16 October 2011

LIFE: In Love with Leonardo

SARONNO, Italy – In the center of Milan, in the small piazza between the Galleria and the  La Scala opera house, there’s a statue of Leonardo da Vinci. He is standing tall, surrounded by his pupils. The piazza, aptly named Piazza della Scala, is usually crowded with tourists, sitting on the bench that circles the statue, resting their weary feet. I doubt if many of them pay much attention to it , after all, Milan is full of statues.
Leonardo da Vinci in Piazza Della Scala, Milan
Yet Leonardo was one of the most important people to ever live here. He  is probably best known as an artist,  just say his name and the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper come to mind.  But I think if we could ask him to define himself, I think he would say he that he was an engineer.  

Like most engineers, Leonardo was driven by an unrelenting curiosity and an insatiable hunger for knowledge. He was an innovative thinker whose vision of the world held unlimited possibilities. From his fertile mind came concepts in engineering, mathematics, and science, many of which were centuries ahead of their time. If da Vinci was alive and working today, his accomplishments would be astounding, to say the least.
 Leonard da Vinci
But his life was far from easy. In 1482 he left Florence for Milan leaving behind a largely unfinished painting entitled  “The Adoration of the Magi”. He had been commissioned to paint this work for the main altar of the San Donato a Scopeto monastery, just outside of Florence. But a few months into the work, when the monks proposed a complicated and unjust payment scheme, he packed up his paint brushes, pulled out his suitcase and came to Milan.

While the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, he also put him to work designing weapons, buildings and machinery. From 1485 to 1490, Leonardo produced a number of designs for advanced weapons, including a tank, a helicopter and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and a submarine. Also during this period, he produced his first anatomical studies, cutting up corpses whenever he could get his hands on one. His Milan workshop was a veritable beehive of activity, buzzing with apprentices and students.
Drawing for Helicopter
Even though he was a great artist and architect, Leonardo’s primary interests lay in research and invention. He spent most of his time studying science, either by going out into nature and observing things or by locking himself away in his workshop cutting up bodies or pondering universal truths. He would start an artistic project but then loose interest and during his 17 years in Milan, he only completed six works, including "The Last Supper" and "The Virgin on the Rocks".  He left dozens of paintings and projects unfinished or unrealized.
Between 1490 and 1495 he developed the habit of recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy. These studies and sketches were collected into various codices and manuscripts, which are now much sought after by museums and individuals like Bill Gates who paid $30 million for Leonardo’s Codex Leicester a few years ago.
Mirror Writing
Another Codex, the Codice Atlantico, is owned by the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, one of Milan’s art galleries.  It is  the largest collection of Leonardo’s  notes and drawings in existence. It includes pages made during all stages of his artistic life from 1476 when he was 26 years old right up until he died in 1519.

It is well known than Leonard had a very unusual style of writing.  He developed a special kind of shorthand and also using mirror writing which starts at the right hand side of a line and moves toward the left, for most of his notes.   If you look at a page from his notes, the writing seems totally illegible  but by holding the page up to a mirror, a few words begin to emerge. Exactly why he used this  particular style is not quite clear; it is possible that he was left handed and  wrote from right to left in order not to smudge the wet ink,  or maybe he wanted to keep his ideas, some of which were contrary to the principles of the Catholic Church, a secret.
Mirror Writing
But there is another curious feature of his notes. Even when they continue for a whole page there doesn’t seem to be any variation in the lightness or heaviness of the ink, which is very strange since the writing instrument of the day was the quill pen. Most pages written using a quill pen have blots and spots of ink on them, caused by the quill pen catching on the paper. 

When you write with a quill, you have to continually dip your pen into the ink, and as the ink is used up, your writing becomes fainter and fainter until you dip the pen into the ink again.  Apparently Leonard wasn’t at all satisfied with the quality of writing produced using quill pens and so he invented a better pen, a type of fountain pen that had a reservoir of ink just like the fountain pens of today - 300 years ahead of anyone else.  But given the fact that it was invented by Leonardo da Vinci, it gets lost in the myriad of spectacular inventions that he is responsible for.
Codice Atlantico
If you want to be amazed by the genius of the man, take a couple of hours out of your sightseeing time and head for either the Ambrosian Library or the Museo della Scienza e dell Techologia Leonardo da Vinci.  I would suggest the Museo della Scienza over the Ambrosian Library for two reasons: one is if you are traveling with kids they will be fascinated by the models of Leonardo’s war machines; and second, you have to make reservations at the Ambrosian Library and its’ Leonardo exhibit is pretty much devoted to the Codex Atlantico.

And yes, like the title says, I am in love with Leonardo – especially the way his brain worked.

Ambrosian library www.ambrosiana.it
Piazza Pio XI, 2, Milan - Tele: 02 806921
Via San Vittore, 21, Milan - Tele: 02 485 551

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