How did Leonardo Da Vinci influence the Renaissance?

Introduction

The Italian Renaissance was one of the most remarkable periods in all of Western History. It was an era of great cultural achievements that laid the foundation of the modern world and it produced many remarkable individuals. One of the most remarkable of these was Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). He is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists who ever lived. However, he was so much more than this he was also a polymath and is often referred to as a ‘Universal Genius’. Among the subjects that he contributed to were science, engineering, mechanics, urban planning, cartographer, philosophy, anatomy, and others. Leonardo is recognized as making a unique contribution to the Renaissance, that period of time which saw the re-birth of learning and a move to a secular worldview. The Florentine artist and polymath made a decisive contribution to this epoch. He decisively influenced artistic trends in his own time and in the later Renaissance. His interest in science and experiment inspired many humanists to study the world and nature. He was also a great inventor, but his inventions had little impact, on his own era.

Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man

The life of Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo was born in 1452, in the village of Vinci, outside the city of Florence. His father was a wealthy lawyer and his mother was a peasant woman. His parents were not married, and Leonardo was illegitimate, which carried with it a great deal of social stigma, at the time. He could not legally bear his father’s surname and so he was named after his native village, Vinci [1]. It appears that the young boy received little or no formal education. We do know that at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488). He was one of the leading artists of his day and was a great influence on the young Leonardo, especially in his dynamic representations of the human figure. After the completion of his apprenticeship, the young man from Vinci became an assistant to Verrocchio and his skill soon became well-known. His style was considered to be very original, especially his use of light and shade (McCurdy, p. 34</ref>In either 1477/1488, Leonardo set up his own studio and soon was receiving major commissions. At this time, he was accused of being a homosexual and if he had been found guilty he could have been executed. Leonardo was able to have the charges dropped but his reputation suffered. In 1481 he painted the Adoration of the Magi, which made him famous in Florence and beyond. However, the work was unfinished because he was invited to Milan by its powerful Duke. Leonardo greatly impressed the Duke and he presented himself as a skilled engineer. Leonardo painted several outstanding works in Milan such as the Virgin of the Rock. It was also at this time that he produced one of the most famous works in all art history the Last Supper. During his time in Milan he also began to secretly study dead bodies and also worked as a military engineer. Da Vinci also created some bronze sculptures for the Duke of Milan, none of which sadly have survived. In 1499, when the French invaded Italy, Leonardo fled the city and stayed in Venice. Here he was active as a military engineer and drew up plans to create a series of naval defenses. In 1500 the artist, who was by now one of the most famous men in all of Italy returned to his native Florence. Here he continued to work on several artistic projects, but he appears to have left many uncompleted. Many of the projects from this period are only known from Leonardo’s drawings, which are considered to be masterpieces. In 1506, Leonardo worked for a time as a military engineer for the notorious Cesare Borgia, who was ruthlessly carving a state for himself out of Papal lands in central Italy. Around this period, he painted his most famous work, the Mona Lisa. The identity of the woman in the portrait has never been established but Leonardo worked on it for the rest of his life and took it with him on his travels. The Florentine returned to Milan in 1506 and he worked on an equestrian statue and continued his scientific studies. In particular he was fascinated with anatomy and this influenced his art, greatly. During these years he filled his notebooks with his observations, ideas, and drawings on a range of subjects. One common theme in his notebook is his fascination with movement, growth, and action. In 1516, he was invited to Rome, but his time here was not that productive. While he was still esteemed as an artist, his work was not as popular as it once was. Da Vinci who was a rather reclusive figure, continued to fill his notebooks and made many plans for future projects, most of which never came to fruition. He was regarded as a genius and was frequently consulted by many leading figures, on artistic issues and on engineering projects [2]. The French king Francis I invited Leonardo and his disciples to his court in Fontainebleau. Leonardo was given great honors by Francis and he became the official court painter among other distinctions. The French monarch provided him with a house and Leonardo continued to write in his notebooks and to make plans for projects, none of which he executed. He died in 1519 in the home that he was given to him by the French king.

