful man, his inventions do include a machine gun, a tank and a giant catapult to be used in attacking enemy cities.


Leonardo’s rendering of his proposed new invention- a machine gun

Perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of being interested in just about everything – the dark underside of being a Renaissance man.


2 thoughts on “A Renaissance Man

  1. Oh dear. I am interested in just about everything, too. What dark side lurks beneath my seemingly sunny predisposition to the world around me? You would know best of all. Perhaps, though, you will guard some of my secrets. Perhaps I will strive to be more Mona Lisa than Leonardo.

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