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Leonardo’s letter to Ludovico il Moro assured him:
When a place is besieged I know how to cut off water from the trenches and construct an infinite variety of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders, and other instruments pertaining to sieges. I also have types of mortars that are very convenient and easy to transport…. when a place cannot be reduced by the method of bombardment either because of its height or its location, I have methods for destroying any fortress or other stronghold, even if it be founded upon rock. ….If the engagement be at sea, I have many engines of a kind most efficient for offence and defence, and ships that can resist cannons and powder.
In Leonardo’s notebooks there is an array of war machines which includes a vehicle to be propelled by two men powering crank shafts. Although the drawing itself looks quite finished, the mechanics were apparently not fully developed because, if built as drawn, the vehicle would never progress in a forward direction. In a BBC documentary, a military team built the machine and changed the gears in order to make the machine work. It has been suggested that Leonardo deliberately left this error in the design, in order to prevent it from being put to practice by unauthorized people. Another machine, propelled by horses with a pillion rider, carries in front of it four scythes mounted on a revolving gear, turned by a shaft driven by the wheels of a cart behind the horses.
Leonardo’s notebooks also show cannons which he claimed “to hurl small stones like a storm with the smoke of these causing great terror to the enemy, and great loss and confusion.” He also designed an enormous crossbow. Following his detailed drawing, one was constructed by the British Army, but could not be made to fire successfully. In 1481 Leonardo designed a breech-loading, water cooled cannon with three racks of barrels allowed the re-loading of one rack while another was being fired and thus maintaining continuous fire power. The “fan type” gun with its array of horizontal barrels allowed for a wide scattering of shot.
Leonardo was the first to sketch the wheel-lock musket c. 1500 AD (the precedent of the flintlock musket which first appeared in Europe by 1547), although as early as the 14th century the Chinese had used a flintlock ‘steel wheel’ in order to detonate land mines.
While Leonardo was working in Venice, he drew a sketch for an early diving suit, to be used in the destruction of enemy ships entering Venetian waters. A suit was constructed for a BBC documentary using pigskin treated with fish oil to repel water. The head was covered by a helmet with two eyeglasses at the front. A breathing tube of bamboo with pigskin joints was attached to the back of the helmet and connected to a float of cork and wood. When the scuba divers tested the suit, they found it to be a workable precursor to a modern diving suit, the cork float acting as a compressed air chamber when submerged. His inventions were very futuristic which meant they were very expensive and proved not to be useful.
He made designs for mills, fulling machines and engines that could be driven by water-power… In addition he used to make models and plans showing how to excavate and tunnel through mountains without difficulty, so as to pass from one level to another; and he demonstrated how to lift and draw great weights by means of levers, hoists and winches, and ways of cleansing harbours and using pumps to suck up water from great depths.
Practical inventions and projects
Leonardo was a master of mechanical principles. He utilized leverage and cantilevering, pulleys, cranks, gears, including angle gears and rack and pinion gears; parallel linkage, lubrication systems and bearings. He understood the principles governing momentum, centripetal force, frictionand the aerofoil and applied these to his inventions. His scientific studies remained unpublished with, for example, his manuscripts describing the processes governing friction predating the introduction of Amontons’ Laws of Friction by 150 years.
It is impossible to say with any certainty how many or even which of his inventions passed into general and practical use, and thereby had impact over the lives of many people. Among those inventions that are credited with passing into general practical use are the strut bridge, the automatedbobbin winder, the rolling mill, the machine for testing the tensile strength of wire and the lens-grinding machine pictured at right. In the lens-grinding machine, the hand rotation of the grinding wheel operates an angle-gear, which rotates a shaft, turning a geared dish in which sits the glass or crystal to be ground. A single action rotates both surfaces at a fixed speed ratio determined by the gear.
As an inventor, Leonardo was not prepared to tell all that he knew:
How by means of a certain machine many people may stay some time under water. How and why I do not describe my method of remaining under water, or how long I can stay without eating; and I do not publish nor divulge these by reason of the evil nature of men who would use them as means of destruction at the bottom of the sea, by sending ships to the bottom, and sinking them together with the men in them. And although I will impart others, there is no danger in them; because the mouth of the tube, by which you breathe, is above the water supported on bags of corks.
Da Vinci’s interests ranged far beyond fine art. He studied nature, mechanics, anatomy, physics, architecture, weaponry and more, often creating accurate, workable designs for machines like the bicycle, helicopter, submarine and military tank that would not come to fruition for centuries. He was, wrote Sigmund Freud, “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”
Several themes could be said to unite da Vinci’s eclectic interests. Most notably, he believed that sight was mankind’s most important sense and that “saper vedere”(“knowing how to see”) was crucial to living all aspects of life fully. He saw science and art as complementary rather than distinct disciplines, and thought that ideas formulated in one realm could—and should—inform the other.
Probably because of his abundance of diverse interests, da Vinci failed to complete a significant number of his paintings and projects. He spent a great deal of time immersing himself in nature, testing scientific laws, dissecting bodies (human and animal) and thinking and writing about his observations. At some point in the early 1490s, da Vinci began filling notebooks related to four broad themes—painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy—creating thousands of pages of neatly drawn illustrations and densely penned commentary, some of which (thanks to left-handed “mirror script”) was indecipherable to others.
