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Leonardo: Renaissance Man Essay, Research Paper

The great turning point of Western civilization called the Renaissance, the rebirth of literature, art, architecture, and philosophy in Europe, marked the emergence of the modern world from the dark ages (Aston 11). The Renaissance caused educated Europeans to develop new attitudes about themselves and the world around them. This intellectual cultural awaking influenced European thinking by a concept of humanism, which emphasized the worth of an individual (Aston 12). This attention given to the development of an individual?s potential during the Renaissance brought with it a new emphasis on education. The people of the Renaissance believed a person should not be bound to one specific discipline. Thus, the goal of education was to develop the individual?s talents in all the intellectual and physical areas, ranging from scholarship to the writing of sonnets and swordsmanship. In the Renaissance, people from various segments of society, from kings and nobles to merchants and soldiers, studied classical literature and art; though, most of these people were amateurs who studied for pleasure. As well, the Renaissance spirit of curiosity, experimentation, and objectivity were also important to the development of science in Europe (Aston 13).

In the first city-states of Italy, Italian Renaissance paintings soon began to evolve from the flat, symbolic style of medieval paintings to a more realistic style. To make their creations lifelike and captivating, artists experienced with new techniques, such as creating a sense of perspective that gave their paintings depth (Wallace 15). This new form of painting through perspective lead Renaissance artists to study anatomy, which is the science of dissecting the different parts of any organized body to discover their structure. This allowed artisans to portray human figures more accurately and naturally (Wallace 57). Leonardo da Vinci not only mastered the newly discovered science of perspective in art through anatomy, but also, he advanced the idea that an artist be a creative thinker then only a mere artisan (Costantino 1).

When Leonardo used the words ?art,? ?science,? and ?mathematics? his definitions were somewhat different from those in use today (Wallace 104). According to Leonardo?s definition, art, especially painting, was a science; actually it was ?the Queen of all sciences,? (Wallace 104). In his view, the science of art provided not only the means of obtaining knowledge but of ?communicating it to all the generations of the world? (Wallace 104). Although Leonardo da Vinci is most commonly known for his paintings such as the Mona Lisa, he was not a painter but rather an engineer, by practice. This is clearly evident when one compares the number of da Vinci?s scientific studies and inventions to the number of his paintings.

In 1482, Leonardo entered the service of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, having written the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armored vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could complete sculptures in marble, bronze, and clay (Brown 72). He served as the principal engineer in the duke’s numerous military enterprises and was active also as an architect. By this time, comparatively an early stage in his career, Leonardo was far interested in more than just painting (Brown 97).

Though many of his works were never published, Leonardo wrote books on astronomy, mathematics, and anatomy. His handwriting is extraordinary. It runs from right to left across the page and its letters are reversed, so that it can be read only with the aid of a mirror (Wallace 8). There are many notions why he wrote as so, the most logical explanations of his hand writings is that he was left handed and found it more convenient, and that he wished to protect his scientific ideas, especially from accusations that might be brought against him (Wallace 10). Writing in such a fashion gives support to the argument that Leonardo was clearly an intellect.

Furthermore, in anatomy he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. Leonardo was the first to recognize the moderator bands of the right ventricle of the heart, which bear his name (Wallace 107). He also understood the advanced circulation of the blood and knew a great deal about the heart and wrote of its pulsations and valves (Wallace 107). In addition, Leonardo went deeply into the subject of optics. He understood that images are reversed on the human retina, and is credited with the invention of the camera obscura, Latin meaning “dark room” (Brown 170). He noted that from a distance a brightly lit object appears larger than an identical object dimly lit, concluding the theory still used today in physics that ?the angle of incidence is always equal to the angle of reflection,? (Brown 170).

Leonardo da Vinci also made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation, and concluded the nature of fossil shells. Leonardo concluded that the prehistoric oceans must have once covered all places where marine fossils are found; which idea was very contrary to the teachings of the Church (Aston 313). In the field of botanical science, Leonardo?s acute observation made it possible for him to draw plant life so precise, that his illustrations are still used in good effect in botanical textbooks of today. Leonardo was the first to describe the laws of phyllotaxy, which govern the distribution of leaves (Aston 317). He introduced as well heliotropism and geotropism, which concerned the orientation of certain plants toward the sun and the downward growth of roots due to gravity (Aston 317). He also discovered the possibility of determining the age of plants by studying the structures of stems, and the age of trees by their annual number of circular rings (Costantino 100). Many regard him regarded as the ?Father of botany? (Costantino 100).

Leonardo was as well among the originators of the science of hydraulics. He invented a large number of ingenious machines; many potentially useful still in our society, among them an underwater diving suit (Costantino 44). He endlessly observed the currents and pressures of air and reasoned some of the principles of aerodynamics through studying the gliding and flapping flights of birds and bats, and anatomizing their wings (Wallace 102). With such a diverse and gifted mind, it is hard to concept why Leonardo da Vinci is constantly overlooked as only being a painter.

