Leonardo Da Vinci the Artist

While there are may online colleges that have classes studying the art of Da Vinci, anyone who wants to understand Leonardo Da Vinci the artist must first understand the times in which this most intelligent of men lived in. Born in 1452 in the tiny village of Da Vinci, Leonardo was handed the prospect of a future of servitude. While he was the son of a wealthy merchant, he was also illegitimate and in Catholic controlled Italy of the 15th Century his father simply was forbade from claiming him. The times were always perilous because the Italian peninsula was in a state of constant warfare. The young Leonardo was possessed by an enormous curiosity and wandered the countryside as a child studying nature. One story tells of the boy buying small birds in the local marketplace to study and then releasing them because he felt bad about depriving them of their freedom.

Da Vinci may have released the birds but before he did he sketched them all and studied the drawings. Da Vinci, during his entire life, was much more fascinated by mechanics than he was by art. He practiced his art at first to have drawings of objects and actions for study and later in life to earn a living, not out of love for art. But mechanics at the time were not respected and certainly not the mechanical efforts of a young boy. His drawings and natural artistic talent were respected however and he soon found himself sponsored to enter the prestigious studio of Andrea Verochio and it was not long before the Master recognized the enormous talent of the 14 year old Da Vinci. His first major collaborations were on the Baptism of Christ and the Annunciation and it was during this period that observers noticed how well he could paint expressions. In all of his paintings you can see the feelings of the models and this was something that no other artist up to that period. There are a few grad school scholarships for history that will allow students of the Renaissance to study his early years in much more detail.

We must remember that this was a time well before artists like Rembrandt and Picasso, both of whom had the lessons of Da Vinci to build on. Da Vinci´s innovations in painting made the art we have today possible. His figures were soft and not abruptly drawn as all of the previous figures and when he had backgrounds he developed the technique of “Sfumattoo”, which allowed the artist to slightly blur the background as a contrast to the figure. His studies in human anatomy made the highly lifelike figures to take on a life of their own and still have a natural look, a problem that had plagued the ancient Greeks for centuries.

Leonardo Da Vinci the Man

There has possibly never been a person who so intimately understood his own humanness than Leonardo Da Vinci. When most people think about Da Vinci however, the first thing that always comes to mind is his art work, especially his paintings. Images of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper can be seen all over the world today and even many of his sculptures are fairly well known. What many people do not know about this man however is that Leonardo did not have a real passion for his art. Da Vinci was not an artist who created with his heart. He was a scientist who created with his brain, using mechanical principles.

Young Leonardo was born without much chance of creating a real future but while he was physically beautiful he was also blessed by an almost unnatural inquisitiveness and intelligence. Leonardo the child spent much of his time studying everything from birds in flight to the muscle movements of humans and animals. His original drawings were his efforts to record what he saw for later study. While he was born into a Christian culture and even lived inside the Vatican, during the period that both Michelangelo and Raphael were working there on commissions, his writings and work suggested that he had deep questions about the apparent contradictions between biblical teachings and his observations of nature. To his young mind there was a lot more God in Nature than Nature in God.

Da Vinci was an engineer and scientist at heart. All of this later works, with the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, he completed simply to afford him the financial opportunity to design his true loves: Machines of war.

Da Vinci spent his entire independent career seeking clients who would pay him for innovative designs. The first tanks, built in World War I, we built around a Da Vinci design made in the 15th Century. But he would design anything for money and worked directly for some of the most powerful people in Europe. We must keep in mind that the very idea of a “bastard” son of a merchant who would live in the Vatican as an honored guest and die in the arms of the King of France is simply astounding and a testament to the monumental power of the man.

But Da Vinci had a sense of humor as well and we can see signs of it in art more than anywhere else. In Dan Brown´s book “Da Vinci Code” he puts Leonardo into the middle centuries long conspiracy. While there is a tremendous about of symbolism, even some Pagan symbolism, in his art, it is more likely that he put it there out of a sense of irony or his vast sense of humor. In his painting “John the Baptist” he used Satai, one of his pupils and lifetime friend, as the model. The ironic, and humorous, part of this was Da Vinci´s name for Satai was “Little Devil”.

