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Decoding da Vinci

How better to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, than by tracing the footsteps of this iconic Renaissance Man.  

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci (c) Christie's

It’s true that the world of art and advanced thought would still exist without Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same. A man who wrote his thoughts in mirror script with astonishing ambidexterity and, possibly, secret codes embedded within, was always destined to cause a stir that still resonates today. While his masterpieces have become the subject of extensive study and admiration across the globe, the Florentine artist remains an enigma to this day, baffling art historians, academics and scientists alike with his prolific mind, prophetic observations and mind-bending concepts.  

As this year marks the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death, many of us will ponder on, or perhaps attempt to enter, the inner sanctum of the perplexing polymath’s mind. For a 500-year-old artist who produced fewer than 20 known works, his name has dominated recent headlines. This was following the controversial 2017 sale of the long lost Salvator Mundi painting to Abu Dhabi's Prince Badr bin Abdullah for US$450 million, a new price record for a painting sold at public auction. It is now the only work of Da Vinci to be kept in private hands and is reportedly now hanging in the owner's yacht. 

Tracing Da Vinci’s extraordinary journey has to begin with a visit to his birthplace Anchiano, a hamlet in the medieval town of Vinci. The illegitimate son of wealthy notary Messer Piero da Vinci and a local peasant, Caterina, Da Vinci was born and raised in a stone farmhouse amid rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves. Still standing, and today a museum, this rustic dwelling now houses reproductions of his drawings, audio-visual presentations, and even a hologram of ‘Da Vinci’ narrating his life and works. The house can be reached by car or on foot along the Green Route (Strada Verde), a 3km historic winding path linking Anchiano to Vinci’s town centre. 

Looking at his achievements, it’s hard to believe Da Vinci didn’t have any formal education. At the age of 10, his father arranged for him to move to Florence to take an apprenticeship with prominent artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Florence was then a hotbed of art, culture, trade and commerce and, during his time working with Verrocchio, Da Vinci contributed to the master’s The Baptism of Christ by painting the kneeling angel. The masterpiece was finished in 1475 and now resides at the Uffizi Gallery.   

Before long, the young upcoming artist was attracting the attention of the rich and powerful, the good and the bad; from the Pope and ecclesiastical institutions to the Medici moguls and their arch-rivals: the notorious Borgias. Although inundated with commissions, he always took his time — perhaps too much of it — often abandoning paintings before they were completed. One example is Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, which, according to Vatican accounts, had been lost, but amazingly resurfaced in two pieces: the upper half being used to cover a box in a second-hand dealer’s shop, and the lower part to protect a cobbler’s tools. The painting was eventually put together, then changed hands before finally finding a resting place in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, now part of the Vatican Museums. All his unfinished paintings, including the Adoration of the Magi, open a portal to the artist’s creative process, providing clues to his innermost passions and emotions. 

In a period when religion was inextricably entwined with power and politics, the Renaissance spirit of adventure broke new grounds, crossed boundaries and defied conventions. It was an Age of Discovery that took intrepid explorers and navigators such as Christopher Columbus to uncharted lands. These were exciting, yet precarious, times and life hadn’t always been smooth sailing even for Da Vinci, an A-list celeb of his day. In 1476, at a virile age of 24, he and his male cohorts were rounded up and charged with sodomy, a crime punishable by death. Miraculously, no witnesses came forward during the trial and the charges were dropped. Would such a 21st century Renaissance man survive the merciless wrath of social media? 

The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio with kneeling angel by Leonardo da Vinci

Moving to Milan in 1482 to work for the Duke of Milan (Ludovico Maria Sforza) led to a more productive chapter in Leonardo’s artistic life. During this nearly 20-year sojourn, the invigorated genius painted (and finished) The Last Supper alongside several portraits, such as the Lady with an Ermine. But with the Duchy of Milan under imminent threat from French invasion, Da Vinci’s imagination worked overtime, as his energies turned towards designing cannons, armoured tank-like vehicles and other weapons of destruction. How he conceived ideas of futuristic war machines baffles experts even today.  

Returning to Florence in 1502, Da Vinci found himself working for Cesare Borgia, courtesy of the wily Machiavelli, who brokered the deal. Working as military architect and engineer, Leonardo had to accompany the tyrant during his military conquests in Romagna. Witnessing the brutality of war must have left a deep scar, so much so that when he was commissioned the following year to paint the Battle of Anghiari of 1440 across Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of the Five Hundred, his drawings of falling horses and soldiers were depicted with stark intensity and drama. Although he never finished the painting, experts are convinced ‘The Lost Leonardo’ remains hidden behind one of the frescoes, although attempts to find it were hampered amid institutional squabbles.  

Painting the iconic Mona Lisa soon after was Da Vinci’s saving grace, shielding him from the harsh realities of life dominated by political and religious shenanigans in Renaissance Florence. Uprooting himself once again, this time to Rome, he spent his days pursuing mathematical and scientific projects. At the age of 65, the genius found solace in France, where he lived his last days. 

Although Da Vinci never returned to his hometown of Vinci, his memory is kept alive at the Museo Leonardiano di Vinci. Here, the polymath’s scientific mind is dissected through a series of exhibits showcasing his brilliant concepts and designs, including mechanical clocks, submarines and his famous flying machine, or ‘ornithopter’. Uncannily predicting our world of artificial intelligence (AI), he dabbled with the concept of a ‘mechanical man’ — what we’d now call a robot. Da Vinci’s power of observation was microscopic, most apparent in his studies of water’s nature and movement, but most compelling is his mastery of the human anatomy, evident in his illustration of the Vitruvian Man, and the painstaking details in his drawings and paintings, where every pose illustrates the interaction between veins, ligaments, muscles and bones.  

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci’s genius is far greater than the sum of all his artistic achievements and scientific observations. Far ahead of his time, the Renaissance man’s greatest legacy is his inquisitive mind, always searching for answers to natural phenomena and the mysteries of life. The world was his canvas. While we are led to believe our faculties are controlled by either the brain’s left or right hemisphere, Leonardo’s analytical, logical, intuitive and creative abilities converged into one big thinking machine; some experts even consider him to be superhuman. And despite the great minds and combined advances in our world today, there hasn’t been any one individual quite like Leonardo da Vinci. 

Da Vinci was always fascinated with light and shade, but few references have been made to his study of the Moon, and how he unravelled the mystery behind ‘Earthshine’, a concept acknowledged today by NASA. Had he lived another 500 years, perhaps we may have already explored the Moon and Mars, and had answers to the mysteries of the universe. He may have even taken technology and medical science in a whole new direction. 

The Apollo 11 mission that landed man on the Moon for the first time 50 years ago would have been a dream come true for Leonardo, who might even himself have become an astronaut. Indeed, the race for commercial space travel and exploration is approaching take-off, and this could propel humanity towards a Renaissance of universal magnitude. And while the quest to decipher and decode the complex mind of Da Vinci ensues, his spirit lives among all the Renaissance men and women of the 21st century who seek truth and enlightenment.   


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