Leonardo the Vinci: The Philosopher

“Vision without execution is hallucination. .. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo [da Vinci] knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.”
Walter Isaacson

Leonardo the Vinci was born on April 15th, 1452 in a small Florentine town to Ser Piero da Vinci an artisan, and Caterina from a lower class. Although both of Leonardo’s parents married separately after his birth, very little is known about his childhood. But the records from the year 1457 indicate that Leonardo lived in the household of his paternal grandfather. He has been known to be close to his uncle Franscesco da Vinci who established his official residence in Florence in 1469 and had a successful career. Despite his family history, Leonardo received a very informal education in basic skills like writing reading, and mathematics. His artistic talent was recognized at a very early stage which led his family to focus their attention there.

In the mid-1460’s after the death of Leonardo’s master, the sculptor Donatello, Leonardo became an apprentice by the age of 17 at the studio in Florence named Andrea del Verocchio and remained in training for seven years. Much of his initial commissions remained unfulfilled when he went to offer his services to the Duke of Milan. Much of his extraordinary paintings happened during his stay in Milan from 1482 to 1499. Painting inspired Leonardo. And so did science. He was the first painter to combine art and the concept of proportion and geometry by exploring human anatomy in Vitruvian Man. The drawing represents Leonardo’s concept of ideal body proportions and it is inscribed in a square and a circle. First published for reproduction in 1810, the drawing did not attain its fame until further reproduced in the late 19th century. During his stay in Milan, he worked for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper was one of the paintings that were offered to the church as a part of its renovation plan. To permit his inconsistent schedule and frequent revisions, it is painted with materials that allowed for regular attention like tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic. Due to the methods used, and a variety of environmental factors the painting is mostly damaged and little of the original work could be revived. Housed in a refectory, The Last Supper is his greatest work.

A philosopher at heart, Leonardo played around with light and shadows to give paintings a three-dimensional effect. In the Last Supper, Leonardo painted the ceiling In a way that was geometric and proportional to the twelve apostles. The painting was drawn in a way where the long dining hall was portrayed through a mathematical aspect. Monalisa on the other hand was painted in the era 1503 o 1506, the time when Leonardo fled Milan for Venice, accompanied by his assistant Salai and a friend, the mathematician Luca Paciolli. The Mona Lisa is a painting probably of the wife of a noble businessman Franscesco del Giocondo. With the mysterious smile, the painting shows the background as a circle of the planet, from rivers to trees, to mountains and the sky. Leonardo was intrigued by the color of the sky and documented that the blue color might be due to the presence of water vapor in our atmosphere.

As a painter he was very sporadic, there were days when he would paint the whole day while some days he would just see the painting and put a few strokes and procrastinate. He felt ‘procrastination is the nature of humans, contemplation gives birth to all innovations’. The time he spent thinking and procrastinating, was the time he reflected on his ideas and approaches to the painting.

The concept of anatomy interested Leonardo. To calm his quest, he dissected corpses and drew pictures of the female reproductive system and the process of childbirth. His study of the fetus in the womb is kept in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Most o Leonardo’s writings are in mirror cursive, probably because he was left-handed. He used a lot of symbols and a variety of shorthands in his writings.

During his lifetime Leonardo was a valued engineer. With the same rational and analytical approach, he designed several machines like an ariel screw, a model for an airplane, and musical instruments.

As Leonardo mentioned, “Those who are in love with practice without theoretical knowledge are like the sailor who goes onto a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going,” he wrote in 1510. “Practice must always be founded on sound theory.” The practice should be based on a sound theory and understanding that help to keep the focus like a sailor in a sailboat.

Leonardo also mapped patterns across disciplines. His traits of omnivorous curiosity which border fanatical and acute power of observation were very intense. Understanding human anatomy, developing skills of proportion, and connecting geometry to painting, Leonardo matched his wisdom across genres. This special skill accelerated his proficiency across subjects. As water said, “In addition to his instinct for discerning patterns across disciplines, Leonardo honed two other traits that aided his scientific pursuits: an omnivorous curiosity, which bordered on the fanatical, and an acute power of observation, which was eerily intense. Like much with Leonardo, these were interconnected”. Although he documented most of his creative genius, Leonardo kept most of his personal life a secret. He was never married and certain sources regard him to be homosexual, although no records reveal his intimate relationship with anyone neither male nor female. While Leonardo was buried in the collegiate church of Saint Florentin on the 12th of August 1519, the current location of his remains is unclear. Even after 500 years of Leonardo’s death, his contribution to the world as a philosopher is unsurmountable. His painting Mona Lisa is regarded as the most popular painting of all time and has earned the Guinness Book record of the most visited and mentioned paintings in the world to date.

P.S: Most of the writing is based on the notes and the references from the book Leonardo the Vinci by Walter Isaacson.

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Shreyoshi Chakraborti

Shreyoshi Chakraborti

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I’m a PhD Student in Biochemistry and Structural Biology at Stony Brook University, Long Island, NY and a writer at heart. I hope to connect facts with stories.