by Laura Guzzo
Celebrating the 500th anniversary of the artist and the enigma
Leonardo da Vinci—or just Leonardo, as he is referred to by scholars—is regarded as the quintessential Renaissance man. He was a brilliant artist who painted masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, and a visionary engineer who tried to design a way for humans to fly nearly 400 years before the Wright brothers came along. He was also proficient in many other disciplines, including invention, drawing, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography—and excelled at nearly all of them. Kind of makes your triathlon hobby seem quaint, no? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary (May 2, 1519) of Leonardo’s death this year, there is still much we don’t know about the man, despite the volumes of notebooks and the works he left behind. What we do know: he was the illegitimate son of a well-to-do notary, born to an unwed teenage girl near the town of Vinci (not far from Florence) in 1452. Not interested in formal education, his artistic gifts began to show early on. At age14, he was apprenticed to the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, where he stood out for his distinctive style that somehow managed to capture the interaction between the physical and the spiritual worlds.
“Leonardo’s work represents an extraordinary moment in visual culture,” says Hilliard Goldfarb, senior curator of collections and curator of old masters at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “He goes beyond the subject to explore the humanity. It’s like he wanted to enter the mind of God.” “He was obsessed with how things work and why they are,” says Kenneth Bartlett, a professor of history and Renaissance studies at the University of Toronto. “He was an astute observer of nature and had a unique ability to capture a moment. Very few painters can do that.”
This ability to capture the essence of the subject, be it human or in nature, quickly made him the go-to painter for the upper echelons of society. He was commissioned to create works for the likes of the Medici family, the Duke of Milan and Pope Leo X.
With so much talent in so many disciplines, it’s easy to peg Leonardo as some kind of otherworldly figure who knew something we don’t. Popular fiction has done its share to promote this notion—particularly The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which became a cultural juggernaut thanks to its outlandish theories about secret religious symbolism hidden in the works of artists like Leonardo.
But there is another reason we like to believe there are unknown secrets surrounding Leonardo. “The thing about Leonardo is that, because he doesn’t fit into any category, it allows people who have conspiracy theories to fill in the blanks,” says Bartlett. “I’ve actually met people who think he’s an extra terrestrial because they think only someone from another planet could know about DNA and the double helix (two theories he put forth).”
The reality as to why Leonardo is so mystifying, says Bartlett, is that we don’t really have any other point of reference for a polymath who was gifted at so many things. “He was never put into a box by formal education and training so he never had to try to surpass a box he was put into the way we do,” he says.
So for those wondering if Leonardo’s works were littered with secret codes intended for the Illuminati, you can rest easy. Experts conclude that there is no evidence to corroborate our conspiracy theories. “It’s tantalizing that he wrote backwards and made private notes to himself,” says Goldfarb. “It lends itself to conspiracy theories, but it’s not a complicated thing to interpret—you just have to hold it up to a mirror!”
What we do have evidence of, though, is a masterful artist, a brilliant thinker, inventor and visionary who dared to dream well beyond what was possible in his day and age and who left us all the richer for it. There has never been another artist like Leonardo, and it may be another 500 years before we see one again. Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari describes him and his legacy perfectly in his 1568 book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects: “In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo.”