The notebooks—often referred to as da Vinci’s manuscripts and “codices”—are housed today in museum collections after having been scattered after his death. The Codex Atlanticus, for instance, includes a plan for a 65-foot mechanical bat, essentially a flying machine based on the physiology of the bat and on the principles of aeronautics and physics. Other notebooks contained da Vinci’s anatomical studies of the human skeleton, muscles, brain, and digestive and reproductive systems, which brought new understanding of the human body to a wider audience. However, because they weren’t published in the 1500s, da Vinci’s notebooks had little influence on scientific advancement in the Renaissance period.
Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–98) is among the most famous paintings in the world. In its monumental simplicity, the composition of the scene is masterful; the power of its effect comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the 12 disciples as counterposed to Christ. Leonardo portrayed a moment of high tension when, surrounded by the Apostles as they share Passover, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me.” All the Apostles—as human beings who do not understand what is about to occur—are agitated, whereas Christ alone, conscious of his divine mission, sits in lonely, transfigured serenity. Only one other being shares the secret knowledge: Judas, who is both part of and yet excluded from the movement of his companions. In this isolation he becomes the second lonely figure—the guilty one—of the company.
In the profound conception of his theme, in the perfect yet seemingly simple arrangement of the individuals, in the temperaments of the Apostles highlighted by gesture, facial expressions, and poses, in the drama and at the same time the sublimity of the treatment, Leonardo attained a height of expression that has remained a model of its kind. Countless painters in succeeding generations, among them great masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, marveled at Leonardo’s composition and were influenced by it and by the painting’s narrative quality. The work also inspired some of Goethe’s finest pages of descriptive prose. It has become widely known through countless reproductions and prints, the most important being that produced by Raffaello Morghen in 1800. Thus, The Last Supper has become part of humanity’s common heritage and remains today one of the world’s outstanding paintings.
Technical deficiencies in the execution of the work have not lessened its fame. Leonardo was uncertain about the technique he should use. He bypassed traditionalfresco painting, which, because it is executed on fresh plaster, demands quick and uninterrupted painting, in favour of another technique he had developed: temperaon a base, which he mixed himself, on the stone wall. This procedure proved unsuccessful, inasmuch as the base soon began to loosen from the wall. Damage appeared by the beginning of the 16th century, and deterioration soon set in. By the middle of the century, the work was called a ruin. Later, inadequate attempts at restoration only aggravated the situation, and not until the most-modern restoration techniques were applied after World War II was the process of decay halted. A major restoration campaign begun in 1980 and completed in 1999 restored the work to brilliance but also revealed that very little of the original paint remains.
Painting and drawing
Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works—the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed—have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.
The many testimonials to Leonardo, ranging from Vasari to Peter Paul Rubens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Eugène Delacroix, praise in particular the artist’s gift for expression—his ability to move beyond technique and narrative to convey an underlying sense of emotion. The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472–75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it an enigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed. In Leonardo’s landscape segment in the same picture, he also found a new expression for what he called “nature experienced”: he reproduced the background forms in a hazy fashion as if through a veil of mist.
In the Benois Madonna (1475–78) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In his Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1480) Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; begun 1480) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.
The interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture—“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words—is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481). Never finished, the painting nonetheless affords rich insight into the master’s subtle methods. The various aspects of the scene are built up from the base with very delicate, paper-thin layers of paint in sfumato (the smooth transition from light to shadow) relief. The main treatment of the Virgin and Child group and the secondary treatment of the surrounding groups are clearly set apart with a masterful sense of composition—the pyramid of the Virgin Mary and Magi is demarcated from the arc of the adoring followers. Yet thematically they are closely interconnected: the bearing and expression of the figures—most striking in the group of praying shepherds—depict many levels of profound amazement.
The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483–86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt. The secret of the picture’s effect lies in Leonardo’s use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity—all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.
In 1513 political events—the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan—caused the now 60-year-old Leonardo to move again. At the end of the year, he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican. He also gave Leonardo a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions followed. For three years Leonardo remained in Rome at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, and many younger artists, such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma, were also active. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master, who kept a low profile while he worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city. Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.
Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young King Francis I to enter his service in France. At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.
Leonardo did little painting while in France, spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World, or Deluge, series (c. 1514–15), he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.
Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.
Second Milanese period (1508–13)
In May 1506 Charles d’Amboise, the French governor in Milan, asked the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo could travel to Milan. The Signoria let Leonardo go, and the monumental Battle of Anghiari remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural; one cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work. In the winter of 1507–08 Leonardo went to Florence, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan.
Honoured and admired by his generous patrons in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, Leonardo enjoyed his duties, which were limited largely to advice in architectural matters. Tangible evidence of such work exists in plans for a palace-villa for Charles, and it is believed that he made some sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.
During this second period in Milan, Leonardo created very little as a painter. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new students came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most faithful friend and companion until the artist’s death.
An important commission came Leonardo’s way during this time. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and as a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore. After years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one. This was the second aborted project Leonardo faced as a sculptor.
Leonardo’s scientific activity flourished during this period. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia. Leonardo outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even planned to finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510–11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies. These investigations became increasingly driven by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape. Furthermore, he believed that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.
Beyond The Da Vinci Code
As a film, Beyond the Da Vinci Code covers the novel and its topics well. If you have not read the book, this film will serve as a good introduction to the theories in The Da Vinci Code. Most points related to historical elements used in the book are covered in detail, and the film wisely ignores the dramatic elements of the novel. The film uses various authors, researchers, and religious scholars to support or refute claims made in The Da Vinci Code. A mix of talking heads, historical re-creations, and real-life location shoots present the various claims in an easy-to-understand way that is engaging for even the uninformed viewer.
The Life of Leonardo da Vinci