young leonardo da vinci -- 6/18/21

Today's selection -- from The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. Young Leonardo was apprenticed to the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio:
"Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the oldest of these famous masters, was born in a Tuscan village. He was apprenticed to a leading Florentine workshop, that of the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). Verrocchio's fame was very great, so great indeed that the city of Venice commissioned from him the monument to Bartolommeo Colleoni, one of their generals, to whom they owed gratitude for a number of charities he had founded rather than for any particular deed of military prowess.

"The equestrian statue which Verrocchio made... shows that he was a worthy heir to the tradition of Donatello. He minutely studied the anatomy of the horse, and we see how clearly he observed the muscles of Colleoni's face and neck. But most admirable of all is the posture of the horseman, who seems to be riding ahead of his troops with an expression of bold defiance. Later times have made us so familiar with these riders of bronze that have come to people our towns and cities, representing more or less worthy emperors, kings, princes and generals, that it may take us some time to realize the greatness and simplicity of Verrocchio's work ­in the clear outline which his group presents from nearly all aspects, and the concentrated energy which seems to animate the man in armour and his mount.

"In a workshop capable of producing such masterpieces, the young Leonardo could certainly learn many things. He would be introduced into the technical secrets of foundry-work and other metalwork, he would learn to prepare pictures and statues carefully by making studies from the nude and from draped models. He would learn to study plants and curious animals for inclusion in his pictures, and he would receive a thorough grounding in the optics of perspective and in the use of colours. In the case of any other gifted boy, this training would have been sufficient to make a respectable artist, and many good painters and sculptors did in fact emerge from Verrocchio's prosperous workshop. But Leonardo was more than a gifted boy. He was a genius whose powerful mind will always remain an object of wonder and admiration to ordinary mortals. We know something of the range and productivity of Leonardo's mind because his pupils and admirers carefully preserved for us his sketches and notebooks, thousands of pages covered with writings and drawings, with excerpts from books Leonardo read, and drafts for books he intended to write.

"The more one reads of these papers, the less can one understand how one human being could have excelled in all these different fields of research and made important contributions to nearly all of them. Perhaps one of the reasons is that Leonardo was a Florentine artist and not a trained scholar. He thought that the artist's business was to explore the visible world just as his predecessors had done, only more thoroughly and with greater intensity and accuracy. He was not interested in the bookish knowledge of the scholars. Like Shakespeare, he probably had 'little Latin and less Greek'.

"At a time when the learned men at the universities relied on the authority of the admired ancient writers, Leonardo, the painter, would never accept what he read without checking it with his own eyes. Whenever he came across a problem, he did not rely on authorities but tried an experiment to solve it. There was nothing in nature which did not arouse his curiosity and challenge his ingenuity. He explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting more than thirty corpses.... He was one of the first to pro be into the mysteries of the growth of the child in the womb; he investigated the laws of waves and currents; he spent years in observing and analysing the flight of insects and birds, which was to help him to devise a flying machine which he was sure would one day become a reality.

"The forms of rocks and clouds, the effect of the atmosphere on the colour of distant objects, the laws governing the growth of trees and plants, the harmony of sounds, all these were the objects of his ceaseless research, which was to be the foundation of his art. His contemporaries looked upon Leonardo as a strange and rather uncanny being. Princes and generals wanted to use this astonishing wizard as a military engineer for the building of fortifications and canals, of novel weapons and devices. In time of peace, he would entertain them with mechanical toys of his own invention, and with the designing of new effects for stage performances and pageantries.

"He was admired as a great artist, and sought after as a splendid musician, but, for all that, few people can have had an inkling of the importance of his ideas or the extent of his knowledge. The reason is that Leonardo never published his writings, and that very few can even have known of their existence. He was left-handed, and had taken to writing from right to left so that his notes can only be read in a mirror. It is possible that he was afraid of divulging his discoveries for fear that his opinions would be found heretical. Thus we find in his writings the five words 'The sun does not move', which shows that Leonardo anticipated the theories of Copernicus which were later to bring Galileo into trouble. But it is also possible that he undertook his researches and experiments simply because of his insatiable curiosity, and that, once he had solved a problem for himself, he was apt to lose interest because there were so many other mysteries still to be explored.

"Most of all, it is likely that Leonardo himself had no ambition to be considered a scientist. All this exploration of nature was to him first and foremost a means of gaining knowledge of the visible world, such as he would need for his art."



E.H. Gombrich


The Story of Art




Text Copyright 1995 the estate of E.H. Gombrich


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