Leonardo Da Vinci: 500 years of genius

Leonardo Da Vinci died 500 years ago but his legacy continues to live on

VINCI - Leonardo da Vinci, the unrivalled genius of the Renaissance, described himself as “omo sanza lettere” or “unschooled.” The child of an unmarried mother, he was born on the April 15, 1452, at Anchiano, three kilometres outside the small town of Vinci, in a humble farmhouse that was part of the estate of his father, Ser Piero da Vinci, a local notary. Although the parents did not marry – Ser Piero was committed to a more advantageous match with a bride of higher social extraction than the peasant girl he had seduced - the little love child was taken into his father's family and brought up in their household.

 He grew up with none of the privileges of the education normally acquired by children of the gentry. He could not read Latin or Greek. He had no knowledge of the theorems of mathematics or the basic sciences. He was left-handed, and wrote backwards, a trait that was seen as negative, if not downright perverted. From an early age, he was a vegetarian who objected to killing animals, a principle that singled him out, in the 15th century, as a disconcerting eccentric, if not a total lunatic.

 All of which make his subsequent output and achievements even more remarkable.         

 Leonardo died in France on May 2, 1519, five hundred years ago. Until recently, media coverage for the quincentenaries’ celebrations of the greatest Renaissance genius has been surprisingly sparse and low key. Celebrations are, however, being held, though not at national level, as might be expected. The tributes to Leonardo are scattered all over the country, spanning major exhibitions in cities like Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice and Turin, to small local fetes, events and other initiatives, ranging from the minting of a commemorative coin to the casting of a Leonardo Bell at the historic Marinelli Pontifical Bell Foundry at Agnone in Molise,  which has been producing church and commemorative bells since the year 1040.           

 Leonardo's birthplace staged an early celebration on his birthday, April 15, attended by Sergio Mattarello, Italy's President, who visited the museum-farmhouse as well as the Vinci castle which proudly displayed the “Paesaggio,” an early sketch by the maestro on special loan from the Uffizi in honour of the occasion. Two weeks later, Vinci programmed a full-day bonanza with fifty free non-stop events centred in the old town round the Palazzina Uzielli and the Conti Guidi Castle, the two seats of the Leonardiano da Vinci Museum, which has one of the largest collections in the world of models of Leonardo's “machines,” carefully reconstructed according to the blueprints he drew up. Until May 26, the Museum will be open daily from 9am till 11pm.

 According to experts, Leonardo produced 12,000 pages of codex, at least 23 paintings (there are others have not been authenticated) and innumerable studies on a vast range of subjects. His lack of formal education and theoretical preparation were amply compensated by his insatiable curiosity and his exceptional gifts of intuition and analysis, as well as a natural talent for draughtsmanship and design.

 A multi-tasker par excellence, it seems there was nothing he did not turn his hand to. He worked as an architect, engineer, city planner, artist, draughtsman, designer, scenographer, sculptor, musician (he apparently played the lyre), hydraulic engineer, military technician and explosives expert. The “machines” he designed ranged from an aerial saw, an armoured car, a revolving bridge, a parachute-kite, a triple barrel cannon, a diver's mask, a “robotic knight” (a coat of armour with autonomous moving parts) and a self-propelled cart (most likely devised for theatrical effect at the receptions thrown by Milan overlord, Ludovico Il Moro). He also perfected the anemometer (used to calculate the speed of the wind), more accurate time-keeping mechanisms in clocks, as well as more efficient looms for silk weaving and rope cording. He is also credited with adding a third prong to the common fork and devising an automatic revolving roasting spit, as well as a machine for making “edible string” (in other words “spaghetti”).

  In the middle of all this activity he was also painting masterpieces like “The Last Supper,”, “The Lady with the Ermine” and “The Virgin of the Rocks.”         

 Probably the most important exhibition dedicated to the Quincentenary is Rome's “Leonardo da Vinci La Scienza prima della Scienza” (Science before Science) at the Scuderie del Quirinale till the 30 June 2019, which takes an innovative in-depth look at the Leonardo myth. Generally, Leonardo is seen as a genius who emerged miraculously out of nowhere. As the exhibition demonstrates, the reality is different. Leonardo was influenced and formed by the works and studies of many of his contemporaries in an epoch that produced a plethora of  talents and brains, such as Ghiberti, Filarete, Sangallo, Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Pacioli and many others who laid the foundations for many of the inventions for which he is famous. The exhibition traces his professional development, from the early days as an apprentice in the workshop of Verrocchio at Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, when he worked alongside figures like Perugino, Sandro Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, through his years at the service of the Medicis in Florence and the Sforza family of Milan.

