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Brief Lives

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Mark Willingham looks at the philosophy of the great artist.

Leonardo da Vinci died five hundred years ago last year, and galleries all over the world commemorated this quincentenary. However, it was only long after his death – after the re-discovery of his collection of notebooks – that other academic fields could legitimately start to claim Leonardo as one of their own. So, what does this polymath, Renaissance man, genius, have to add to the study of philosophy?

Well, surely if being a philosopher is anything, it is using enquiry to test claims and hypotheses from first principles, including using experiments to discern whether or not truth can be reached from them. Indeed, as Ludwig Wittgenstein stated, “Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1923) – in which case we might have plenty to learn, not from a systematic exposition of a doctrine or the expounding of a theory, but from Leonardo’s life, his methods, and his spirit. From the select highlights of his life and work in this brief summary, I think anyone who holds even a fraction of Leonardo’s restlessness or curiosity can find something within his vast field of enquiry to deepen their own understanding.

Leonardo Observes Life

Baptism of Christ detail
Baptism of Christ detail

Born on April 15 1452, Leonardo was not obviously destined for greatness. The small, provincial town of Vinci is not where one might expect a Renaissance master to hail from. Being left-handed was an inconvenience which had to be overcome (by writing backwards). He was also an illegitimate child (of a local notary), and because of this, did not receive formal schooling. Winston Churchill once quipped that his own education was briefly interrupted by his attendance at school and perhaps in this light we should view these circumstances of Leonardo’s early life as one of history’s luckiest turns of events. Rather than receiving a traditional education, Leonardo had to educate himself, and as such, became the epitome of an independent learner. Unrestricted by subject boundaries, he became a master across an incredible range of disciplines. Indeed, part of Leonardo’s appeal is that he seemingly did not distinguish between the arts and the sciences. Life, nature, and knowledge were for him all interconnected. If we fast forward four hundred years to the early twentieth century, we reach the logical positivist philosophers of the Vienna Circle, and the idea that all theories must be verifiable, or else are meaningless. They rejected the idea that philosophers should sit in ivory towers, emitting unprovable metaphysical ideas. Leonardo too had a thirst for verifiable knowledge produced through observation, hypothesis, and repeated experimentation. He held that ‘wisdom was the daughter of experience’, and his notebooks are incredible testimony to his use of hypotheses and observations rather than a priori intuitions. So, philosophically, perhaps we should label Leonardo as an early empiricist, more than a hundred years before Locke et al. As he wrote, “The eye, the window of the soul, is the chief means whereby the understanding can most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of Nature.” A.J. Ayer and his Vienna Circle friends would surely approve.

In his early teenage years, showing discernible talent, Leonardo was placed as an apprentice to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88) in Florence. Being in Florence at this time was serendipitous for Leonardo, as it widened his horizons significantly. He was not only surrounded by masters of painting and sculpture, it was also a tolerant, vibrant, multicultural city – a far cry from sleepy, rural Vinci. He had access to the great artists of the day, and was immersed in the cultural explosion at the very epicentre of the Renaissance. From his work there, under the tutelage of Verrocchio, we can observe the beginning of Leonardo’s epoch-changing contributions to art; notably, his unique ability to capture movement in his paintings. We can interpret this as his way of blending his art with his particular diagnosis of the human condition. In this we can sense Leonardo’s awareness that life is transient and fluctuating, not idealised and overly posed, as in paintings more typical of the early Renaissance.

One instructive painting in this regard is Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1475). Commissioned as an altar piece, Jesus and John the Baptist lean towards each other in this solemn moment which marks the commencement of Christ’s ministry, the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering over Jesus as he receives the approval of the Father. Yet it is largely a static piece: it inspires reflection and contemplation, but does not depict life as it is lived. The angel on the bottom left, however, is believed to have been painted by Leonardo. One can immediately see that it has been painted by an artist with a different agenda: Leonardo’s angel is more alive, and, in what became distinctive in Leonardo’s style (culminating in the Mona Lisa) he captures his subjects on the turn, showing life in motion; capturing life in its change and impermanence. After his painting this, realising his apprentice’s genius, legend has it that Verrocchio was left in a state of despair.

Leonardo Looks Deeper

Leonardo © Krisztian Kotai 2020

Another insight into Leonardo’s thirst for knowledge and understanding of what it means to be human comes from his multiple dissections. These were not without controversy. Although not absolutely prohibited by the church at this time, they were hardly encouraged. In many ways this perfectly sums up Leonardo’s attitude to the church and systematic religion: interested in the same subject matter, but not one to be constrained by a doctrinal straitjacket, and learning by doing things himself from first principles rather than from established, orthodox authority. In one notebook entry he writes in response to the controversy surrounding his dissections that instead we should “rejoice that our creator has provided an instrument of such excellence”. If indeed we were made in God’s image, Leonardo wanted to see what lay underneath the canvas, again blending his ability to capture beauty externally when painting alongside developing his scientific knowledge of the human body. Giving advice to others undertaking the same investigation, he notes that “You will perhaps be deterred by your stomach”, and even if you can withstand that “you may be deterred by the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses”.

