Thoughts on Art and Life, Leonardo da Vinci
Thoughts on Art and Life
Leonardo da Vinci
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Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath of the High Renaissance who was active as a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor and architect. While his fame initially rested on his achievements as a painter, he also became known for his notebooks, in which he made drawings and notes on a variety of subjects, including anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, painting, and paleontology. Thoughts On Art and Life by Leonardo Da Vinci, published in 1906 and translated by Maurice Baring, is a collection of Da Vinci's ideas and thoughts on different spheres of life.

Art and Life

Leonardo da Vinci

Maurice Baring


The long obscurity of the Dark Ages lifted over Italy, awakening to anational though a divided consciousness. Already two distincttendencies were apparent. The practical and rational, on the one hand,was soon to be outwardly reflected in the burgher-life of Florence andthe Lombard cities, while at Rome it had even then created the civilorganization of the curia. The novella was its literary triumph. Inart it expressed itself simply, directly and with vigour. Opposed tothis was the other great undercurrent in Italian life, mystical,religious and speculative, which had run through the nation from theearliest times, and received fresh volume from mediaeval Christianity,encouraging ecstatic mysticism to drive to frenzy the population of itsmountain cities. Umbrian painting is inspired by it, and the glowingwords of Jacopone da Todi expressed in poetry the same religiousfervour which the life of Florence and Perugia bore witness to inaction.

Italy developed out of the relation and conflict of these two forcesthe rational with the mystical. Their later union in the greater menwas to form the art temperament of the Renaissance. The practicalside gave it the firm foundation of rationalism and reality on which itrested; the mystical guided its endeavour to picture the unreal interms of ideal beauty.

The first offspring of this union was Leonardo. Since the decay ofancient art no painter had been able to fully express the human form,for imperfect mastery of technique still proved the barrier. Leonardowas the first completely to disengage his personality from itsconstraint, and make line express thought as none before him could do.Nor was this his only triumph, but rather the foundation on whichfurther achievement rested. Remarkable as a thinker alone, hepreferred to enlist thought in the service of art, and make art thehandmaid of beauty. Leonardo saw the world not as it is, but as hehimself was. He viewed it through the atmosphere of beauty whichfilled his mind, and tinged its shadows with the mystery of his nature.To all this, his birthright as a painter, a different element wasadded. A keen desire for knowledge, guiding his action in life,spurred him onward. Conscious of this dominant impulse, he hasfancifully described himself in a Platonic allegory. He had passedbeneath overhanging cliffs on his way to a great cavern. On bendedknees, peering through its darkness, fear and desire had overwhelmedhim, — fear for the menacing darkness of the cavern; and desire toascertain if there were wonders therein.

From his earliest years, the elements of greatness were present inLeonardo. But the maturity of his genius came unaffected from without.He barely noticed the great forces of the age which in life heencountered. After the first promise of his boyhood in the Tuscanhills, his youth at Florence had been spent under Verrocchio as amaster, in company with those whose names were later to brighten thepages of Italian art. He must then have heard Savonarola’s impassionedsermons, yet, unlike Botticelli, remained dumb to his entreaties. Hemust have seen Lorenzo the Magnificent. But there was little openingin the Medicean circle for the young painter, who had first to gainfame abroad. The splendour of Milan under Il Moro, then the mostbrilliant court in Europe, attracted him. He went there, proclaiminghis ability, in a remarkable letter, to accomplish much, but desiringchiefly to erect a great monument to the glory of the Sforza. He spentyears at that court, taken up by his different ventures, — painting,sculpture, engineering, even arranging festivities — but his greaterproject was doomed to failure, enmeshed in the downfall of Ludovico.Even to this he remained impassive. “Visconti dragged to prison, hisson dead, … the duke has lost his state, his possessions, hisliberty, and has finished nothing he undertook,” was his only commenton his patron’s end, written on the margin of a manuscript.After the overthrow of the Duke of Milan, began his Italian wanderings.At one time he contemplated entering the service of an Oriental prince.Instead, he entered that of Caesar Borgia, as military engineer, andthe greatest painter of the age became inspector of a despot’sstrongholds. But his restless nature did not leave him long at this.Returning to Florence he competed with Michelangelo; yet the service ofeven his native city could not retain him. His fame had attracted theattention of a new patron of the arts, prince of the state which hadconquered his first master. In this his last venture, he forsookItaly, only to die three years later at Amboise, in the castle of theFrench king.

