Episode 12 – Leonardo da Vinci

The series continues with another regular subject of the Historyish podcasts – Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci. The polymath and most easily distracted Renaissance man is discussed as well as the mythology and legend which surrounds him. Why did Freud think he was gay? Why do some people think he flew? And how many Star Trek references can you squeeze into a 45-minute show?

We also discuss this week in history, including:

Galileo and Copernicus
Sir Francis Galton
The Lindbergh Baby
Queen Mary of England

If you have a suggestion for who we should feature in a future podcast, want to correct factual errors, or generally just get in touch with us, you can: via e-mail, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born to a Florentine lawyer and peasant woman on 15th April 1452. He trained in Florence under Verrochio before later working in Milan, Rome, Bologna, Venice and France.

Now, I know that we can oft times rely too heavily on Wikipedia as our source of information. But I think it is interesting to read the opening paragraph of Leonardo’s entry to see just how revered – almost fetishised – this man is:

‘Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. According to art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were without precedent and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, the man himself mysterious and remote”.’

Leonardo is often credited with “inventing” the helicopter, the tank, the parachute and the deep sea diving suit, as well as “discovering” basic embryology and circulation. But the question remains whether his sketches and writings actually constitute proper discoveries or whether modern interpreters have placed their own ideas into his work. For instance, although he made drawings of the parachute, he never actually tested it. To say that he invented the parachute, therefore, is like saying Gene Rodenberry invented the warp drive (that is the first Star Trek reference).

That might be a little harsh – the parachute has since been built and tested on his specifications and the user did not end up splattered across a field. The BBC story said ‘A British man, Adrian Nicholas, dropped from a hot air balloon 3,000 meters above the ground, after ignoring expert advice that the canvas and wood contraption would not fly.’

Da Vinci’s myth goes further. For instance, the fact that he painted some watercolours of a bird’s eye view of landscapes is taken by some as proof that he actually flew.

The question that always comes up regarding Leonardo and his flying machines is did they actually work. I often cite the above watercolor [sic] of a birds-eye view of a landscape as an example of Leonardo’s success. Even though Leonardo was an incredible artist with an incredible mind, it is difficult to believe, after seeing the watercolor [sic] and several others like it, that he did not actually see and observe the landscape from the view dipicted [sic].

Yes. And Leonard Nimoy, although a very good method actor, would have had to have met a Vulcan to play the part of Spock so convincingly (that is the second Star Trek reference).

We can – and will – mock. But it is interesting how the legend of Leonardo continues to thrive in contemporary culture. Da Vinci represents an ideal – a polymath, a scientist, a creative, and someone who simultaneously defied convention whilst still being part of the “safe” establishment. He exudes humanist virtues, doubting God and the authority of the church, which plays on current fears – or even outright discrimination against – religious orders. And yet, he was a devout Catholic, inspired to find God in the nature of the universe, and had the Pope as a patron – a fact that, as with compatriot Galileo, gets conveniently ignored.

The thing is – and the Historyish team fully support this – Leonardo could procrastinate for Italy. He was sued by a chapel in Milan for taking money for a work he never did. He was asked to make a statue of a horse in 1482 – by 1499 he had only got so far as to make a clay model. Which got destroyed. The work wasn’t finished until 1977, unsurprisingly, posthumously. He even took a commission from the Pope who, when he visited to ask how the work was going some months later, was told that Leonardo had been working on a new type of varnish instead.

Freud thought Leonardo was gay, as a result of him spending too much time with his mother as a child. It is true that he never married. And that is enough proof for us.

He did, like many a teenage boy, spend quite a bit of time drawing and talking about penises. In one of his folios he wrote that the penis:

confers with the human intelligence and sometimes has intelligence of itself, and although the will of the man desires to stimulate it, it remains obstinate and takes its own course, and moving sometimes of itself without license or thought by the man, whether he be sleeping or waking, it does what it desires. Often the man is asleep and it is awake, and many times the man is awake and it is asleep. Many times the man wishes it to practice and it does not wish it; many times it wishes it and the man forbids it. It seems, therefore, that this creature has often a life and intelligence separate from man and it would appear that the man is in the wrong in being ashamed to give it a name or exhibit it, seeking rather constantly to cover and conceal what he ought to adorn and display with ceremony as a ministrant.

For all of this, though, Leonardo da Vinci is rightly held up to be a important figure in world history. Even if his legend outstrips the reality, the idea of da Vinci – much like other celebrated “great men” of science such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein – has inspired millions to seek out the answers of the universe. It is his legend which is almost as – if not more – important that what “he essentially was” ((c) von Ranke).

So we will end, as always, on a quotation. And it’s never difficult to find one. But I will complete my hattrick of Star Trek references with Captain Katherine Janeway of the USS Voyager:

‘He was a Renaissance man, Tuvok. Interpreted, reinterpreted, deconstructed, fantasized about, all through history. Vasari thought he was an angel. Freud thought he had a problem with his mother. James T. Kirk claimed he met him, although the evidence is less than conclusive.’

Further reading

The Open University’s timeline on Leonardo’s life and works.
Wikipedia biography
A webpage about the Leonardo parachute experiment.
And another about his watercolours and his glider (see the quotation from the profile).
Wikipedia has something to say about that bloody horse
If your life is going down the drain, learn from Leonardo’s mistakes.
And if you decide that you prefer the myth and fiction of Leonardo to the reality, you can always read the biography of Leonardo as he appeared on Star Trek.

EDIT: 16-02-12 – you might also want to read @RMathematicus‘s piece on the mythology of Leonardo. Did he actually contribute anything to the history of science?

And finally…

Definitely check out Mark Steel’s programme on Leonardo. You can get an audio version here.

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