The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci
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The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci

Edward McCurdy

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The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci

Edward McCurdy

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In this classic, engrossing text, a distinguished historian explores the mind and manifold interests of the greatest personality of the Renaissance. More than just a biography, the book presents a detailed investigation of Leonardo da Vinci's genius. Its colorful, evocative prose offers numerous demonstrations of the master's achievements, not only in sculpture and painting, but also in music, engineering, and even experimental aviation.
A renowned authority on the works and personality of Leonardo, author Edward McCurdy translated many of the artist's writings. "In the thousands of pages of his manuscript he has left the mirror of his thought, " McCurdy observes, "and there his mind may be seen at work, moving among the phenomena of nature and the inherited knowledge of antiquity, trying all things, expounding all things, proving all things." McCurdy begins by tracing the artist's travels, from his native Florence to Milan, Venice, Rome, and France. Part Two examines the manuscripts and their philosophical revelations, and the third section assesses the paintings and sculpture. First published in 1928, this book remains one of the best introductions to Leonardo and his extraordinary versatility.

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FOR background the Tuscan hill-country, beloved of her artists. Summits castle-crowned or arid and bare. Sides broken by runnels and streams that grow in a night and loosen the soil of their banks and bear it foaming down to the Arno. Grey walls winding about the hillsides; gleam of white and silver of twisted olives; pinnacles of dark cypress cutting the air; murmur of bells of wandering goats. Where the valleys meet the slopes of the hills are poderi white and red walled, and all about the vines trail in the sun and everywhere in spring there is the radiance of the almond. On the tops of the lesser hills castles, campaniles, houses, timeless as the rocks, cluster together thickly and crown them with an abiding sense of man’s antiquity. Thus Vinci—thus Anchiano a mile or more beyond it—villages perched high above Empoli, where the Arno slowly loosens her serpentine coils, nestling each in contentment among the wide folds of Monte Albano. At Anchiano Leonardo da Vinci was born in the year 1452, and there he lived in the years of childhood, and how much of the vista lives in the record of his life.
Son of a youthful notary, with four generations of notaries for paternal ancestors, illegitimate, but—as though nature wished to guard him against the disadvantages usually attaching to this fact—sole scion of the house for twenty-four years during the duration of two childless marriages of Ser Piero, after which the latter, marrying a third and then a fourth time, became possessed of nine sons and two daughters, the last being born nearly fifty-two years after Leonardo.
Of his mother we know nothing for certain, except that her name was Caterina and that she subsequently became the wife of a certain Accattabriga di Piero del Vacca of Vinci. Ser Piero of astonishing virility prospered in all his affairs, and from being a notary of Vinci rose to be notary to the Signoria of Florence, where he was living in 1469, and with him Leonardo, as is shown by a taxation return of that date. Ser Piero had still also the house at Vinci, but already we may assume Leonardo had entered Verrocchio’s studio,—and in so doing had passed into what was at that time the principal training school of Florentine artists.
How his father, who was a friend of Verrocchio, took some of his son’s drawings to him to ask his opinion of them, and so brought it about that he was admitted as a pupil to his studio, is told with all vivacity by Vasari.
The precise date is a matter of inference, but in view of the fact that apprenticeship in the trade guilds of Florence commenced as a rule in the fourteenth year, and that Leonardo according to Vasari was placed with Verrocchio in his boyhood, we may assume that Herr MĂŒller-Walde is substantially accurate in ascribing the event to the year 1466, when Leonardo had reached the age of fourteen.
Then commenced his intercourse with the art world of Florence; but in reading the account in his Treatise on Painting how Giotto’s love of art first found expression, we may perhaps read something of his own first lessons, and we may also discern how the seeds of those wider interests of his life which separate him from the artists of his time had already been implanted in his mind by that same contact with nature in the Tuscan hill-country.
Certain it is that his earliest dated drawing, the landscape of 1473 in the Uffizi, has a definitely Tuscan character, and that the perception of the structure of the rocks shows something of the absorption of the scientist.
To the Tuscan follows the Florentine background. Florence of the Quattrocento! The Republic in transition! Liberties undermined first by the Albizzi, then more speciously and with greater completeness by the Medici; but as regards the sway of Cosimo, ‘pater patriae,’ and his grandson Il Magnifico such supremacy being the natural, the inevitable rule of the born master of statecraft, who must be supreme whatever the system.
But how many and divers the roads that opened to talent in lieu of that astride which lay the ambitions of a dynasty! Florence had been in the forefront in classical learning since the days of Petrarch and Boccaccio, and the pursuit received new stimulus from the liberality of the Medici.
Science followed in its train, rich in knowledge thus revealed, adding new power in observation and processes. In art and letters the city of Giotto and Dante had lost nothing of the pre-eminence which they had established. To the naturalism of Giotto, as to that re-birth of naturalism in Masaccio’s work in the Carmine, Leonardo has borne testimony in a passage of his manuscripts which serves to show with what acumen he surveyed the works of the earlier Florentine painters.
His own participation in the intellectual life of the city, commencing with the section of it which frequented Verrocchio’s studio, extended with the continually widening scope of his studies. All Verrocchio’s more important commissions were as a sculptor, and it is therefore natural to assume that the prominence given to sculpture in Vasari’s account of Leonardo’s activity after entering Verrocchio’s studio had a close relation to fact:

