Today, 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci died. After a rather bumpy ride through the ages as concerns his fame and reputation, he is, in our age, considered as probably the highest ranking genius and uomo universale in the history of mankind, as concerns creativity, intelligence, versatility, authenticity and clairvoyance. Bumpy as is the ride of history, future generations may think otherwise (yet unlikely very much otherwise); at any rate Leonardo´s mind and personality and ouevre may serve as an illustration of what may be expected to happen at the most upper extreme, if not the definitive apex of human intelligence, creativity and spirituality, and also what may be the ultimate vantage point, and vanishing point, of art and what art could ever be. Beyond the scope of an era-defining genius (like Goethe or Voltaire), Leonardo is a superstar of humanity. Hardly matched in his artistic ingeniousity, he is probably unmatched in the scope of his interests, mastery over various domains and probably also as concerns the complexity an artistic vision and a worldview ever can reach – despite being, in their complexity, very harmoniously balanced and, to some considerable degree, at peace with itself (indicating what is commonly referred to as „transcendence“ and a Satori-like vision). Such appears not only his intellect, but also, even more miracously, the man.
Apart from his intellectual and artistic abilities and his miraculous craftsmanship, Leonardo was described as a very attractive and elegant man, jovial, cheerful and eloquent; his reputation as a „dandy“ obviously drew upon the fact that he liked to dress well and in an individual manner. An Adonis in his younger days, he „successfully“ embodied the bearded, long haired sage and druid in his later days (and that he seemed to have aged prematurely is also a good fit into the whole story). „All man and all nature“ was said to be attracted to Leonardo, not only due to his natural goodness, but also because of his distinctive entertaining qualities which ranged from telling instant jokes and spreading words of wisdom to staging extravagant theater-like performances with which he baffled his audiences not only with his intelligence and imagination but also his craftsmanship. He was also said to be an extraordinary musician and that he could sing in a beautiful voice. Neither ascetic nor an distinctive hedonist, and in contrast to Michelangelo´s rather neurotic endeavours in that respect, money and fame mattered to Leonardo just as much as it enabled him to maintain his rather modest and self-sufficient way of living. What mattered most to him, is that he was able and free to sustain his permanent investigations into nature, art and technology. His homosexuality (or homophiliac bisexuality) may have helped him to grasp feminity in the stunning way he did – the Renaissance was not an overly patriarchic age and Renaissance women were relatively free, respected and liberated; in many of his paintings, Leonardo gave women an accentuated physiognomy and portrayed them with great sensibility (though his ultimate quest was for expressing the universal; also you have some scepticism in those portrayals; like the relatively blank physiognomy of the, nevertheless distinctive and intense, Lady with an Ermine, Cecilia Gallerani, in contrast to the very carefully painted ermine). Despite him being the intellectual apex predator, Leonardo had become a vegetarian early in his life. Friendly and gentle, usually in good humor, Leonardo was decent and generous towards humans and he was a nature and animal lover; especially attracted he was to horses and to birds – it would happen that at a mart, he would purchase birds just to release them from their cages and let them fly away. Despite that, he prided himself with being able to construct war machines and war technology of great destructive capacity, and despite being a republican by heart, he became affiliated with various noblemen and „war lords“ of his time, including Cesare Borgia (who, as a somehow transcendent phenomenon, however attracted also the curiosity not only of Machiavelli and, later, Nietzsche but also of many others ever since). As a general feature, Leonardo remained aloof over politics and contemporary affairs; one might even perceive an „icy“ disinterest in politics and the political struggles of his time and age. What distinguishes him from the opportunist and nihilist (not to speak of the careerist) is that politics (i.e., at least at that time, the management of the fragmentary and temporary) truly was below him and the (fatalistic) insight that, due to the nature of man and the multitude of human temperaments, politics and political engagement remains a bit of a fruitless passion and a dismal science, at least for someone that is able to touch, instead, the eternal and the heavens. Political affiliations within shifting balances of power made not only Dante´s life miserable – and that of many others ever since – and despite his indifferent attitude towards the powerful may have hindered him to become a huge success during his lifetime, Leonardo obviously managed to sail and navigate relatively well over the turbulent political waters of his time. That he was also a child of his time can be seen that he believed in stuff like astrology, the medical theories of Galen or accepted Aristotle as highest-ranking authority like