Da Vinci Decoded: Seminar Explores One Man's Curiosity, Vision

Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments go way beyond the fresco of The Last Supper, the sketch of the Vitruvian Man and the painting of Mona Lisa. At the June 30 seminar, sponsored by the GAA and the UNC Program in the Humanities and Human Values, a historian, an art historian, an anatomist and an architect each presented a side of da Vinci that when pieced together, similar to the allegory of the blind men describing an elephant, showed one giant of a genius.

The four professors discussed da Vinci from their respective expertise. From their descriptions emerged an artist, anatomist, inventor and party animal. A musician who crafted a silver lyre to accompany himself, da Vinci also designed a self-propelled armored cart capable of “clearing a path through armed men,” drafted lethal weapons to blow things up and strategized ways to make a quick buck.

“Da Vinci was curious about everything,” said Sean Vance, the architect who led one of the sessions. “He was little concerned with the ‘why’ of affairs but of the ‘how.’ ”

Stanley Chojnacki, professor emeritus of history at UNC, opened the daylong seminar by putting into historical context what was going on in Italy during da Vinci’s lifetime, from the mid-1400s to the early 1500s, that had an impact on his “career moves.” Chojnacki spoke of kings and empires, regime changes and conquered kingdoms. Such political chaos directly affected da Vinci, who was commissioned by various royal families to paint portraits and design monuments.

Chojnacki also brought up da Vinci’s special relationship with women. Although da Vinci was not romantically interested in the fair sex, Chojnacki said, he showed a psychological sensitivity toward women that was revealed in his paintings. Da Vinci understood the influence women had on society and their creativity, and he allowed the personality of his female subjects to come through in their portraits. The artist who monumentalized the three-quarter pose for women, da Vinci painted many of the women turning slightly toward one shoulder to look back toward the viewer.

Mary Pardo, associate professor of art history at UNC, followed with her perspective of da Vinci as an artist. The first of the “Big Four” Renaissance artists (Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian were born a generation after Leonardo), da Vinci was the only 15th century master. A painter’s handbook written in da Vinci’s lifetime posited that painting calls for a combination of fantasy and skill of hand “to discover things not seen … and fix them, … presenting what does not exist.” Da Vinci did just that, by using shadow and the geometry of light to create apparent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional canvas. He lived in an era when artists were needed and valued, and he brought continuity and stability to politically chaotic times.

Da Vinci applied his artist’s eye and hand to the anatomical drawings he planned to publish in two anatomy books. (The books were never published.) Pardo showed sketches da Vinci made of a skull cut away and viewed from different perspectives. She said his fascination with the skull might have come from trying to figure out how his mind worked. That curiosity might have combined with the tendency of an artist to reproduce himself.

Da Vinci also drew the Vitruvian Man, the figure whose perpendicular arms and legs can be enclosed in a perfect square, and whose arms and legs when splayed can be enclosed in a perfect circle. The proportionality of buildings comes from the proportionality of the human form, a concept da Vinci applied in plans he drew for a cathedral. Da Vinci began many creative endeavors without seeing them through to completion. Some scholars surmise he had Attention Deficit Disorder.

“He had trouble finishing projects,” Pardo admitted. “I doubt he would have gotten tenure in his day.”

Noelle Granger, a professor of cell and developmental biology in the UNC School of Medicine who also is the author of an anatomy textbook and editor of a widely used anatomy atlas, said that some of da Vinci’s anatomy sketches were so detailed they could be used to teach anatomy today. Some details he included did not show up in anatomy sketches again until the 1900s. Da Vinci studied anatomy by observing the dissection of animals and the occasional human cadaver. His understanding of musculature (which had no nomenclature at the time) showed up in the highly defined muscles of the human forms he painted, though as Granger pointed out, often his figures had every muscle flexed, impossible to do in real life.

Last up was Vance, an assistant professor at N.C. State’s School of Architecture, who presented da Vinci as a designer and inventor. Vance read a lengthy resume that da Vinci sent to the Duke of Milan, stating he could construct a bridge, remove water from moats, and make cannons, tunnels, covered wagons, attack-resistant sea vessels and machines for throwing fire. In times of peace, the letter continued, he could design public and private edifices, create systems for conducting water and sculpt in marble, bronze or terra cotta.

Da Vinci’s drawings showed that he invented the ball bearing, which came from his understanding of mathematics. He came up with the concept of reinforced concrete for a bronze horse he designed but did not make; built a robot, a mechanical lion that walked up to a visiting king and opened its chest to drop out flowers; and designed a parachute, a flying machine, an odometer and a hydrometer to measure the moisture in the atmosphere.

“He was sensitive to work, struggle and pain,” Vance said. “He looked for ways to make work more efficient that would let one man do the work of four or five. He found ways to extend man’s limited abilities.”

Many of da Vinci’s inventions were not built until many years later, but Vance pointed out that da Vinci must have made a model or prototype to be able to draw such detailed plans to scale.

Vance also mentioned that da Vinci is reputed to have carried a small notebook with him to write down his ideas as they came to him. Vance urges his design students to do the same, and they sometimes write down 50 ideas a day.

“If we all wrote down our ideas,” Vance said, “we might find we have a little bit of da Vinci’s genius in all of us.”

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