We have all studied a little bit about Leonardo da Vinci in our history text books. He created many great works throughout his lifetime and was a very talented man.
Leonardo da Vinci; the true Renaissance man
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy. ‘Da Vinci’ means ‘of Vinci’. So his name means Leonardo of Vinci.
Leonardo was a sculptor, painter, architect, philosopher, engineer scientist, mathematician, inventor, botanist, musician and a writer. Wow that’s a lot of things, isn’t it? Let us learn about a few of the things he did.
The Mona Lisa portrait is the best known painting in the world. This painting was a turning point for the style in which portraits of people were painted. Till today, the techniques used in this painting are used to make portraits.
The wall mural of ‘the Last Supper’ is one of the most iconic paintings made by da Vinci. This painting shows Jesus with his 12 disciples seated around a table. This painting has been repainted and copied more times than we can count!
His subjects for his paintings were mostly religious which was typical of the Renaissance period. Yet his work shows us that his true fascination was with nature; why clouds form, how plants grow or even how the human body is put together.
The human anatomy or the human body is the subject of the Vitruvian Man, a sketch made by da Vinci showing a man standing in the centre of a circle and a square.
Well that covers his artistic abilities. What about his other talents?
One of his greatest dreams was to fly. By observing birds and their movements, he invented the very first flying machines. A parachute was made in the year 2000 based on his designs and as we know, it worked!
He was not just fascinated by the sky but also by the waters. He studied the motion of waves and applied it to technological innovations like diving gear, irrigation systems and the very first water meter! As an engineer he was way ahead of his time. He designed the tank, the automobile or vehicle and the solar reflector.
He invented, crafted, and drew many things during the Renaissance period; one of which was the famous sketch of the Vitruvian Man.
The Vitruvian Man
So I’m sure you’ve heard of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But have you heard of the Vitruvian Man? It is one of the most recognizable symbols of the renaissance.
Let us try and break down this seemingly complex diagram.
First let us understand the mathematics of it. Here are two shapes that we see in this diagram; a circle and a square.
We know how to calculate the area of a circle: With the formula. We also know how to calculate the area of Square. Let us say one side of a square is ‘a’. So the formula for the area of a square is ‘a’ multiplied by itself or ‘a’ squared. (a*a)
Now let us consider the question. How can we have a square and a circle both having equal areas? This was a problem of the ancient world often called ‘Squaring a circle’. This problem was impossible to solve but…..
Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius claimed that the navel is the centre of the body. So if one takes a compass and places it on the navel, we can draw a circle perfectly around the body.
Vitruvius also realized that the arm span, which is the length of both outstretched arms from the fingertip of one hand to that of the other, and the height of the human body have nearly perfect correspondence which means that they are around the same length. Thus, one can place the human body perfectly inside a square.
Leonardo used Vitruvius’ ideas to square a circle metaphorically, more in relative terms than realistically, by using man as the area for both shapes, thus solving the problem.
But Leonardo was not just inspired by Vitruvius. At the time, there was a movement in Italy called Neoplatonism. They took a concept from the 4th Century given by Plato and Aristotle called the ‘Great Chain of Being’. It says that the universe is a hierarchy resembling a chain. This chain starts with God at the top then travels down through the angels, planets, stars, life forms and ends with non beings or non-living things. In this movement, it was thought that mankind was exactly in the centre of this chain. As humans have a mortal body and an immortal soul, we divide the universe nicely in half.
Around the time da Vinci made this sketch, a Neoplatonist named Giovanni Pico della Mirandola had a different idea. He said that humans had a unique ability to take any position they want in this chain. He said that man could crawl down the chain and behave like an animal or climb up and behave like a God. So by drawing man in both a circle and a square da Vinci tried to show that man can exist in any form and in all elements of the universe.
In this one sketch Leonardo combined mathematics, philosophy, architecture and artistic abilities of his age making this sketch an icon of that glorious era.
Leonardo da Vinci died in France in 1519. He had developed a reputation as a “Uomo Universale” which we could translate to being the ‘Jack of all trades’ and that he was! Till today, he is considered to be one of the most extraordinary people to have every lived.