SciArtist Profile: Leonardo Da Vinci

If I am to profile scientists and artists as part of this blog, I would be deeply remiss to leave out Leonardo Da Vinci. So allas, here he is. Funny looking guy, come to think of it.

Self portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci. Chalk on paper.
A portrait of genius. Look at that delightful linework in the beard and hair!

When one does a Google search (as one does these days) for Leonardo Da Vinci, the summary of him that pops up on the right just has ‘Polymath’ written underneath his name. Polymath is an excellent word that means somebody who is not just capable but is highly skilled at many things. It is a title I aspire to hold myself, though now I am at more of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ level of skill.

If nothing else, Da Vinci is by far the best example of a polymath in human history. Wikipedia lists his interests as: invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. Yikes.

Da Vinci was born out of wedlock, and despite this social disadvantage rose through the ranks of the Italian Renaissance, first as an apprentice to the painter Verrocchio and later producing his own commissioned works. He is thought to have been a homosexual, a criminal offense in his place and a time. He had connections with the hyper-powerful Medici family, which may partially explain how charges of sodomy were dropped against him and two others in 1476. But overall, his personality and personal life are somewhat of an enigma.  He epitomizes the mysterious, but highly curious genius.

Contrary to popular impression, Leonardo did not actually produce very many paintings, and almost all were commissioned works. He was however a most prolific draftsman. My personal favorite works of Da Vinci’s are his drawings. Da Vinci was an artist who truly understood the ways that drawings can record information, as well as beauty. He was reportedly constantly sketching and doing so in unconventional ways. He went through a period when he was preoccupied with sketching liquids in motion. He constantly drew birds in mid-flight. His drawings represent the ultimate in sketching to study. Even the simple subject of a cat is elaborated upon in many ways at varying levels of realism and caricature in the drawing below, which may be my very favorite of all his work.

Study of cats and a dragon. Leonardo Da Vinci. Ink on paper.
Do you see the dragon as well? Plenty of fun little surprises in Leonardo drawings!

Da Vinci is not just a person who was excellent at most everything he tried. His primary motivator (I theorize) was pure curiosity. And he used every mode of inquiry available to him to explore his world, not excluding either scientific and artistic methods. He was comfortable doing experiments and drawing from observations. Inventing or sculpting. Dissecting specimens or writing. And ultimately, though he may have been blessed with a certain innate intelligence, what really elevated him to the status he held (and continues to hold from the grave) was a willingness to investigate and a refusal to see his work and life experience put into different boxes. It is this aspect of Leonardo that I hope to emulate: the ability to see the world as one massive playground to be explored, by whatever means immediately available.

Of course… I’d also like to draw cats better…

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