the medieval scholasts did, notions that soon thereafter became more outdated among the educated. Despite being very insightful about geometry, Leonardo did not manage to calculate properly, neither he learned (or was able to learn) Latin, the lingua franca of the educated and the humanists at that time, which probably has aggravated to hostility between Leonardo and the humanists. Leonardo was fond of silly jokes and anecdotes and of the grotesque, and some of his drawings of grotesque characters became inspirational for the initial drawings to Alice in Wonderland. That does come as a surprise as the genius usually is childish, funny, off-the-wall and drawn to paradoxes, and the grotesque are transgressive epiphanies of what lies beyond the frontiers of human imagination. Leonardo´s grotesque drawings are both funny and sad, harmless and brutal, etc. referring to cosmic indifference towards what we, in general, perceive as the wonders of creation. Leonardo was, more or less, fully realised human potential. Concerning gender, he had distinct masculine as well as feminine characteristics; concerning age, he combined the playfulness of a child with the wisdom of an old sage. He was determined and knew what he want (though apparently erratic in his endeavours), but he seemed to have a soft ego. He experienced melancholy and joy. He knew about the abyss as well as about the celestial spheres. He was more human than man. Very rarely it appears that a man achieves true harmony within himself (among the 20th century painters probably only Mondrian and Duchamp). Leonardo likely was of that kind.
The Renaissance was the dawn of a new era, and of a great transformation concerning the ways man saw himself and interacted with the world. In all preceding periods you have man embedded (and occassionally crushed) within a cosmic whole (and a relatively static social order). If it had not been explicitly conceptualised or reflected (or, apparently, conceptualised loosely and somehow ironically like in the case of ancient Greece), man had implicitely lived and behaved in such a fasion. The loss of such an (embracive, but also terrifying) totality has been mourned ever since, since man obviously is unhappy when he has to live under conditions of scepticism, relativity, multiple viewpoints and temporary truths, i.e. conditions that you have in modernity (and if you are unhappy about that as well, just think about whether you would prefer to go back to the middle ages). In the Renaissance, the foundations of man as a competent individual that is able to emerge from a background had been laid (though they would again become oppressed in the Counterreformation). The genius is the most pronounced form of man doing away with established modes of thinking, epistemologies and ideologies when he is thinking and when he does create (despite being very knowledgeable about them and therefore able to transcend them). The Renaissance, therefore, apparently, was an era of genius, and Leonardo the climax of his era. Leonardo did not make an ideology (because, likely, he was too intelligent for that), but the foundation of his whole attitude and approach towards the world was relying on primary observation and experience and rationalising it to deduce knowledge as well as to test established knowledge by the same means – and sorting out established knowledge if it fails short of such a test. His most beloved sensory organ was the eye as it was – so he thought at that time – the organ with which the world could be most primarily, innocently and correctly experienced. Likewise, painting was the highest-ranking art to him, as via painting you are able to catch, view and express the world most directly and immediately; as a philosopher-painter he would become immersed in questions about how perception actually works and how the world can be most properly portrayed. He expressed distrust not only in scholastic knowledge, but, more fundamentally, in language, which he deemed dubious, amiguous and obscure and, moreover, man-made and probably „culture dominating over nature“ and not vice versa as you supposedly have it in the sensory perception of vision. Correspondigly, literature and poetry was an art inferior to painting to him („coincidentally“, Leonardo himself was not a writer or a poet; while his writing style was clear and precise, it considerably lacked the imaginative depth that was so characteristic for him as a painter and in many other respects). Leonardo´s curiosity stemmed to a considerable degree from painting and from his interest to excel in painting, like his interest in anatomy, in nature, in proportions and in how perception works; yet of course he would have also many other interests as interests per se (eventually, everything would become an interest per se for Leonardo). His interest in flying may have gone hand in hand with his passion for birds and ornithology, his interest in medicine and how the body works from his interest in anatomy; at any rate, however, his interest in technology and many other things was a matter in itself and stemmed from a curiosity in itself and a passion for gaining intellectual insight and mastery over things in itself. Because of this, you may even have difficulties in thinking of Leonardo as a man – as he rather appears as a fog or the Blob, an entity with open contours, that feeds and grows – or withdraws when it loses interest.