‘And he practised not one branch of art alone, but all those of which drawing formed a part, and having an intellect so divine and marvellous, and being an excellent geometrician, he worked not only in sculpture, executing in his youth, in clay, some heads of women that are smiling, of which casts in plaster are still taken, and likewise some heads of boys which possess all the appearance of having come from the hand of a master, but in architecture, also, he made many drawings both of plans, as of other projections of buildings; and he was the first, although a mere youth, that put forward the project of reducing the river Arno to a navigable channel, from Pisa to Florence. He made designs for flour-mills, fulling-mills, and machines, which might be driven by the force of water: and because he wished that painting should be his profession, he studied much in drawing from nature, and often in making models of figures in clay.’

As it were with the vividness of an eye-witness, although the account was written more than half a century after the events which he describes, Vasari has here shown how the mind of Leonardo exercised itself in many ways as soon as ever his contact with the intuitive influences of Florence became a reality. Already we see foreshadowings of the power to enter into the world of idea and with the arm of science to wrest conquests from the unknown. A note in the Codice Atlantico (12V.) shows how wide was the stimulus of intellectual curiosity which he experienced.
The association of eight names here occurring would seem to point to some precursor of that ‘laudibile e scientifico duello’ held at Milan in the days of Il Moro.
Three of the names are of mediocrities. Two—men ‘of some importance in their day’—Carlo Marmocchi, astronomer and geographer, and Domenico di Michelino, who painted the picture of Dante in the Cathedral. The other three were those of intellectual giants: Benedetto dell’ Abbaco, Argyropoulos and Toscanelli, and to each Leonardo probably put himself to school. Benedetto dell’ Abbaco was the most famous teacher of mathematics in Florence in the fifteenth century. His numerous Trattati d’abbaco exist in the libraries of Florence and Siena. It may be assumed that Leonardo studied under him previous to entering Verrocchio’s studio, and he would be the teacher whom Vasari refers to as having been continually perplexed by the doubts and difficulties which Leonardo presented to him. This Benedetto may have been his coadjutor, as was at a later date Fra Luca Pacioli. Argyropoulos, or
Messer Giovanni Argiropolo,’ styled by Filelfo most learned of all the Greeks in Italy, was welcomed to Florence by Cosimo de’ Medici and numbered Poliziano and Lorenzo de’ Medici among his pupils in philosophy. His lectures continued until Leonardo was in his twentieth year, and he was probably sometimes a hearer. Argyropoulos translated the Phisica, De Caelo and others of Aristotle’s works into Latin, and these translations may have served Leonardo as the basis of his knowledge of these treatises.
Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, here styled ‘Maestro Pagolo Medico,’ the doyen of the assembly, was born in 1397 and died in 1482. In the course of a life spent almost entirely in Florence he had gained eminence in mathematics, astronomy, geography, and medicine. The gnomon which he erected in the Cathedral in 1468 is the loftiest in Europe, but his chief memorial consists in the fact that his brain beat concurrently with that of Columbus in conceiving the possibility of a western route to Asia, and that in 1474, eighteen years before the date of Columbus’ first voyage, he wrote him a letter to urge him to the attempt, priming him with scientific deductions and with the glamour of the Far East as mirrored in the pages of Marco Polo and the records of later travellers. Some of those who knew Toscanelli knew also of the project which must have welled into speech before it was written and sent on its way. Leonardo, too, may have heard of it, since it fell in the very middle of those youthful years in Florence during which his intellectual curiosity was at its highest, seeking every outlet of knowledge.
After he had returned to Florence from Milan, when Toscanelli was long dead and Columbus had made all his voyages, there is perhaps a record of new contact with the navigators in Vasari’s statement of his having made a drawing of Amerigo Vespucci, ‘a most beautiful head of an old man drawn in charcoal.’
But Amerigo Vespucci was only Leonardo’s senior by a year, having been born in 1451, and if the drawing was done when he was an old man it is rather difficult to see when it can have been executed, because Amerigo Vespucci accompanied Ojeda on his voyage in 1498 and was at Seville in 1501 and published his account of his four voyages in 1504, and there is no definite evidence of his having returned to Florence. Brockhaus has suggested that the Amerigo Vespucci referred to may have been the grandfather of the navigator who died in 1472, in which event the portrait must have been one of Leonardo’s earliest works.
Martin WaldseemĂŒller’s CosmographiƓ Introductio, published in 1507, with a Latin translation of Vespucci’s four voyages, contained the first suggestion that America should be the name of the new world. With the rapid growth of the idea grew also the fame of the navigator, and it seems therefore more natural to assume that Vasari’s statement is intended to refer to him.
With the great Florentine family of the Vespucci it is natural to suppose him to have been acquainted, and he and Amerigo were almost exact contemporaries. They may have learnt together from Toscanelli.
Whatever the stimulus may have been we know from the list of books which are believed to have formed Leonardo’s library, from his maps and from many passages of his writings how constantly his thoughts would dwell upon the far and unknown spaces of the earth.
