Why Is Leonardo Da Vinci so Famous?
Leonardo da Vinci is the perfect example of the all-round educated man of the Renaissance. Born in Florence in 1452, he soon became famous for his remarkable paintings. His painting the “Mona Lisa”, now in the Louvre, Paris, is possibly the best known painting in the world.
His enormous talents encompassed a wide variety of subjects ranging from sculpture to military engineering. He devoted much time to the concept of flying machines and carried out experiments, without success, in this field. From his work as an artist he developed knowledge both of anatomy and of the science of light. His anatomical drawings are of a rare beauty and of great precision.
Leonardo was also knowledgeable on such varied subjects as astronomy, geology, botany, and geography. In architecture his studies produced both beautiful designs and practical scientific information. The great man’s interests were so diverse that he even gave specific and most serious instructions on how to make and launch stink bombs.
Leonardo’s fame within his own lifetime was such that the King of France carried him away like a trophy, and was claimed to have supported him in his old age and held him in his arms as he died. Interest in Leonardo and his work has never diminished. Crowds still queue to see his best-known artworks, T-shirts still bear his most famous drawing, and writers continue to hail him as a genius while speculating about his private life, as well as about what one so intelligent actually believed in.
Giorgio Vasari, in the enlarged edition of Lives of the Artists, 1568, introduced his chapter on Leonardo with the following words:
In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.
— Giorgio Vasari
The continued admiration that Leonardo commanded from painters, critics and historians is reflected in many other written tributes. Baldassare Castiglione, author of Il Cortegiano (“The Courtier”), wrote in 1528: “… Another of the greatest painters in this world looks down on this art in which he is unequalled …” while the biographer known as “Anonimo Gaddiano” wrote, c. 1540: “His genius was so rare and universal that it can be said that nature worked a miracle on his behalf …”.
The 19th century brought a particular admiration for Leonardo’s genius, causing Henry Fuseli to write in 1801: “Such was the dawn of modern art, when Leonardo da Vinci broke forth with a splendour that distanced former excellence: made up of all the elements that constitute the essence of genius …” This is echoed by A. E. Rio who wrote in 1861: “He towered above all other artists through the strength and the nobility of his talents.”
By the 19th century, the scope of Leonardo’s notebooks was known, as well as his paintings. Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1866: “There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfilment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.” Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1896: “Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it be the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values.”
The interest in Leonardo’s genius has continued unabated; experts study and translate his writings, analyse his paintings using scientific techniques, argue over attributions and search for works which have been recorded but never found. Liana Bortolon, writing in 1967, said: “Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge … Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe.”
21st century author Walter Isaacson in his biography of Leonardo based much of his book on the thousands of notebook entries, studying the personal notes, sketches, budget notations, and musings of the man whom he considers the greatest of innovators. Isaacson was surprised to discover a “fun, joyous” side of Leonardo in addition to his limitless curiosity and creative genius.