Drawing of Leonardo in old age

Influence on art

During the early Renaissance, painting had advanced greatly, because of great artists such as Botticelli and Verrocchio. However, Leonardo was to raise painting to new heights and his work is not only intrinsically important but very influential. His work was revolutionary because it was so realistic and expressive. Leonardo used his anatomical studies to better understand the human body and especially its actions. This allowed him to create images of people that are highly realistic and very dynamic. The emotions expressed by Leonardo are much more naturalistic than previous artists [3]. Leonardo inspired many painters to adopt a more naturalistic approach. His ideas on painting were presented in his Treatise on Painting, which was widely read. Leonardo was a master of painting techniques, including that of chiaroscuro, which is the treatment of the light and shade. Many incorrectly assume that Leonardo invented this technique, but he certainly perfected it. His technique was followed by many subsequent painters. Based on his scientific studies, Leonardo was a master of linear perspective and he exceeded all those who went before him. He developed new ways of representing perspective and this gave his painting more depth and made them appear more realistic. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the painting was the development of the sfumato technique, a new way to blend glazes. This made the figures in a painting living and breathing subjects. The techniques and styles developed by Leonardo were revolutionary and they, in particular, influenced the other great Florentine, Michelangelo. The frescoes of Michelangelo became more dynamic and expressive, as a result of the work of Leonardo. This was despite the fact that the two great artists did not like each other and were bitter rivals. The genius from Vinci later inspired other painters of the High Renaissance such as Raphael (1483-1520). Da Vinci’s treatment of the Virgin Mary was very influential in the paintings of Raphael. Among the others whose work was shaped by the great Florentine was Filippino Lippi (1457–1504) and del Sarto (1486–1531). Leonardo was also a very important influence on sculpture. His original sculptures are now lost. However, at the time they proved enormously influential on the development of Renaissance sculpture. The Florentine was also interested in architecture and helped to design the cupola for the Cathedral in Milan. He wrote an unpublished treatise on architecture and produced many architectural drawings [4]. These inspired many architects including the great Bramante.

Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’

Leonardo and science

The great Florentine was fascinated by science, engineering, and mechanics. He wrote about these subjects copiously in his notebooks. His theory of knowledge was based on the study of nature. Leonardo was also intrigued by the human body and he is believed to have dissected up to 30 human bodies and made many anatomical drawings. Moreover, he was a great observer and he made many empirical observations that were insightful, in areas as diverse as hydraulic engineering and town planning. This emphasis on empiricism was radical at the time because the authority of the Church and the Ancient Classical authors was unchallenged and the received wisdom [5]. The Florentine’s ideas at this time are more akin to modern ideas on science and learning. However, his influence was limited by the power of the Church. For example, Leonardo could not publish his findings on his anatomical studies because the dissection of bodies was considered sinful by the Catholic hierarchy and he could have even prosecuted by the civil authorities. This is why he was forced to keep many of his discoveries and ideas secret. The Florentine wrote his ideas in his notebooks using mirror writing so that they could not be easily deciphered. As a result, much of his scientific achievements and observations were not disclosed until a century or more after his death. If the Florentine had published his work on science, such as his study of the heart, the ‘have advanced the march of science by a whole century’’ [6]. However, during his lifetime Leonardo did encourage some to privilege observation and experiment over the teachings of the Church and the Classics, which was to be very influential in the later phase of the Renaissance. Leonardo could be said to have helped to change the intellectual environment of the Renaissance to one that was much more modern in outlook.

Leonardo as an inventor

Leonardo was also an inventor and his notebooks are filled with many plans or drafts for inventions. Da Vinci drafted plans for a flying machine, diving suit, parachute, anemometer, armored car, self-propelled car, and even a robotic knight. Leonardo was one of the most prolific inventors in history. None of his inventions were ever developed into practical and working machines. They remained only designs on paper, even though there were ground-breaking ideas [7]. This was because Leonardo was not very good at finishing projects and he often lacked the resources to put his ideas into practice, such as for his plans for a robotic knight. His designs for various inventions were too far ahead of their time and would not have been understood by his contemporaries. Moreover, the technology was not available to develop his innovative ideas, this was why It was only in later centuries that his designs were appreciated. While Leonardo can be credited with having great ideas, his inventions made little or no impact on the Renaissance. [8].

Anatomical drawings by Leonardo from his Notebook

Conclusion

Leonardo is one of the towering figures in the development of the Renaissance and indeed Western culture. He was a remarkable man and a genuine polymath who had extraordinary insights and achievements. The Florentine was able to develop new techniques in painting that revolutionized the art form and it inspired many of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, such as Raphael. Leonardo had a great influence on sculpture and architecture in Italy during his lifetime and after. Leonardo was also a scientist and interested in a wide range of subjects. His scientific discoveries, such as those in anatomy were kept secret, largely out of fear of the Church. However, his approach to study and his interest in nature, inspired many to adopt a more modern outlook. Leonardo was a designer and inventor of genius. However, most of his ideas remained only ideas and often impractical. Therefore, his inventions made little impact on the Renaissance.

Further Reading

Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: the marvellous works of nature and man. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Vol. 1-3. Courier Corporation, 2012.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. A treatise on painting. Read Books Ltd, 2013.

References

  1. McCurdy, Edward. The mind of Leonardo da Vinci (London, Courier Corporation, 2013), p 4
  2. McCurdy, p 113
  3. Hall, Marcia B. Color and meaning: practice and theory in Renaissance painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p 117
  4. Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: the marvelous works of nature and man (Oxford, Oxford, University Press, 2007), p 113
  5. Randall, John Herman. "The place of Leonardo Da Vinci in the emergence of modern science." Journal of the History of Ideas (1953): 191-202
  6. Reti, Ladislao. "Leonardo da Vinci and the graphic arts: the early invention of relief-etching." The Burlington Magazine 113, no. 817 (1971): 189
  7. Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard, and Gareth Rees. The inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. Phaidon Press, 1978, p 17
  8. Gibbs-Smith et al, p. 145