Enigmatic and shadow-like, with a universality of mental endowment half legendary but potent among the tutelary influences in the Florentine background, is the figure of Leon Battista Alberti. Architect, mathematician, sculptor, philosopher, physicist, astronomer, inventor, student of classical monuments at Rome and able by his art as at Rimini to give their spirit rebirth, he linked science with art and practice with theory in a manner similar to that of Leonardo. He had died in Rome in 1472—the year in which Leonardo was admitted a member of the Florentine Guild of Painters —and the possibility of direct influence is therefore almost negligible. It was, however, in his writings that the vigour of his mind found most complete embodiment. They moved Vasari to say that as regards name and fame ‘fra tutte le cose gli scritti sono di maggior forza e di maggior vita.’ An edition of the treatise on architecture was issued in 1485, with an introduction by Poliziano and dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici. This, as well as the treatises on painting, mensuration and the ludi matematici, must have been well known to Leonardo. Alberti anticipated him in the construction of his canon of the proportions of the human figure, but as Professor Favaro has pointed out, Leonardo’s canon has a closer resemblance to that of the Greeks as summarised by Vitruvius than to that of Alberti.
Among the forces in the background which would project themselves continually upon his nascent imagination were the works of Giotto, the Campanile with its bas-reliefs and the frescoes of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, and also those of Masaccio in the Carmine with their heightening of reality.
Leonardo’s reference to the two painters in a passage of his manuscripts serves to show how he isolated them from others in his reflections on the history of art.
Nor was Arezzo so far afield as to forbid us to suppose that he was drawn there on occasion by eager curiosity to study the creations of Piero de’ Franceschi, with whose genius as revealed in San Francesco, in the treatment of problems of light and shade and in knowledge of the laws of linear and aerial perspective, his own works show marked temperamental affinity.
He must also have learnt something from the work of the Pollaiuoli, ‘the spring from which the students of pure light and shade as distinguished from the colourists arose.’ Antonio Pollaiuolo was probably the greatest living master of line. One source of his power he wrested from nature in a manner identical with Leonardo. We are told that he had dissected many human bodies to study the anatomy, and according to Vasari he was the earliest artist who investigated the action of the muscles in this manner that he might give them their due effect in his works. So perhaps came something of the tension of the bowmen in his Saint Sebastian in the National Gallery, and in this picture executed in 1475 he shows himself in sense of aerial perspective far in advance of contemporary Florentine work.
The subtle gradations of tone of the wide-spreading landscape background are an index upon the road along which Leonardo travelled. His earliest dated drawing (1473) of Tuscan landscape reveals his essential unity of method; it lingers still in the sun-steeped hills and winding waterways of the Mona Lisa.
Together with these influences were those directly proceeding from Verrocchio’s studio. With all Florence to choose from Ser Piero could have made no more fortunate choice. Not because there were not artists of equal eminence, but because the atmosphere was the most liberal and most congenial to Leonardo’s many-sided talent, and because Verrocchio’s intense practicality was a valuable element in the formation of his mind, proving as it did at once a stimulus and an antidote. Verrocchio shared with Antonio Pollaiuolo the inheritance of intellectual endeavour which distinguished the art of Florence.
The two carried on the scientific tradition with a zeal akin to that of Paolo Uccello, of whom it is told that when conjured by his wife to take rest and sleep in the night he replied only, ‘O what a delightful thing is this perspective!’
Each being originally a goldsmith the first creative energy had found vent in the use of metals, and while the range of Verrocchio’s technical ambitions and interests was almost boundless, his chief triumphs are associated with his work as a sculptor. Leonardo, who shared to the full Verrocchio’s versatility, was sympathetic to every mood and interested in every technical problem. How many of these are found repeated in his own experience!
Making clocks and helmets, casting bells and cannon, executing commissions in wood, silver, marble and bronze, acting on public committees appointed to judge works of art, designing dresses and decorations in connection with those tournaments and public festivities of the Medici which Poliziano has celebrated in song. The relation of master and pupil changed insensibly, as in such associated activities the years slipped by, and so in 1476, four years after he had been admitted a member of the guild of painters, Leonardo is still described as living with Verrocchio.
In this year Ser Piero da Vinci began to have legitimate issue by his third wife, and this circumstance no doubt tended indirectly to estrange Leonardo from his father’s household. This may also have been brought about by the fact that in the same year the machinery of anonymous accusation which was one of the devices by which the Medici controlled Florence was put into operation against Leonardo and three others, with the result that they had to stand their trial for an alleged offence against public morals. On the first hearing the accused were discharged, with the proviso that they might be brought up again on any fresh evidence. Two months later the case was retried with the same result.
This finally disposed of the accusation. In the indictment Leonardo is entered as the son of Ser Piero da Vinci and as living with Verrocchio. This amount of description was quite unnecessary for purposes of identification. It may be observed that Leonardo’s manuscripts, which register the communings of his mind, are instinct with the highest morality. As he wrote:

‘Whoso curbs not lustful desires puts himself on a level with the beasts.
You can have neither a greater nor a less dominion than that over yourself.
It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.’

Although his activities were manifold Verrocchio’s greatest triumphs were all won as a worker in plastic material, among the most significant being perhaps the David, the Boy with a Dolphin and the Colleoni, each of which far transcends in importance anything that he achieved by the use of the brush. It is natural, therefore, to suppose that Verrocchio’s influence upon Leonardo’s work was somewhat greater in sculpture than in painting, and in view of Vasari’s reference to Leonardo’s early activity in the art of sculpture, ‘the heads of women smiling and also others of children,’ it is probable that these would show a somewhat closer approximation to the Verrocchiesque types than would be the case with early work in painting. The fable of Minerva springing forth fully armed from the brain of Jupiter, and admitted immediately into the assembly of the gods, offers a not altogether fantastic parallel to the spectacle presented by the sudden emergence in painting of the Leonardesque type, in the figure of the angel holding vestments which, according to Vasari, Leonardo painted in Verrocchio’s picture of the Baptism of Christ. There is no apparent reason for discrediting Vasari’s statement. The figure is conceived on simple lines, but the type is supple and sinuous to a degree far exceeding that of the other figures and in entire harmony with that which occurs in Leonardo’s drawings of the early period.
The broad simple folds of the drapery are very similar to those in various of his studies of the drapery of a kneeling figure. Moreover, the tradition of Leonardo’s authorship is far older than Vasari. It is found in the earliest of all guides to the art treasures of Florence, to wit Francesco Albertini’s Memoriale di molte statue e pitture della Città di Firenze, published in 1510, i.e. during Leonardo’s lifetime. He speaks of San Salvi as containing ‘tavole bellissime, et un Angelo di Leonardo Vinci.’
Verrocchio’s studio was much more than a school of the arts. It was something in the nature of a clearing house of ideas in what was the first intellectual centre of Italy. However great and far-reaching Leonardo’s initial vision, it must have been broadened and expanded by the opportunities of intercourse which there opened before him. Among Verrocchio’s pupils were the sculptors, Francesco di Simone, whose work in marble obsequies is ranked by Vasari with that of his master, and Agnolo di Polo, who worked in terracotta so assiduously that the city was said to be full of figures by his hand.
Perugino is also numbered by Vasari among Verrocchio’s pupils. Doubts have been thrown on the statement, and it is certain that Perugino’s art training had proceeded under Umbrian masters before he came to Florence. Probably he frequented Verrocchio’s studio more in the character of an assistant than a pupil, and as such exercised considerable influence over the nascent art of Lorenzo di Credi, whose devotional grace and facile smoothness of texture would seem to be in part derived from him. Giovanni Santi bears testimony to Perugino’s association with Leonardo in the well-known lines in his Rhyming Chronicle:
‘Due giovin par d’etade e par d‘amore
Leonardo da Vinci e’ 1 Perusino
Pier della Pieve ch‘ù un divin pittore.’
Santi wrote at Urbino, where he found employment, artistic and otherwise, in the service of the Montefeltro. What he knew of Florence and her painters he may have had from Piero de’ Franceschi, whose host he was when the latter first visited Urbino. The lines do not suggest exactness of knowledge, Perugino being in fact the elder by six ...