The inner nature of Leonardo remained as untouched by the men heencountered as by the events which were then stirring Europe. Alone,he influenced others, remaining the while a mystery to all. The mostgifted of nations failed to understand the greatest of her sons.Isabella d’Este, the first lady of her time, seeking vainly to obtainsome product of his brush, was told that his life was changeful anduncertain, that he lived for the day, intent only on his art. His ownthoughts reveal him in another light. “I wish to work miracles,” hewrote. And elsewhere he exclaimed, “Thou, O God, sellest us allbenefits, at the cost of our toil…. As a day well spent makes sleepseem pleasant, so a life well employed makes death pleasant. Alife well spent is long.”

Leonardo’s views of aesthetic are all important in his philosophy oflife and art. The worker’s thoughts on his craft are always ofinterest. They are doubly so when there is in them no trace ofliterary self-consciousness to blemish their expression. He recordedthese thoughts at the instant of their birth, for a constant habit ofobservation and analysis had early developed with him into a secondnature. His ideas were penned in the same fragmentary way as theypresented themselves to his mind, perhaps with no intention ofpublishing them to the world. But his ideal of art dependedintimately, none the less, on the system he had thrown out seemingly inso haphazard a manner. His method gives to his writings their onlyunity. It was more than a method: it was a permanent expression of hisown life, which aided him to construct a philosophy of beautycharacteristic of the new age.

He had searched to find a scientific basis for art, and discovered itin the imitation of nature, based on rational experience. This ideawas, in part, Aristotelian, imbibed with the spirit of the time; thoughin the ordinary acceptance of the word Leonardo was no scholar, leastof all a humanist. His own innovation in aesthetic was in requiring arational and critical experience as a necessary foundation, theacquisition of which was to result from the permanent condition of themind. He had trained his own faculties to critically observe allnatural phenomena: first try by experience, and then demonstrate whysuch experiment is forced to operate in the way it does, was hisadvice. The eye, he gave as an instance, had been defined as onething; by experience, he had found it to be another.

But by imitation in art, Leonardo intended no slavish reproduction ofnature. When he wrote that “the painter strives and competes withnature,” he was on the track of a more Aristotelian idea. This hebarely developed, using nature only partly in the Stagirite’s sense, ofinner force outwardly exemplified. The idea of imitation, in fad, asit presented itself to his mind, was two-fold. It was not merely theexternal reproduction of the image, which was easy enough to secure.The real difficulty of the artist lay in reflecting inner character andpersonality. It was Leonardo’s firm conviction that each thought hadsome outward expression by which the trained observer was able torecognize it. Every man, he wrote, has as many movements of the bodyas of varieties of ideas. Thought, moreover, expressed itselfoutwardly in proportion to its power over the individual and his timeof life. By thus employing bodily gesture to represent feeling andidea, the painter could affect the spectator whom he placed in thepresence of visible emotion. He maintained that art was of slight useunless able to show what its subject had in mind. Painting should aim,therefore, to reproduce the inner mental state by the attitude assumed.This was, in other words, a natural symbolism, in which the symbol wasno mere convention, but the actual outward projection of the innercondition of the mind. Art here offered an equation of inward purposeand outward expression, neither complete without the other.

Further than this, influenced by Platonic thought, Leonardo’sconception of painting was, as an intellectual state or condition,outwardly projected. The painter who practised his art withoutreasoning of its nature was like a mirror unconsciously reflecting whatwas before it. Although without a “manual act” painting could not berealized, its true problems — problems of light, of colour, pose andcomposition, of primitive and derivative shadow — had all to be graspedby the mind without bodily labour. Beyond this, the scientificfoundation in art came through making it rest upon an accurateknowledge of nature. Even experience was only a step towards attainingthis. “There is nothing in all nature without its reason,” he wrote.“If you know the reason, you do not need the experience.”

In the history of art, as well, he urged that nature had been the testof its excellence. A natural phenomenon had brought art intoexistence. The first picture in the world, he remarked in a happyepigram, had been “a line surrounding the shadow of a man, cast by thesun on the wall.” He traced the history of painting in Italy duringits stagnation after the decay of ancient art, when each painter copiedonly his predecessor, which lasted until Giotto, born among barrenmountains, drew the movements of the goats he tended, and thus advancedfarther than all the earlier masters. But his successors only copiedhim, and painting sank again until Masaccio once more took nature ashis guide.

