‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’
-Leonardo Da Vinci
Welcome back to my series for the 2018 Blogging A-Z April Challenge… Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I’ll be writing to Leonardo Da Vinci and I’ve paired him up with the inimitable David Bowie. Firstly, encapsulating the relationship between the artistic genius and their masterpiece (in Leonardo’s case being the Mona Lisa), I’ve chosen Heroes (I will be King, and you, you will be Queen). To reflect the man of science and the great inventor, I’ve chosen Star Man.
My goodness! Only a masochist or a lunatic would ever attempt to tackle Leonardo da Vinci in one day. Well, it hasn’t exactly been a day, because there’s been something like a lifetime of osmosis, absorbing his genius drop by drop like a glass of rich, red Beaujolais. I’ve also managed to squeeze some preparation while working on the rest.
‘Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.’
Leonardo Da Vinci
Of course, Leonardo is so much more than the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, or even his Vitruvian Man. He is a man who deeply embraced painting, anatomy, science, engineering and had an absolute fascination with flight. There was seemingly no end to his vast genius and he certainly wasn’t one of those experts who stuck tenaciously to their specialty but knew nothing about the bigger picture. He even dissected the human smile, to find out how it worked. The only thing I’ve dissected lately, other than the minds of dead artists, has been a leg of lamb.
On the 29th July, 1992, the day before my 23rd birthday, I visited the Louvre in Paris for the very first time. I know it was on that very day, because I still have the ticket pasted into my diary some 26 years later. I also recorded my very first impressions of seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time.
By the way, I should probably point out that I stayed in Paris for about six weeks and so my experience was very different to somebody who was in more of a hurry and needing to cross things off their checklist. Hence, there was this remark:
I’m about to be stampeded by tourists here all blindly whizzing past without pausing to take in the other art. It’s” Go Directly to the Mona Lisa. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.”
It looks like I took my time to find the Mona Lisa, and by the time I found her, I wasn’t that impressed:
“What’s the big deal about Mona Lisa? Why is it here? Why is it everywhere? The most reproduced work of art. The crowd watching the Mona Lisa is more interesting. Standing on tippy toes of tippy toes with cameras, video cameras all vying for a shot. …Why doesn’t anybody challenge the supremacy of this boring portrait? Sure, her eyes follow you around and there’s something about her smile, which suggests she knows some unspoken, secret raison d’etre. That she holds the key to unlocking the truth of human existence behind that ever-reproduced smile. It’s quite apt then, that she’s kept sealed behind the glass. We need to protect her secret as though one day she will speak. Share her words of wisdom gained from watching her admirers with those moving eyes and watching us while were watching her and making her own conclusions about humanity. It’s like…if you could cut her smile open with a Swiss Army Knife, the mystery would all gush out from behind the canvas. Of speak, oh Mona. Speak!”
Later on, I added:
“She’s determined to keep her mouth shut to hold onto her precious secret, because it’s the only privacy she has left.”
I wrote a lot more about the Mona Lisa and visiting the Louvre while I was actually there, especially about the Salle de Rubins, which I absolutely loved. It was much more my type of art than the Mona Lisa.
However, my understanding of Leonardo da Vinci went to another level when I attended a touring exhibition in Sydney. This exhibition brought to life a number of his inventions and it was amazing to see them in person and even interact with them. I was so impressed by the exhibition that I saw it once by myself and then went back with the family. Our son was only five at the time and our daughter was three but I just felt it was something they had to experience. Who knows what they retained, but I wanted to plant a seed.
Through this exhibition I gained a much deeper appreciation of Leonardo’s quest for humans to fly as well as how his detailed knowledge of human anatomy gained by dissecting and drawing cadavers himself, must’ve greatly contributed towards his artistic genius. Indeed, I wondered if I embraced my physical body more, whether my creativity would also flourish in some way. Leonardo’s example, at least as far as I’ve been concerned, demonstrates the importance of creative cross-training where you’re not just an Artist, a Poet or Photographer, but you enhance your abilities by delving into other fields the same way for example that a runner will go to the gym, swim and modify diet to improve their overall fitness and performance.