At the beginning of the 21st century we like to think of our time as one of rapid acceleration. Consider however, that such was also the time of Leonardo: From 1450 to 1550, Europe underwent a rapid transformation of a backward continent that, by the end of that timespan, had laid the foundations upon which it would leave the rest of the world behind for the centuries to come. Leonardo was, somehow, moving with the same – maybe too pronounced – speed. Leonardo´s famous „inability“ to complete many things and projects he started appears as a manifestation of a mind wandering at ultra-high speed and versatility, but also seems to borderline to an attention deficit disorder. – I find it sad that he never did a final portrait of Isabella d´Este, a magnificent and highly interesting female regent of the Renaissance (though it is also somehow „funny“ that the strong-willed and, likely, autocratic Isabella did not come very far when it came to impose her will on the eccentric Leonardo), yet however Leonardo´s (obvious) drawing of her is probably more articulate and charismatic than anything else could had ever been. Sometimes sketches, drawings, experiments and etudes can be more articulate and telling and grasping more of a (turbulent) reality than something that is finalised and „classic“. Likewise, some things are more pronouced when they are finally left unsaid, and some things are better left unsaid anyway. Likely, Leonardo also knew that many of his technological constructions and scientific ruminations were preliminary and tentative and therefore he may have refrained from wasting his time by finally and systematically elaborating on them apart from the, at any rate often staunchly elaborate, sketches in his notebooks. That being said, Leonardo´s frequent failure to finalise things may not be failures at all, but due to a deeper insight into stuff and bravery and independence of mind. To the things that mattered to him and to projects he began to really find something out or to move to new territories in science or in the arts, Leonardo could be stubbornly devoted. That, not least, applies to the Mona Lisa on which he had obviously been working for years with the obvious determination to create out of it what it had finally become: a perfect human portrait (he finally had kept to himself) – that probably does not show Lisa del Giocondo, as is the dominant narrative, but – Isabella d`Este. Again in contrast, Leonardo´s most notorious failure – the feeble material construction of The Last Supper (that began to fade only decades after its creation and had to be restored multiple times ever since, with probably only 20 percent of the original artwork remaining nowadays) – may have been an indication that Leonardo actually and paradoxically lacked insight and care for the preservation of the things he had put so much obsession into to create them (though also likely the execution of The Last Supper was a – correct – compromise between means and ends; by using other means he may have not been able to execute the painting in the same way at all). Leonardo also seemed to have had reduced insight in circumstance that scientific discovery is a cumulative and collaborative process and has to rely on publication and discussion of findings and theories (which he did not really foster for himself), despite the, somehow legitimate but also distorted, perception that the „scientific community“ of his time would not be intelligent enough to understand him anyway. Among the „mysteries“ about Leonardo questions remain whether his apparent shortcomings derive from his „super sanity“ and from the plethora of his inner life, or also from actual deficits or „insanities“ and frenzies. Leonardo, likely, would have found such ruminations about him, that involve modern medicine and psychology, quite amusing – and, of course, highly interesting.
