The Force of Pure Ideas

Randy D. Bosch   (c) 2010

I was delighted and awed to spend some time last October closely studying Leonardo da Vinci’s original Uomo di Vetruvio, then on display in the Accademia in Venice.  That one drawing is one of the most widely reproduced, copied and referenced document in art and architecture over the intervening centuries.  Sadly, most visitors passed by the small room in which it was displayed, or gave the drawing and its supporting materials only a very cursory glance.   Then, again, we had it virtually to ourselves, and it is public, not locked in a narcissistic collector’s vault! 

da Vinci “Uomo di Vitruvio” (image by Luc Viator)

Vasari said of Leonardo, “…so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.”  The important points in this statement lie in the method and scope of Leonardo’s solutions to difficulties, and indeed in a deep understanding of his total and integrated involvement in what he undertook to accomplish in his work. 

More than merely illustrating what he saw without attempting a deep understanding of it, as many of his contemporaries (and ours!) did, Leonardo visually experimented with human and animal anatomy to attempt by logical deduction the discovery of the reasons why bodies were constructed as they were.  Such studies, and others of water, birds, and so forth, show that rather than a quick and easy solution to problems, a methodical, time-consuming investigation of a subject from many angles concentrated upon a search for the one correct solution to a problem. 

Part of Leonardo’s genius can be said to lie in the ease with which he understood the need to adopt a methodology of thorough investigation and interpretation of the workings to possible solutions for the difficulties that confronted him in his artistic endeavors. 

A strong possibility exists that Leonardo, in his search for a perfection of style and ultimate expression in painting, would often leave one of his works while yet unfinished and advance to another because he had seen that his theories could be illustrated or advanced no further in that particular painting.  The point at which Leonardo set aside an unfinished work may have opened up a new avenue for the advancement of his theories so strong and revolutionary as to necessitate an immediate assault upon it before the crisis of discovery was past! 

After such a fashion, a particular cast of head or body perhaps aroused in Leonardo enough curiosity to initiate a study into its anatomical correctness and toward an advancement of representational perfection through use of alternative natural arrangements. 

Another aspect of the genius of Leonardo lies in the totality of his commitment to the overall advancement of science and the arts.  The scope of his activities shows not a lack of direction or purpose, rather a mastery of his unique field of endeavor, the advancement and understanding of knowledge and its correct applications. 

One indication of Leonardo’s intellectual growth was the beginning of his notebooks when he was about thirty years of age.  Their beginnings coincided with Leonardo’s duties as “official artificer” in the Milanese court of the Sforza family, and may have been a requisite offshoot of that position.  However, their continuation and profusion in later years appears to coincide with the growth of his following, and with a realization on his part of the value of such a collection toward the general advancement of knowledge. 

One may be tempted to surmise that Leonardo’s wish to someday put his work in order, coupled with its great volume and wide range of subjects, may have been based upon the ideas of beginning an encyclopedia. 

The very disarray of Leonardo’s notes indicates how his mind dwelt upon a problem for a time and often returned to it after a long interval.  Such gaps, before a level of great understanding or analysis was reached, are probably the result of an intervention of ideas along related lines in dissimilar subjects.  The return to a subject was more likely prompted by a new stimulus than by any personal desire for the completeness of a study. 

A great amount of time was invested in the notebooks, as well as sketches and cartoons for Leonardo’s paintings.  The time period between first thoughts and a usable or acceptable form allowed a solidification and subtle detailing of new ideas and discoveries in his work that could not have been approached by any of his predecessors.  

Leonardo’s early understanding and mastery of composition and form through his detailed investigations of anatomy, movement and light produced the foundations for related methodologies which greatly aided the advance of the Renaissance.  One of these important advances was his solidification of the idea of a fully centralized subject in a composition, usually of a pyramidal form, to give order, clarity and overall rationality to the presentation.  This technique led to the widely emulated “classical” Renaissance portrait composition as found in the Mona Lisa.  The introduction of a simplified standard methodology of composition allowed 16th Century artists to devote themselves to a more complete study and mastery of the subtleties of facial expression, light and form in order to breathe the essence of life into their work.

Leonardo’s casual and tragic handling of experimental fresco techniques, and his imaginative drawings of war machines of then-believed doubtful practicality, indicate that in his mind, the force of pure ideas was a far more vital thing than any mere material consummation of ideas.  Still, the genius of his hand is quite clearly seen in those works of art left for us to see. 

One must conditionally agree with Vasari that Leonardo was indeed a great genius, a genius not merely in his solutions to difficulties he had discovered, but fully in the scope and intensity of his dedication to the solution of “living”.


1 Response to The Force of Pure Ideas

  1. Pasquino says:

    A couple of months ago I read a chapter in the mathematician Mark Peterson’s ‘Galileo’s Muse’ (Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 82) where he sites Dante’s description of the Trinity in the conclusion to the Divine Comedy. The Trinity is described as three circles, Peterson translates Dante’s account of the second circle, the Son. I mention it here because one could not help thinking; was Leonardo inspired by these lines as well as Vitruvius’ text when he drew this?

    ‘Within itself, of its own coloration
    I saw painted our own human form:
    So that I gave it all my attention.
    Like the geometer, who exerts himself completley
    To measure the circle, and doesn’t succeed,
    Thinking what principle he needs for it,
    Just so was I, at this new sight.
    I wanted to see how the human image
    Conforms itself to the circle, and finds its place there;
    But there were not the means for that,
    Except that my mind was struck
    By a flash of lightning, by which its will was accomplished.
    Here strength for the high imagining failed me,
    But already the love that moves the Sun and the other stars
    Turned my desire and will
    Like a wheel that is turned evenly.’

    Is it also any wonder that Michelangelo’s favorite literary work was the Divine Comedy? Where human form is embodied in divine perfection.

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