Versatility was his middle name | Sunday Observer

Versatility was his middle name

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

If somebody asks you who the most versatile man who ever lived was, you will most probably say it was Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare or Karl Marx. No doubt, they were great men in their respective fields. However, none of them can come close to Leonardo da Vinci.

Most of us know that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the creator of well-known paintings such as, “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” His artistic greatness depicted in those unique paintings is only one of his incredible talents. As a painter he was fascinated by almost every aspect of life. He was easily moved by a child’s smile, a bird in flight or planetary movements. He loved faces whether they belong to young or old people. This is evident in his flawless paintings of human figures. He used to sketch human figures constantly in his note books.

Once he drew a male figure in a square inside a circle which became world famous. He said, “The span of a man’s outstretched arms is equal to his height.” He also revealed that the centre of the circle formed by the extremities of the outstretched limbs will be the naval. The space between the legs will form an equilateral triangle.

Direct observation

Unknown to some of us, Leonardo was an engineer, a musician, an architect and a mathematician. He was also an astronomer, a botanist, a zoologist, a geologist and a physiologist. Unlike traditional Greek philosophers, such as, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Leonardo wanted to discover the causes by direct observation and experiment. He seems to have understood most of the natural phenomena in the universe. He said the sun was a star like the moon which does not move around the earth. What is noteworthy is that his theory came long before Copernicus. He also said falling objects accelerate their speed with distance before Galileo. Leonardo studied sounds and formulated his theory that they move in waves. In the same way he said light travels faster than sound. The best example is that we see the flash of lightning before we hear the thunder clap.

Leonardo lived long before the Industrial Revolution, but he invented a monkey wrench, ratchets, jacks, winches, a lathe and a crane that could lift a whole building. Among his other inventions are a piston and a sprocket chain.

As his interests and talents were varied he did not become a prolific painter. However, the few paintings that he had accomplished remain masterpieces. Of them “Mona Lisa” became world famous mainly because it was characterized by the enigmatic smile of a woman. Up to date the identity of the woman remains shrouded in mystery. There is speculation that the subject could be a male in woman’s clothing.

Most visited museum

In 2017, the Louvre attracted 8.1 million visitors retaining its long-held status as the world’s most visited museum. Leonardo’s enigmatic and infinitely reproduced portrait of a woman thought to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant, is the star attraction. Made in oil on wood in the early 16th century, the painting is presented in a temperature-controlled capsule behind bulletproof glass and a protective barrier. Today, it is a priceless national treasure.

Leonardo was commissioned by the Duke of Milan to paint the “Last Supper” in the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria Della Grazie. He took nearly three years to complete it. His other famous painting titled, “Vitruvian Man” depicts a male figure in superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart inside both a square and a circle. The painting represents Leonardo’s study of proportion as well as his desire to relate man to nature.

Today, most artists show no interest in science. Similarly, most scientists have no abiding interest in art. However, Leonardo did not see a divide between science and art. He believed that art and science were intertwined disciplines rather than separate ones. He said by studying science he became a better artist.

Small is beautiful

Long before E.F. Schumacher wrote his brilliant book “Small is Beautiful,” Leonardo believed that small rooms or dwellings set the mind at ease and large ones caused it to go astray. He would have definitely laughed at skyscrapers and multi-storeyed apartments coming up in most countries. Some of his utterances place him as a philosopher.

He said, “Experience never misleads; what you are misled by is only your judgment and this misleads you by anticipating results from experience of a kind that is not reproduced by your experiments.” He insisted that patience served as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. If you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. In like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.

The philosopher in him comes to the surface every now and then. He said, “In rivers the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes: so with time present.” Referring to education he said, “Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to health, so study without desire spoils the memory and it retains nothing that it takes in.” He also believed that sciences whose origin or process or end does not pass through any of the five senses are vain and full of errors.

Unfortunately, we hardly find versatile people of Leonardo da Vinci’s calibre in the modern world. The reason may be that we are living in an Age of Specialization.