The lasting effect of the Renaissance was the discovery of individuality. Art is about examinating and illustrating the essence of things; and whereas in medieval art you had portrayals of man as a stereotypical member in a hierarchical, feudalistic collective, idealised via attribution of ephemeral aspects of beauty in the contemporary period, you have individualised portrayals of man (and of the entire creation, including the divine creator) in the Renaissance era. Leonardo pioneered and transgressed that motive and attitude into psychological and narrative portrayal of man and nature: The conquest for capturing the (indivdual) „soul“ of a person in and via the means of an artwork has a distinct predecessor in Leonardo. Leonardo, however, was not actually interested in capturing the individuality of a person and a thing, but to express universality – via the expression of idiosyncratic and expressive individuality (an understanding that brought him into some conflict with Michelangelo, who rather relied on expressing idealised beauty and muscular men as an epitome of that). The Renaissance era also paved the way for a modern and rational understanding of man and of nature, thus enabling man´s mastery over nature via technology. While Galileo Galilei is considered the founding father of modern science that relies on unideological observation, deduction and induction and on the scientific experiment, Leonardo had followed the same approach a century before – and many of his observations and conclusions as well as his constructions proved to be (at least in principle) correct only most recently. Despite that, Leonardo nevertheless lived in a pre-scientific age and was operating in a no man´s land. Not least likely due to envy and being confronted with something they likely sensed to be meaningful but which they could not properly master and understand, the educated elite and the humanists of his time were dismissive of Leonardo´s ideas and his entire attitude, respectively hostile towards them, relying instead on the academic scholarship of ancient stars like Aristotle as the ne plus ultra (therein forgetting that Aristotle did not rely on sterile scholarship himself, but accumulated his wisdom – naturally – by the same means like Leonardo). That Leonardo did not speak Latin and, due to his rather modest beginnings, was not prestiguously educated furthered the aliention between Leonardo and the humanists. As a true avant-gardist, Leonardo was, to a considerable degree, an alien within his time. From the later period in his life one would find a (stunning) portrait of a bearded old man in his sketchbooks, seemingly introspective but also apparently desillusioned and melancholic: obviously a self-portrait or self-caricature. A reccurent motive in his sketchbooks, maybe (also) of self-caricature, is a toothless old man that obviously gets harrassed by youth or by grotesque figures: Powerful and nearly divine in his abilities as he was, Leonardo was also relatively powerless. The shadow appearane of his high-ranking and clairvoyant intellect was that he could exercise relatively little influence and persuasion among his contemporaries because he was too distinguished from them. Throughout his lifetime, Leonardo would achieve fame and be considered a wizard and a sage as well as he fundamentally also always remained an outsider and a misfit, deemed an eccentric and heretic, if not some kind of divine fool (note that how much weight is put on portraying Leonardo as an insider or an outsider considerably lies in the eye of the beholder, respectively in how much the respective biographer seems to be an insider or an outsider within academia herself (Stendhal, who did not achieve much fame in his life, would remark that the true message of The Last Supper is the expression of resignation in the face of Christ, i.e. of the high-standing individual within a base and treacherous humanity and his death less of a sacrifice than a „suicide by cop“ to escape from earth as his mission is bound to failure anyway)).
The genius is obsessed with creating order as he has both a distinct and pronounced insight into both order and chaos, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the abstract and the idiosyncracy etc. Leonardo´s most famous epitome of his quest for unveiling the glorious and harmonious laws and proportions of and within nature is the Vitruvian Man. Yet, he was also able to portray grotesque creatures with great dedication. In general, Leonardo was attracted to and could get immersed into forms and patterns and especially the transformation of forms and patterns; maybe (also) because of that, he had an affinity for water. I also have an affinity for water, though rather for its peaceful and tranquil and steady appearances; one of Leonardo´s last famous works, in contrast, were the deluge drawings, of raging waters, of a raging – and seemingly mindlessly raging – nature, driven by blind forces, within which – unique and singular – patterns and wave formations emerge, but, after two or three moments, dissolve in order to, in their specifity, never to appear again but to get, at best, transformed into other (pseudo) entities that are all to temporal as well. I reiterate once again (and it goes a bit on my nerves not to come up with greater news, but that is, I guess, the price to be paid when one has reached final conclusions