LEONARDO DA VINCI
Leonard from Vinci is the English version of the name. He is the penultimate Renaissance man, without doubt, as well as an undisputed genius. My personal brush with the legend of this man has spanned most of my life. My father was also a painter and sculptor, and passed some of that talent on to me, which has focused my attention on the standard bearer of Western Art, Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps the most iconic of the paintings that have survived is La Gioconda, also known as, The Mona Lisa. It is that enigmatic smile that has captured the imagination of the world. When Leonardo left Italy to go to his new employer in France, three years before his death, and hiked over the Alps, carrying all his worldly possessions on a donkey, the only work of his he took along was that painting! Below are two version of La Gioconda one by Leonardo, the other by Vladimir Iwasiuk, my father. It is that faint hint of a smile that enticed my father to create a portrait of my wife, Mary, but he also gave it the name La Gioconda. Having visited the original painting by that name at the Louvre in Paris, I too was taken up with the mystery of the smile. It is by far the most popular painting there. Just getting close enough to appreciate it better is a herculean task, because it is an elbow to elbow battle with the crowd!
Leonardo came to work for King François I, who had invaded Northern Italy, as far down as Milan. He met Leonardo there, and hired him on the spot. Leonardo left with his friend, and faithful apprentice, Francesco Melzi. I visited their home, called Clos Luce, in Amboise, France. François had given Leonardo a three-story chateau with attached vineyards right next to his palace, along with a life time pension of 400 gold ducats a year (about $65,000 in today’s currency). Leonardo rendered military advice, built weapons, and defensive structures in service for the King.
Bill Gates bought the Codex Leicester for some $30,803,500.00, named for the previous owner, the Earl of Leicester, who owned it since 1719. It is a 72-page handwritten, in Leonardo’s backward mirror writing, secret style, notebook of observations, thoughts, and wisdom. Gates took a great interest in Leonardo’s inventions. Consequently, Microsoft has created a museum of working scale models, in the basement of Clos Luce, of many of Leonardo’s drawings of his inventions. For example, his ideas on flying machines, armored tanks, the bicycle, ways to transport water up-hill with a screw like pump, and many other thoughts. It was Leonardo who came up with the idea of machines that would do man’s work. He constructed the first robot, a mechanical knight, that could move his arms and legs, lift his visor, stand up and sit down, and make defensive moves through a series of gears and pulleys, for the amusement of the court at Amboise.
That is why the surgical robotic instrument was named the Da Vinci Robot, after him, by the Intuitive Company that built it. I learned to use the Da Vinci Robot in 2004 at USC Los Angeles Medical Center. For more than a decade I did many operations on living patients to remove cancers, fix hernias, control bleeding ulcers, and a whole host of other operations using the Da Vinci Robot. I convinced my hospital to purchase the first version, and with much further persuasion, now the latest version, the Xi Da Vinci, and with it a teaching module that allows teaching of young surgeons to work on the robot. Just like teaching someone to drive a car, with a second set of controls that can override the student controls.
The Vitruvian Man is another iconic Da Vinci creation, and is a demonstration of Leonardo’s, knowledge of anatomy. He performed many autopsies on corpses to learn the anatomy and physiology of the human body. About 100 years after Leonardo, Andreas Vesalius, the Dutch anatomist, who corrected many of the mistakes of past anatomists, such as Galen and Celsus, who were not allowed dissect the human body. Vesalius used Da Vinci’s drawings in his book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica correcting those mistakes that stood unchallenged for 1500 years.
Leonardo’s last discovered work, painted around 1500, was Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), now housed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in Saudi Arabia. It was purchased for a cool sum of $450,300,000, the most expensive painting ever sold to date. It is Christ making the sign of the cross with his right hand, while holding a transparent globe in his left. Mind you, this is when the rest of the world thought the earth was flat.
Leonardo had a very plausible theory of how some ancient skeletal remains of prehistoric animals got on top of the highest mountains. The idea of plate tectonics came to Leonardo some 500 years before Arthur Holmes came up with the same idea.
Leonardo was also a botanist, an engineer, a geographer, a mathematician, an architect, and of course an inventor, a true “polymath”, someone who knows a lot, about a lot of different subjects. Leonardo and Michelangelo were contemporaries, but did not see eye to eye on many issues. Michelangelo was very critical of Leonardo, and did not approve of his casting techniques, or his painting of large frescos using oil paint. The large solitary block of marble that became the statue of David was a bone of contention between the two, that Michelangelo eventually won. Michelangelo got it, and the resultant statue became a 17-foot masterpiece of unequaled beauty, originally placed in the Piazza della Signoria, but then moved the Galleria dell ’Accademia in Florence, in order to protect it from the elements.
Years later when I traveled to Florence to pay homage to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, I bought a two-foot copy of “The David” in marble. I was in the USAF during the Vietnam era, and had to transport the sculpting back to my home base in the Azores, Portugal. Although it was a scaled down version, it was still quite unwieldy and heavy, basically a 2x 0.5 foot piece of marble. In an attempt to make it lighter, I removed it from its wooden crate, and tried to load it on the plane, but was stopped by the Military Police for transporting pornography. I had to cover those indecent parts in order for them, to allow me to carry it on the plane.
Speaking of indecency, there have been rumors dating back hundreds of years, of Leonardo’s sexual orientation, but never substantiated. He never married, had no offspring, and in his youth stood trial for sodomy, an act that was punishable by death in Florence at that time. He was exonerated, however, it scared him, and he escaped to Milan. In Milan he worked for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, for almost two decades. Leonardo was notorious for working very slowly, and often not finishing a project. Ludovico wanted a large equestrian statue erected in front of the Milan Cathedral. Leonardo stalled the project while Ludovico was gathering the bronze for it. When finally it was amassed, a war with France broke out, and the bronze had to be used for casting cannons. Although Leonardo did finish a full-sized clay model of the “Gran Cavallo”, to add insult to injury, the French used it for target practice when they invaded Milan.
For a three-year period, Leonardo lived in the Vatican, as a guest of Pope Leo X. During this time Michelangelo was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which must have made for some interesting encounters between the two, given their animosity. In 1516 Leonardo moved to Amboise, France, to work for his new employer, King François I. Francesco Melzi, his long-term apprentice, was with him to the end of his life on May 2, 1519. It was Melzi who drew the portrait of Leonardo at the beginning of this essay, and Melzi who was the administrator of Leonardo’s will. Although his final resting place was initially a stone sarcophagus in the Chapel of the Amboise Castle, it was looted for its lead liner to make bullets. The bones were buried in a mass grave outside of the castle.