This brings me to perhaps the greatest mystery of all surrounded Leonardo Da Vinci…What was the source of his genius?
Ritchie Caldor author of Leonardo & The Age of the Eye writes: “There was nothing in Leonardo’s origins to account for his attributes. For generations on his father’s side, they had been notories, registrars, farmers and winegrowers. His mother, Caterina, who was “of humble station”.”Certainly he was an interesting concatenation of genes, from the unlikely stock-pot of rural Tuscany, from the lusty notary and the peasant wench.”
He goes on to say:
“The shuffled genes of heredity talents can be compared to the deck of cards in the game of poker. In the deal, one would recognize as a genius anything from a Full House to a royal flush. Leonardo held the ace, the king, the queen, the knave and the ten – supreme in the talents of many fields- but in our awe we tend to throw in the joker as well and regard him as unique for all time- The Universal Genius. Rather we should regard him as the Universal Man who added to his innate talents an avid awareness of what was going on around him, and could exercise his skill in expressing and amplifying his own interests.”
This brings me to a very interesting point. What would you do if you had a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci in your family? Would you simply stop at the one you had, or would you try to create some more? Clearly, this type of thinking was taken to an extreme by the Nazi’s with their horrific crimes against humanity. However, we’re not talking about something on such a grand scale. Just perhaps being a little selective in your choice of marriage partner, for example.
Well, Leonardo had a half-brother by his father’s third wife, Bartolommeo who examined every detail of his father’s association with Caterina and sought out another peasant woman who corresponded to what he knew about Caterina and married her. He called the child Piero. The boy looked like Leonardo and was brought up with all the encouragement to follow in his footsteps. He became an artist and a sculptor of some talent but unfortunately died young. After that, “the Da Vinci genes reverted to the commonplace”.
My Letter To Leonardo Da Vinci
There was only one way I could post my letter to you, Leonardo…as a paper plane. How I wish that I could take you up in a jumbo jet and soar above the clouds. Or, perhaps you’d prefer hang gliding?
Personally, I’d rather stick to the relative safety of a plane, but you strike me as more of a risk taker. A man of action. Indeed, perhaps you’re the embodiment of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. Although he might be called “The Thinker”, you just need to look at his muscular legs to see he’s not a desk jockey. That his thoughts translate into action.
This brings me to my question:
What does it take to create a genius? What are the essential ingredients?
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
PS Why did you put “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” on your to do list? Why did it matter?
A Letter From Leonardo Da Vinci
You sure know how to throw a dead artist in at the deep end. How to create a genius? You could’ve given me something easy to warm up on. Indeed, I could’ve described the tongue of a woodpecker without any trouble at all! Creating a genius? That’s going to take a bit of thought and I might have to consult a few of these fellow dead artists.
Not that I’ve been idle around here. I brought my insatiable curiosity with me, and have been driving everyone mad asking: “Why is it so?” They told me in no uncertain terms to join the choir!
Anyway, I flicked through some of my notebooks I’ve written up here and have jotted down a few ideas:
Firstly, curiosity is very important. It’s more important to ask questions, than it is to have all the answers. “I roamed the countryside searching for the answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plant and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it and why immediately on its creation the lightening becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engaged my thought throughout my life.”
Secondly, you need to keep your eyes open. The sense of sight is three times greater than any of the other senses: “The eye whereby the beauty of the world is reflected by beholders is of such excellence that whoso consents to its loss deprives himself of the representation of all the works of nature. Because we can see these things owing to our eyes the soul is content to stay imprisoned in the human body; for through the eyes all the various things of nature are represented to the soul. Who loses his eyes leaves his soul a dark prison without hope of ever again seeing the sun, light of all the world….”
Lastly, you need to get out there and make things happen. Stop sticking your manuscripts in your bottom drawer and filing your paintings at the back of your cupboard. “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”