Furthermore, in the field of mechanics Leonardo drew many sketches of pulleys in various combinations, indicating the mechanical advantage of each pulley. Leonardo also presented the possibilities of multiplying forces through gearing in sketches of wire coils by which means of which increasing speeds of rotation could be obtained (Kindersley 12). This system was quite similar to the variable-speed drive that was until recently used in automobiles. Though obviously, he could have had no thought of applying this system to cars, even though he did design a spring-driven ?automobile? which, if it had been constructed, might have been able to travel a few miles over level ground. Leonardo, ?the painter,? was clearly far beyond his time (Kindersley 14).

Leonardo beloved mathematics, ? the only science which contains within itself its own proof,? (Kindersley 51) and his main mathematical studies consisted largely of geometry and proportion. In his Human figure in a Circle, Illustrating Proportion, he illustrated through geometry the concept that a well-proportioned body with feet together and arms outstretched can be inscribed in a square, while the same body spread-eagled occupies a circle (Kindersley 51). This illustration provided an explanation of how the ancients proportioned their work in accordance with the right arrangement of the human body. As well, da Vinci?s illustration of human proportion is considered essential for any representation (Kindersley 51).

Although Leonardo produced a small number of paintings, many which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an innovative and influential artist. Da Vinci is best known for the Mona Lisa, a portrait of a strangely smiling young woman of Florence. In no other of Leonardo?s paintings are the depths and haze of atmosphere more fully re-created than in the background of the Mona Lisa (Costantino 96). This work of perspective is at it?s finest, and yet it is the face that forever holds the eye (Costantino 96). The Last Supper, a wall painting of Jesus? last meal with his disciples is another painting Leonardo is widely known for. In this painting, Leonardo?s skillful handling of the background architecture, series of still lives, and detailed colors such as for the glowing robes, demonstrates his skills of masterpiece. In both works, Leonardo skillfully portrayed the subject?s personalities, thoughts, and feeling, and mastered the art of perspective (Farah 410). Other famous artworks of Leonardo da Vinci include Saint John the Baptist, The Virgin and the child, and Lady of the court of Milano.

Leonardo da Vinci also believed that laws and principles govern painting. His works in art and science are really inseparable. It is clearly evident in his paintings that da Vinci showed accurate representations of objects through the precise use of perspective, proportion, geometry, anatomy, and optics (Farah 410). Of course, these skills of a painter could only be attained by through practice of an engineer. In his notebooks there is a paper on painting he intended to publish, but never did because, like his paintings, he never finished it. The first part of the paper is meant to justify linear perspective; the second part explains how linear perspective is made possible. In Leonardo’s view, linear perspective isn’t really just a painting technology that previous generations were too unintelligent to invent; rather it is based on a world view, one that runs through the human landscape to privilege human beings and the uniquely human perspective (as opposed to the a heavenly perspective)(Wallace 13). This new world view is also based on new theories of “visibility,” (Wallace 15) which are expressed in the chapter “Linear Perspective,” (Wallace 15). Leonardo argued in his explanation of linear perspective that the whole universe can in some way or another be made visible to the human eye and that the human perception of the universe was basically the correct one. Without this belief that the entire universe could be made visible to the human eye, inventions such as the microscope and the telescope probably would not have occurred. Art, in his opinion, was the science of communicating a message to the world (Wallace 134).

Leonardo da Vinci was possibly the most versatile genius in the history of mankind, consistently demonstrating ideas far ahead of his time. He was more then just a painter. His paintings were as revolutionary as his scientific researches. This is quite apparent when one compares the fact that only about a dozen paintings can be attributed to him with any certainty, to more than the seven thousand pages of Leonardo?s notes of scientific thoughts. The catalogue of his non-artistic pursuits seems almost beyond credence: anatomy, botany, geology, mathematics, aeronautics, optics, mechanics, hydraulics, and general engineering. He indeed upheld to the title as being the ?Renaissance man,? (Brown 3). With such a wide range of interest, it is clearly evident that Leonardo da Vinci is constantly overlooked as only being a mere painter, rather as one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time.

Aston, Margaret. The Panorama of the Renaissance. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996.

Brown, Alan. Leonardo da Vinci. London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Costantino, Maria. Leonardo. New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1995.

Farah, Mounir and Andrea Karls. World History: The Human Experience. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 1997.

?Leonardo da Vinci Museum?: International Arts Association. http://www.davinci-museum.com/.

Kindersley, Dorling. Art Book of Leonardo. London: Elemond Editori Associati, 1998.

Wallace, Robert. The World of Leonardo. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966.

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