Leonardo followed the dominant Aristotelian tradition of believing that the physical bodies he was dissecting were in some way intermingled with the spiritual component we refer to as the mind or soul. But, typically for Leonardo, he was not content to accept purely speculative argument, and so his dissections sometimes focused on finding out where the soul might be located and how it operated. He linked this investigation closely to his study of optics and neurology, and established that the brain was the recipient of stimuli – so perhaps beginning to develop an understanding of the link between consciousness and the brain a hundred or so years before Descartes set us ‘thinking things’ off in a dualistic direction. Leonardo’s dictum that ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ has an Ockhamist vibe [‘The simplest possible explanation is to be preferred’, Ed], and his observational approach would certainly have led him towards an empirical rather than metaphysical explanation for the soul. Who knows what impact his findings may have had on the mind-body debate had they been printed and circulated? But his notebooks lay unread, and his work as a scientist was therefore largely unknown, until many years after his death.

Leonardo’s astounding drawings of his dissections were crucial for his portraiture. His later paintings show a sophisticated understanding of anatomy and how the muscles worked in certain poses (especially in and around the neck, given his penchant for capturing his subjects on the turn). Art scholars such as Kenneth Clark have sometimes expressed frustration that Leonardo was so distracted by his other interests that as a result there are so few of his paintings for us to see. But Leonardo saw painting as only one string to his bow. In fact, in the early 1480s, when he was seeking employment in the Court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan, he set out a full curriculum vitae of his interests and abilities, notably in engineering and military equipment design. His artistic talent is mentioned only briefly towards the end of his letter, almost as an addendum. This may have been because he was more likely to be employed because of his other talents; but surely if he saw himself as primarily a painter, he would have introduced himself as such. More recently, scholars such as Walter Isaacson examine how his interest in other disciplines such as anatomy enhanced his art, and argue that we simply would not revere his capturing of human beauty and form in the Mona Lisa and other works if he had not acquired such knowledge.

The Last Supper
The Last Supper

Leonardo Lasts

Leonardo’s depiction of The Last Supper (1496) provides more insight into his philosophical understanding of the human condition and our need for rhythm, order, and beauty. The scene captures the bombshell moment when Jesus reveals to his disciples that one of them is shortly to betray him. Judas is caught recoiling, unable to conceal his reaction to being rumbled. Besides the artistic genius on display, in particular the creation of light and Leonardo’s use of accelerated perspective (which he understood from his work in stage productions), his use of geometry provides rhythm and order in this otherwise noisy scene. Christ is slightly larger than the other figures, and his head, at the precise centre of the painting (and again caught on the turn), captures the eye first. He encapsulates our human vulnerability and tenderness even when telling his closest friends that one of them is a traitor. Leonardo’s art is here like a Socratic dialogue in action: we are invited to fill in the backstory and action, not simply be the recipient of instruction, as is more typical of paintings of the early Renaissance.

This further demonstrates Leonardo’s relationship with the Church: much more buttress than pillar – a supporter, but from the outside. Leonardo’s homosexual relationship with Salai would have made it impossible to have been in communion with the Catholic Church, and one senses that he would have struggled with some of the other doctrines of Catholicism too. In Lives of the Artists, written in 1550 (and so our first biographical record), Giorgio Vasari writes that Leonardo’s “cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian.” But Leonardo did not write systematically about either philosophy or his religious beliefs, and it would be speculative to piece together the sayings from 7,200 pages of notebooks to attempt to form a coherent narrative about his beliefs. As a result we have an incomplete picture; but it seems that at the very least he was a man with a deep understanding of the faith, if not its most rigid adherent.

Leonardo’s church designs were of the Florentine style, and so based on strict geometrical order, in recognition of Vitruvius’s dictum that the design of a temple should reflect the proportions of a human body – hence Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man (probably a self-portrait), which blends the shape of man and the rules of geometry. One senses that Leonardo felt that religion provided order and purpose, and therefore its architecture should reflect that. However, in his artistic masterpieces, even when depicting sacred moments, he eschewed traditional religious decoration, such as the use of haloes. This could simply reflect his discomfort with convention, or the manifestation of his uncertainty over some the Church’s teachings. However, Vasari’s account of his death records Leonardo dying in a state of communion with the Church, having taken the sacraments. This only serves to perpetuate the uncertainty over his thought in this regard.

Any discussion of Leonardo normally begins or ends with his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. He worked on it during the last sixteen years of his life, so clearly this was a painting of immense personal value and interest to him. In this portrait of a silk merchant’s wife, Lisa Gherardini, we can see the apotheosis of his knowledge and the blending of all his disciplines. The enigmatic smile is the zenith of Leonardo’s anatomical, optical, scientific, and artistic genius. He creates depth and perspective through the winding river, whose gentle undulations are continued through her clothing, showing her and us to be inextricably linked with nature. The eyes famously follow the viewer, and her pose is informal rather than austere, capturing life as it is. Most strikingly, though, is this theme of impermanence and transition, captured in the fleeting smile. We catch Lisa, again on the turn, not static or posing, but caught in a moment, and we are invited to develop our own interpretation about what her expression or emotions are. Perhaps in many ways Leonardo’s art reflects his restlessness and inquisitiveness; life is short and we should make the most of it.

Leonardo died, possibly of a stroke, at the Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, in central France, on 2 May 1519, at the age of sixty-seven. He was buried in the church of the Chateau, which was later demolished. What are hoped to be his remains now reside in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert.

© Mark Willingham 2020

Mark Willingham teaches Religion & Philosophy at Bancroft’s School, London.

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