Leonardo da Vinci (1696 - 1770)
Never before or since in the annals of the human race has the same passionate desire for knowledge been combined with the same ardent love of beauty, nor have artistic and scientific powers been united in the same degree as they were in Leonardo da Vinci.
Painting was only one manifestation of his genius. As sculptor, architect and engineer alike he was illustrious in his day; as a philosopher and man of science he has been justly hailed as the precursor of Galileo, of Bacon and of Descartes. Alexander von Humboldt proclaimed him to be the greatest physicist of the fifteenth century, the one man of his age who "united a remarkable knowledge of mathematics with the most admirable intuition of nature"; and scholars of this day recognize in him, as did Hallam, "a thinker who anticipated the grander discoveries of modern science."
At an early age the fame of Leonardo was abroad in Italy, and nobles of state vied with princes of the church in commanding his services. A prodigious worker on occasion and possessed of marvelous facility, Leonardo was, nevertheless, not a quick maker of masterpieces. In painting "The Last Supper," for instance, his procrastination so aggravated the Prior that the Duke Lodovico Sforza was besought to reprimand the artist for "mooning about" instead of getting on with the work. To his remonstrance Leonardo gently explained how necessary it was for artists to think things out before beginning to paint. "Two heads remain to be done," he said. "I feel unable to conceive the beauty of the celestial grace that must have been incarnate in Our Lord. The other head which causes me thought is that of Judas. I do not think I can express the face of a man who could resolve to betray his Master, after having received so many benefits.
But to save time," added Leonardo, "I will, in this case, seek no further; but for want of a better idea I will put in the head of the Prior." The amused Duke advised the Prior to let Leonardo finish the work at his pleasure.
Nevertheless was Leonardo constantly accused of indolence. Often he made vast preparations and accomplished nothing. As John Addington Symonds notes, "He set before himself aims infinite instead of finite. His designs of wings to fly with symbolize his whole endeavor. He believed in solving the insoluble."
To make himself rich or famous seems never to have concerned this colossus. As Theophile Gautier says, "He labored only to prove to himself that he was superior." Having created the one most beautiful of portraits, the one most beautiful picture, the one most beautiful fresco, the one most beautiful cartoon, he was content, and gave his mind to other things. He manufactured all the materials he used, even to his varnishes and colors. He invented many serviceable instruments that are still in use, like the saws employed today at the Carrara marble quarries. He designed breech-loading cannon, and demonstrated the advantages of conical bullets. He invented the camera obscura, forestalled Newton and Copernicus in seeing that the universe was held together by the attraction of gravitation, and was the first to observe that the tides obey the moon.
At the same time, Leonardo, in his advancing age, turned from his native Italy to France for recognition and found a patron in King Francis I, in whose arms he died.