A quite different and combative side to Leonardo’s aesthetic, whichforced him to state the broad principles of art, appears in his attackson poetry and music as inferior to painting. In that age of humanistictriumph, literature had lorded it over the other arts in a manner notfree from arrogance. There was still another cause for his onslaughton poetry. Leonardo resented the fact that painters, who were rarelymen of education, had not defended themselves against the slurs cast ontheir art. His counter attack may have been intended to hide his ownsmall scholarship. It served another end as well. His conception ofthe universal principles of beauty was made clear by this defence. Hisfirst principle stated broadly that the most useful art was the onewhich could most easily be communicated. Painting wascommunicable to all since its appeal was made to the eye. While thepainter proceeded at once to the imitation of nature, the poet’sinstruments were words which varied in every land. He took thePlatonic view of poetry as a lying imitation, removed from truth. Hecalled the poet a collector of other men’s wares, who decked himself intheir plumage. Where poetry presented only a shadow to theimagination, painting offered a real image to the eye; and the eye, asthe window of the soul through which all earthly beauty was revealed,the sight, he exclaimed, which had discovered navigation, which hadimpelled men to seek the West, was the noblest of all the senses.Painting spoke only by what it accomplished, poetry ended in the verywords with which it sang its own praises. If, then, poets calledpainting dumb poetry, he could retort by dubbing poetry blind painting.In common with his successors, Leonardo could not escape from thisfallacy, which, in overlooking all save descriptive verse, was destinedto burden aesthetic until demolished by Lessing.

It was the opinion of Leonardo that the temporary nature of musiccaused its inferiority to painting. Although durability was in itselfno absolute test, — else the work of coppersmiths would be the highestart, — yet in any final scale, permanence could not altogether bedisregarded. Music perished in the very act of its creation, while painting preserved the beautiful from the hand of time. “Helenof Troy, gazing in a mirror, in her old age, wondered how she had twicebeen ravished.” Mortal beauty would thus vanish, if it were notrescued by art from destroying age and death.

Leonardo contrasted painting with sculpture, for he had practised both,and thought himself peculiarly qualified to judge their merit. Heconsidered the former the nobler art of the two, for sculpture involvedbodily toil and fatigue, while by its very nature it lacked perspectiveand atmosphere, colour, and the feeling of space. Painting, on theother hand, caused by an illusion, was in itself the result of deeperthought. An even broader test served to convince him of its finalsuperiority. That art was of highest excellence, he wrote, whichpossessed most elements of variety and universality. Paintingcontained and reproduced all forms of nature; it made its appeal by theharmonious balance of parts which gratified all the senses. By itsvery duality it fulfilled the highest purpose. The painter was able tovisualize the beauty which enchanted him, to bring to reality the fancyof his dreams, and give outward expression to the ideal within.

The genius of Leonardo as a painter came through unfolding the mysteryof life. Like Miranda, he had gazed with wonder at the beauty of theworld. “Look at the grace and sweetness of men and women in thestreet,” he wrote. The most ordinary functions of life and natureamazed him most. He observed of the eye how in it form and colour, andthe entire universe it reflected, were reduced to a single point.“Wonderful law of nature, which forced all effects to participate withtheir cause in the mind of man. These are the true miracles!”Elsewhere he wrote again: “Nature is full of infinite reasons whichhave not yet passed into experience.” He conceived it to be thepainter’s duty not only to comment on natural phenomena as restrainedby law, but to merge his very mind into that of nature by interpretingits relation with art. Resting securely on the reality of experiencedtruth, he felt the deeper presence of the unreal on every side. In thesame way that he visualized the inner workings of the mind, his keenimagination aided him to make outward trifles serve his desire to findmysterious beauty everywhere. Oftentimes, in gazing on some ancient,time-stained wall, he describes how he would trace thereon landscapes,with mountains, rivers and valleys. The whole world was full of amystery to him, which his work reflected. The smile of consciousness,pregnant of that which is beyond, illumines the expression of MonaLisa. So, too, in the strange glance of Ann, of John the Baptist, andof the Virgin of the Rocks, one realizes that their thoughts dwell inanother world.

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