 The exhibits include a selection of the carefully reconstructed models of many of his “Machines,” on loan from the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, as well as ten pages of the precious Codex Atlanticus, from the Venerando Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the historic custodian of Leonardo's notes, drawings and observations. The Codex acquired this name, explains Marco Navoni, Vice Prefect of the Ambrosiana Library, because in the 18th century the scattered manuscripts were cut up and pasted onto pages normally used to make maps (“Atlases”).

 “The Flight of Birds,” a separate codex of 18 pages, where Leonardo studies the force of gravity, the direction of winds, air pressure and the possibility of inventing a “flying machine” is the star feature of the “Leonardo da Vinci. Disegnare il Futuro” (Design the Future) exhibition in the Royal Museums and Library of Turin (on till July 14). Also on display is his celebrated self-portrait, as well as his studies for the nude figures in the “Battle of Anghiari” (the original painting is lost), the horse intended for the mammoth Sforza monument that was never realized, and his sketch of the exquisite face of the angel that appears in the “Virgin of the Rocks.”

 To view the original Vitruvian Man, probably the most celebrated of Leonardo's drawings, you must go to Venice where it is part of “Leonardo da Vinci, L'Uomo e Modello del Mondo” (Man is the Model of the World) at the Gallery of the Accademia. The figure was part of Leonardo's studies of the principles of perfect proportions, not in humans as many people think, but in architecture. A special microclimatic display frame, safeguarding the unique original of this much copied icon has been installed by the Milan Goppion company, world leader in the field of high tech museum display cases that host, for example, the British crown jewels in the Tower of London, the “Last Supper” in Milan and leading exhibits in the Louvre, the British Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and others.

 Palazzo Vecchio in Florence offers “Leonardo da Vinci and Florence: Selected pages from the Codex Atlanticus” with twelve of the maestro's handwritten folios on loan from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (until June 24). This exhibition, however, concentrates on Leonardo's family background and his relationship with his place of birth. His attachment to his native land is testified by the fact that throughout his entire life, he defined himself as a “Pictor fiorentino” (Florentine artist). Among the Codex pages on display is set out the ruthless project, fortunately never carried out, to deviate the course of the river Arno and cut off the water supply to Pisa, Florence's rival, thus forcing the Pisans into submission.

 Milan, Leonardo's second home, launches nine months of special events starting on May 2. During the period May 16 – Jan 12, 2020, visitors will be able to view the recently restored Sala delle Asse (literally: Room of the Boards, named probably because of original wood panelling), in the Sforzesco Castle, decorated by Leonardo in 1498 with heraldic symbols and a riot of intertwining plants. “Leonardo tra Natura, arte e scienza” in the Sala dei Ducali revolves around the frescos of the Sala delle Asse, exhibiting relevant drawings and studies from major international collections.

 A child-friendly “Leonardo3” show at Piazza della Scala, with 200 interactive reconstructions in 3D, is on until December 31 while the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci offers the “Leonardo da Vinci Parade” with an imaginative combination of art and science that touches da Vinci's multiple fields of interest (July 19 – October 13).

 Milan, of course, is also home to “The Last Supper” on the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Along with the “Mona Lisa,” this is Leonardo's most famous work. It is interesting to note that for three centuries after his death, Leonardo was known almost exclusively as an artist. It was only in the late 19th century that his genius as an inventor became fully known and appreciated, when the Codex Atlanticus, that had been stolen from the Ambrosiana Library of Milan as part of Napoleon's war booty, became available for study. The plans, drawings and notes were published, first in France in 1881 and then in Italy, and the myth of Leonardo, the polymath giant, the all-round man of infinite talents and prophetic intuition, was born.

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The Museo Leonardiano Da Vinci is found 30 kilometres from Florence in Vinci, Leonardo's hometown
Da Vinci is arguably most famous for painting the Mona Lisa