Leonardo da Vinci

“Whoever can reach the spring should not reach for the jug.”
Leonardo da Vinci. A Treatise on Painting


It is almost as difficult to describe Leonardo da Vinci as it is to encompass the scope of his preoccupations. He can rightfully be presented as a skilful painter, sculptor, architect, urban builder, scientist, hydrologist, geologist, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, chemist, but also a poet, musician, philosopher, constructor, linguist, anatomist, botanist, paleontologist, optician, scenographer, etc.

For over five centuries now, the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci has been inspiring many researchers and scientists. For one reason or another, the most eminent artists, writers, scholars, inventors and alchemists simply cannot ignore the study of the Da Vinci phenomenon.

However, even the most thorough biographers, scholars or writers cannot tell us more about Leonardo than he did with his own works. Paintings, manuscripts, diaries, his handwriting, the color of the paper, the drawings and the formulas, the airy landscape, truly alive… Close by, in the margins, mathematical calculations of perspective, the face of Madonna in a soft, melting light, a lock of hair, curled so perfectly by the humidity and the gentle Florentine sun as if it is a sea shell breathing the sea tide. Leonardo’s paintings and frescos, his diaries and drawings attract with a mysterious irresistible force and make us gaze at them intently and study them avidly and ardently. The master lures his scholar in an unfamiliar and limitless space…

Leonardo was born in 1452 in the little village of Anchiano, not far from the town of Vinci at the foot of Monte Alban. He was an illegitimate son of the Florentine notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman, Caterina, about whom biographers offer various reports. Most of them, however, share the opinion that she died early, at a time when Leonardo was only four years old. Consequently, Leonardo was taken for upbringing in his father’s house where he grew up under the care of his doting paternal grandmother and the close attention of the successive four wives of Piero da Vinci.

The illegitimate status of the boy, which probably would have precluded his acceptance for other studies, motivated to a great extent the father’s decision to have him apprenticed, in spite of his own passion for the noble exact sciences, in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, a famous Florentine artist. Leonardo was 14 when he joined the workshop and discovered a new world which engrossed him completely. It should be noted, however, that there could hardly be a single craft or even a whole branch of science, which could entice Leonardo more than Nature itself, whose great and mysterious laws encompassed all crafts, sciences, and arts. The passion for exploring the source of all sources – Nature – became evident in Leonardo’s interests from his very early years on.

Thanks to his “great love of art,” as his contemporaries would write later on, Leonardo, after only 6 years of study in the workshop of Verrocchio, was declared Master. For his epoch, this was an extraordinarily short time. Leonard’s recognition was accelerated by an event after which his teacher, who was known as Florence’s greatest painter, almost completely gave up painting and focused on sculpture. In The Baptism of Christ, which is the culmination of Verrocchio’s career as a painter, Leonardo corrected with his own hand one of the two angels depicted by his teacher: the angels are holding Jesus’ garment while John the Baptist pours water over his head. The landscape in the background is also believed to be Leonardo’s work. It is well known that when he looked at the painting, Verrocchio exclaimed that the student had surpassed his master.

At the age of 30 Leonardo left Florence to go to Milan. This move meant more freedom and new experience. In spite of his intense inner life, and his ceaseless explorations and innovations, Leonardo had little to do in Florence and even the Medici’s lucrative offers did not bring him satisfaction.

In his letter, addressed to the Duke of Lombardy, Ludovico Sforza Moro, Leonardo enumerates his useful capacities including the construction of “bridges which are very light and resist fire; demolishing, without bombarding, any fortress if its foundations have not been set on stone; subterranean passages either straight or winding, passing if necessary underneath trenches or a river; armored wagons carrying artillery, which shall break through the most serried ranks of the enemy; cannon and mortars and light ordnance in shape both ornamental and useful and different from those in common use. In time of peace, – he concludes, – I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.”

In the course of his long and fruitful service with Moro Leonardo demonstrated his talents not only as a superb painter but also as a scenographer, poet, architect, engineer, sculptor, and inventor. It is impossible to spell out all his works.

It is known that before his death Leonardo wrote very little. He spent his time walking, thinking and, as in his youth, buying caged birds at the marketplace and taking them outside the city in order to set them free. 

The Master’s last painting was John the Baptist, the Forerunner. He, however, does not look the way one might expect. John looks like the pagan god Bacchus. Instead of the thyrsus of Bacchic orgies, he is holding a reed cross, the prototype of the Golgotha cross. With his head bent to one side as if he is listening to something, full of expectation, and full of curiosity, he is smiling half enigmatically, half mockingly, his finger pointing upwards. Pointing at something or, perhaps, pointing at himself, he seems to be saying: “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.”

It is worth emphasizing, however, that during Leonardo’s lifetime many people recognized the uniqueness of his art but not everybody was able to appreciate his passion for various and sometimes rather unusual scientific experiments. He was sometimes accused of heresy in so far as he exceeded the church dichotomy between angelic and diabolic, between what was dear to God and what was derived from the pit of the abyss.

Most likely, Leonardo placed the pure, meticulous and patient experiment higher than spontaneous inspiration. Through indefatigable observation he tried to penetrate the laws, achieve the essence, and become one with the object of his art.  He would do this not only with respect to objects. Human beings – with the complex structure of their body, soul and container of the spirit – were also an object of exploration and study for him. The passion for such exploration irreversibly prevailed over all other human passions of Leonardo da Vinci.

“Here will be shown to you in fifteen entire figures the cosmography of the Microcosmos in the same order as was adopted before me by Ptolemy in his Cosmography,” Leonardo wrote. As we will presently see, his anatomical knowledge went far beyond the limits of natural science. It went back to the secret knowledge of initiates in the pre-Christian world, to the early pagan knowledge of divine proportions, and, according to some scholars, to the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. “What is above is like that which is below…”: the initial statement of the Smaragdine Table of Hermes Trismegistus, the first and major theoretician in the history of European alchemy, was mathematically derived and described by Leonardo.

The most important thing for Leonardo da Vinci was not the question “what” but, rather, the question “how:” how to explore, work, incarnate, experiment, and be always in process. He has frequently been perceived as an alchemist without much understanding what this signifies. The lunatics who wasted all their efforts and resources in order to achieve gold from other metals were despised by Leonardo who would call them not only stupid but, also, harmful for science. If we want to speak about Leonardo as an alchemist, we should think, rather, of internal transformations, taking place at the level of energy and consciousness.

This conclusion might be drawn from certain observations which Melchizedek made about Leonardo. This remarkable explorer of the sacred geometry and the mystery foundation of the world view of Ancient Egypt brought proof on the basis of Leonardo’s manuscripts and drawings that in his research Leonardo unraveled the structure of the matrix of life, incarnated in the so called “Flower of Life”: “the primary language of the Universe, of pure form and proportion.”

Another of Leonardo’s greatest discoveries is, according to Melchizedek, the Vitruvian man: “The first that strikes you when you look at him is the feeling that you are somehow attuned to him. Even if no intellectual associations or reflections emerge we somehow know that there is something important in him, some huge information about us.”

Leonardo’s artistic works were frequently subjected to corrections and repainting by the Catholic Church. Today, thanks to contemporary technologies we can get a complete picture of the values which the Master cherished and with which he lived. This gives rise to a paradoxical feeling: as if Leonardo did not even try to conceal his ideas; they are all on the surface; all we need do is look more closely.

 

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