and gained insight into final truths), that the final vision of art is the vision into the Chaosmos, i.e. the interplay between movement and order, static and dynamic, stability and chance (and recently it has been proven by mathematics, that all dynamic systems are actually and interplay between order and chaos); and in Leonardo´s deluge drawings you have carefully executed vortexes, apparently hellish, but then also peaceful and mantra- and mandala-like: metaphysical peace you will find in an hypnotic image and perception of the mindless circle of natural creation and destruction, and that is the final word that can rationally be said about it. As a high genius and creator and a great empath towards the entirety of existence, Leonardo understood the divine, but, unlike the Americans, he did not trust in it. He is not known for having been a devout Christ (like Michelangelo). In the Adoration of the Magi (an early painting left unfinished), you seem to have an unbridgeable gap between the divine and a rather creature-like humanity that seems to be in reverence as well as in anguish and, in some similarity to the isolated figure of Mary, rather occupied with itself and its passions; a humanity that, on the whole, rather behaves as if it were under an epileptic shock rather than in religious enchantment, giving an impression that both the earthly and the heavenly may be powerless to some degree and, next to that, have a fundamental problem of establishing mutual communication and exchange. The orginal of his painting of Leda and the Swan is lost (and probably has never truly existed, only via sketches), but it refers to an antique mythology as an illustration of life and existence as a circle of violence and conflict within, also, a conquest for morality, truth, righteousness, love and (more egoistic) desire, within which not only humanity is revolving, rather helplessly, but also the gods. In Leonardo´s „metaphysics“, the cycles of „difference and repetition“ within which nature reproduces itself are the supreme instance; sometimes nature may be protective and a legitimate instance for glorious appraisal, sometimes a destructive force and just the opposite, as, in itself, it is blind and amoral. Leonardo´s most fundamental „metaphysical“ insight seemed to have been that man, life, maybe also gods, are finite, relatively powerless and engaged in a merciless struggle for individual survival. Only nature is infite and infinitely powerful. And only via a better understanding of nature via observation and science and mastery over nature via technology based on science and rationality, man is able to improve his living conditions (also in his sketches for technological innovations and his notorious weapons and gigantic war machines man, nevertheless, seems little, irrelevant and rather carrying a resemblance to ants).
Art is about portraying the complexity of the world, the totality of the world, and the standing of the subjective individual in its relation to an objective world (therein, art is „the true metaphysical activity“). In Leonardo you have the complexity of the world, but you do not seem to have fascinating and immersive depths that make the visions of other geniuses usually so sexy and attractive. His art is complex, but somehow „flat“. Despite, or because of, his extreme devotion to the examination of nature and existence, you do not really have some „cosmic religiousness“ as you have it with Einstein (i.e. a quasi-religious devotion and feeling struck by the great mysteries of nature as a superior instance). Likely to his supreme command over any human endeavour, Leonardo´s vision and attitude rather appears as one of a dry wit, and that the world has ever since attributed endless abysmalness, depth and fascination to Leonardo over a banality (Mona Lisa´s smile) may have brought the same smile to his face (that, from another perspective, isn´t any) ever since (the mysterious smile, as a recurrent motive, seems to refer to what Kierkegaard calls the „humoristic self-content“ of the genius). In contrast to his reputation as a mysterious druid and a mystic (which he liked to initiate himself as a means of self-promotion), he was actually a very rational person, his endeavours entirely logical and his personality transparent. Despite being (obviously) used to portray Plato in the School of Athens by Raphael, Leonardo had been a disciple of the more sober Aristotle (with Plato, nevertheless, being the more primary and comprehensive thinker and therein the attribution by Raphael more correct). The final mystery of the world, however, is also not likely to be so mysterious but, rather, logical, and not of unfathomable depth but transparent.
In the Codex Madrid, manuscripts that have been recovered and published only half a century ago, Leonardo advises anyone who takes pleasure in reading him to study him carefully, „because in this world he will reincarnate only very rarely“. He is now regarded as a man that has foreseen the 21st century (probably also due to some narcissism and self-referentiality of the 21st century). What would ever happen if Leonardo reincarnated today? That is, of course, beyond imagination. It´s a transcendent phenomenon.
(Written April 22-28, 2019; unfortunately I mistook Leonardo´s death day for May 5, 1519, while it has been May 2, 1529. Obviously, I am not that kind of perfect expert.)