This period is one of the most important in the history of art. The men who worked during this period were arguably among the finest thinkers in human history. For that reason we will cover some of the Greatest Masters who lived during this period in great depth. The next few articles will concentrate exclusively on the life and works of Leonardo Da Vinci. If you are in an online masters program it might be a good idea to save these links because we will be presenting some hard to find material.

The Reinvention of Art: The Renaissance Blooms

One of the greatest illustrations of the world of arts fight against the iron control of the Christian church can be seen in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelodi Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni and their sponsorship by the wealthy mercantile family, the De Medici family of Tuscany. While there were many artists who contributed during this period the above two are responsible for more advances than all of the others combined. This was not as much because of the volume of work that each of these men produced, which was substantial, but because of the innovations that they were able to develop which are still not only used by all artists today but make them the most well known artists in history.

There is much speculation that Da Vinci and Michelangelo atheists but the facts are that there is simply no real evidence to support this. There are two much more likely possibilities however. The first is that these two masters were actually Christians who, like Martin Luther a century later, were rebelling against Vatican control and corruption. The other possibility however seems to be much more likely.

There is a great deal of speculation, which is mirrored in Dan Brown´s controversial book “The Da Vinci Code” that both Da Vinci and Michelangelo were actually practicing Paganswho used their art to hide Pagan ideals and teachings in much the same way that African Slaves used Catholic symbolism to hide Voodun ritual from the Church and Christian slaver owners. The are many classes on these connections for people who are studying art and design careers in college today.

The most famous painting in history, and still mysterious, was undoubtedly the Mona Lisa. Recent findings in this painting reveal hidden animal images in the background. Da Vinci used the landscape to, in a sense, merge the natural world in a sublime way that defied discovery for 500 years. Many of the same techniques, blending a naturalistic view with a religious one, were also used by Michelangelo and this concept was, at the time, completely new to the world of art. Much of Da Vinci´s success can be attributed to the fact that he not only wondered how a bird could fly, he actually spent considerable time studying and experimenting on flight itself. The Master not only enjoyed the spectacle of flight, he wanted to thoroughly understand it and this understanding segued naturally into his art. The same is true of Michelangelo. Raised by a merchant father, who refused to allow him to work with his hand, Michelangelo would study a block of marble for weeks or months, mentally visually each cut that needed to be made and completing the sculpture in his mind before ever picking up a chisel.

The Paleo-Christian Church Dominates Art and Expression

The battle between the late Roman Empire and the Early Christian Church raged almost unabated for nearly 300 years and did not end until Constantine the Great legalized the practice of the religion in 311 AD. Some scholars argue that the burning of Rome was actually initiated by Christians and others argue that Constantine decision was actually a political one simply because he foresaw Rome´s decline and needed a new political device to retain control. While the actual reasons for the shift in power will probably remain for eternity in shadows, the fact is that once the Church did gain political control over the far flung Roman Empire they used this control to dominate every single aspect of life and this is extremely evident in its control of the art world.

On the surface all people in the Medieval world believed that the Christian God and a literal Heaven and Hell actually existed and that the only way to achieve one and avoid the other was through the Catholic (which literally means “Universal”) Church. Any variation by spoken word or act from these teachings could and very often did lead to exile, excommunication and even torture and execution. The Church´s control over art however varied from time to time and region to region. Most early Churches forbade any images, whether graven or painted, to be placed in churches simply because they believed that these images would lead church goers to adore the art more than they would the teachings. Priests, especially from the Dominican sect (who later led the Inquisitions) literally swept the land of any form of art that could be seen to contain “Pagan” images or symbolism.

But pagan images and symbolism can be found throughout much of early Medieval art and many art researchers are using the services of the pale-forensic scientists to uncover not only these images but how they avoided the religious laws of the time. One of the largest differences between the Christianity and Pagan religions their contrasting opinions on sexuality and this early art demonstrates that “Christian” artists disagreed with the Christianity on this issue. The early use of the fish in Christianity is a great example and many of the greatest art pieces owned by the Vatican have many examples of sexual symbolism which were much more Pagan than Christian. The reason for this is fairly simple to understand when you consider that throughout history artists have been radical thinkers and seldom allow themselves to be cornered into dogmatic thinking. The fact is that while most people during this period were outwardly Christian, Pagan traditions were still a large part of life in most communities, especially outside the larger urban areas.