It’s a pleasant coincidence to see Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – mostly known as a Painter – being remembered and celebrated in both East and the West after 500 years of his life. While celebration of this landmark about the “Renaissance Man” must be happening around the globe, and more so in and around his birthplace in Italy, I have personally come across celebratory events or their information at Mumbai and at Stanford University in California in a space of about a fortnight.
In Mumbai, it was Avid Learning the Cultural Wing of the Essar Foundation that in collaboration with the Cultural Centre of the Italian Embassy, Mumbai organized a panel discussion to “examine the genius of da Vinci in the contemporary context”. Whereas in faraway California, it was the Cecil H Green Library at the Stanford University that chose to put some elaborate focus on da Vinci, as it also celebrated its own centenary of existence and service not only to the students on rolls, but also to a wide variety of researchers, students and others returning for continuing education.
Renaissance in human history is defined as “a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic ‘rebirth’ following the Middle Ages.” Generally considered to have happened during the 14th to 17th century, the Renaissance “promoted the rediscovery of interest in classical philosophy, literature and art/s.” Obviously then calling Vinci the ‘Renaissance Man” is a huge tribute in itself as it implies his lead over all his contemporaries not only in his dominant domain of painting, but also in his tryst with humanities and science, which is rather less known to the art world.
And as for Vinci’s prowess as an artist, he is most remembered for his outstanding masterworks The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Based on a Biblical episode The Last Supper has, in turn, inspired many other artists to paint it on their own, (including our Gujarat-rooted artist Madhavi Parekh, whose retrospective show in Ahmedabad earlier this year featured her giant work of the same name in a reverse painting style and proved a big attraction). While Vinci’s technique in painting is lauded for its expression and gesture, which is what has made the “impassive face” of Mona Lisa a subject of speculation till date, his sketch of The Vitruvian Man ‘a study of the proportions of the human body’ is a testimony of both his artistic and academic legacy.
While the list of the artists belonging to the Renaissance period is quite long, da Vinci features on top of the four artists considered most important of the time, alongside Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520) and Donatello (1386-1466) in that order of some sorts. The life span of these four artists may indicate that their influence may have peaked from early 15th century till the latter half of the 16th century.
What separates da Vinci though is his multifarious excellence as an inventor, scientist, architect, engineer in hydrodynamics and much more. A work by Fritjof Capra deals with the scientific persona of Vinci which is by no means small. Not only the scope of panel discussion at Avid Learning that happened on July 26 was kept alive to this side of Vinci, but the Green Library at Stanford also focused on what a genius of an intellectual-philosopher like him read and what shaped him in the Renaissance age, rather than as the fine artist.
This Library befittingly mounted an exhibition of significant books that Vinci is known to have read and possessed just fifteen years after Gutenberg brought out the litho printing press. Titled “Leonardo’s Library: The World of a Renaissance Reader”, the introduction to this exhibition talks of Vinci’s interests in reading as also names some of the best sellers of that time, some rare copies of which in later editions are on show in this exhibition. The curators mention books like Giocamo Fillipo Foresti’s Supplementum Chronicarum, a work about world history; Sebastian Brandt’s Ship of Fools a book of satire; and Bartolomeo Platina’s Renaissance Cookbook. The conclusion is that the man picked up Latin at age 40; indulged in humour a lot; and his interest in cooking sided on vegetarianism! Finally, even Pliny the Elder’s Natural History the first know encyclopaedic work from 77 CE is known to have been procured by Vinci when it first came out in its printed Italian edition in 1469. No wonder he forayed into many domains!
Going back to the panel discussion at Mumbai which was titled as Leonardo da Vinci: Intersection of Philosophy and Science, this significantly focused on Vinci’s achievement in “dissolving the boundaries of binaries between arts and science”. This is no mean feat for a man of many parts who lived 500 years from now to be remembered thus by the academia and the art world, for, he himself said: “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else!”
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