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Leonardo da Vinci

by Anna Maria Benedetti in Milan

Leonardo was fascinated by the prospect of flight

On the first floor of what was once the Convent of the Humiliated, there is a permanent exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The presentation of this new space has recently ended after numerous interventions by authorities from the cultural, artistic and political world. The galleries are in the Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology, one of the first science museums in Italy, opening with an exhibition on Leonardo in 1953. Many young artists of that period were using the term ‘technique’, which refers to the Greek teknikòs, a complex of rules to be followed in practicing an art, a profession, a science. Technique, or techne più logos, is the science that deals with the practical rules of the various arts, the sciences, professions and their subsequent improvements. A change.
We are greeted by a backlit tabloid that describes the path to follow of the various rooms. Turning our gaze we see the studies on flight (perhaps the most fascinating), the study on birds, in which Leonardo designed and redesigned their detailed anatomy to understand the secret of flight. The models of a parachute with a man dangling from it, large skeletal wings made of wood and, at the back of the room, a panel on which the images of Leonardo’s pages are projected, sometimes furrowed by his ‘animated’ drawings, thanks to new technology. Florence acts as a backdrop on the walls of the room.
Leonardo was the lovechild of a Florentine notary who, recognizing his talents, sent him to work in Verrocchio’s workshop, where a number of important painters of the time trained. An internationally recognized genius, he was a scholar who always showed commitment and dedication in all the work he was commissioned; he also had a lively curiosity, the desire to learn and to know.
From parties to defense of the city, from frescoes to architecture, from paintings to equestrian statues, he made drawing the starting point of every work because, perhaps, in the drawing the secret of knowledge is found.
Drawing comes from observation, but the hand that works with pencil, pen and brush is guided by the mind. The greatest danger is to restrict knowledge to its inner mental discourse, in which there is no experience, without which “nothing gives self-certainty”. Experience and mathematical rules enter, with equal importance, into the mental discourse that constitutes science.
Leonardo is a leading exponent of his time, a time in which God is said to have placed man at the centre of the universe and man tries to make use of all the skills he has to preserve and improve it.
We are between the end of the 1400s and the 1500s. In 1492 the New World was discovered by Europeans; it is a period in which individual initiative is affirmed against authoritarian discipline of tradition. The principle of authority is replaced by the principle of examination: it is a new way of looking at nature, man, and the universe. New social forces, enabled by a technical culture and enterprise, are freed to take the initiative, a study of reality is delineated which maintains close links with techniques and undertakes a rigorous description and measurement of phenomena. Knowledge comes from sensation and experience, but to be “true science”, says Leonardo, it must pass through “mathematical demonstrations”.

A page showing Leonardo’s study of a foetus in the womb (c. 1510) ( Royal Library, Windsor Castle)

“Everywhere, the soul turned to the difficult things” wrote Vasari, but “Do not desire the impossible” is the advice that Leonardo gave to an ideal interlocutor in his notebooks, an exhortation to the sense of measure and reality.
Boundless are his fields of interest. He studied the classics: in this period the dissemination of volumes was favored thanks to Gutenberg’s press. To cite a few books fundamental on classicism, let us remember ‘De prospectiva pigendi’ (On the Perspective of Painting) by Piero della Francesca, Vitruvius’ ‘De Architectura’, and also still today, Luca Pacioli’s ‘De divina proportione’, which Leonardo illustrated with his drawings. Pacioli believed that drawings were fundamental to making the entities described comprehensible, a neo-Platonic expression of a form of the universe in which mathematics, theology and philosophy are connected.
The work of the mathematician Euclid of Alexandria was published for the first time in Venice in 1482: this edition, nine years after the first, stands out for the many illustrations and a richly decorated frontispiece. The drawings represent the concepts expressed in the text.
We find his dedication in the study of the proportions of the face, he goes into infamous taverns to observe faces; he is not afraid to examine dead bodies, to enter the darkness to find a glimmer of truth. Everything for him is a reason for study, even that which differs from the standard model. He studies herbs, the basis of every medicine, which began in his childhood during the long walks he took with his father in the Florentine countryside.
His papers, which are preserved, are full of drawings, notes and observations. I cannot forget his indissoluble combination “kalòs kaì agazòs” (beautiful and good) that contains the essence of classicism, which he loved and studied. What is beautiful is also good and one cannot be separated from the other.
Science is a way of divulging and letting others participate in our discoveries; he does not write in Latin but in “Italian”. Only in the 1600s, with Galilei, people began to write in Italian: Latin was the language used by scholars. Nothing is complicated for those who know the subject well. Those who know can express themselves simply and Leonardo is a master.
Notwithstanding the lavish ladies of the century Mona Lisa is the portrait of simplicity (she has no jewels) but here she is not on display. Mathematics and paintings, everything comes from his orderly mind, nothing is by chance. He studied the universe and in his last studies he established the universal laws that govern it: even today there are those who claim that “God does not play dice with the world”. If we cannot prove it, this is only due to our imperfect knowledge. How many steps has science taken, how many more will it have to take. But not everything is serenity and joy, as told in the last paintings by Sandro Botticelli or the carnival songs of Lorenzo the Magnificent who, singing the love of Bacchus and Arianna, in the refrain recalls “Who wants to be happy, listen, there is no certainty in tomorrow”, but this is not mentioned in the exhibition.
I also love his ability to search beyond what is possible or is illicit to reach knowledge (the dark cavern is a moment in his life and I suggest you try and find this moment; it is part of his childhood and his life as an artist, and is important to the understanding of his work).
Leonardo was very skilful at escaping from the court ladies who fought over him and at entertaining with stories from nature. One in particular tells of the moth that flies close to the candlelight and, too close, burns its wings; the story was used as a means to reflect on the ignorance of natural laws. We can learn a lot from nature:: all knowledge is before our eyes, all one needs to do is to be able to see and reflect. A great teaching also for our times. These are not in the exhibition.
The figure of the young artist is intriguing, also the big and spectacular machines. The visual aids and a search activity are enjoyed by children and adults alike. It’s a complete immersion, from the ceiling to the walls, in the world of Florence of the time, to ‘recreate’ the Renaissance. A huge icosahedron overlooks the entrance, designed by Leonardo and taken from the book by Luca Pacioli, which he illustrated. A dialogue with characters of the time that surprise the visitor, a young painter who talks about the rooms where he works. War machines, camps. Light is everywhere, because “immersing everything in light, is to immerse them in the infinite”. All this is Leonardo, a character out of touch with gossip; almost nothing is known of his private life – “my meditations are my life”
Among all these machines, do we find Leonardo’s soul? I invite readers to look for it, it is before their eyes.

National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci, Via San Vittore 21, Milan – A few numbers: over 170 works, 39 multimedia installations, 500 images from 70 cultural institutions in over 1300 m², many sponsors.

Volume 34 no 5 May / June 2020

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