Leonardo Da Vinci: Renaissance Man Research Paper

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The Renaissance was a time in which humanism and classical order united in the height of Christendom’s cultural power. The Renaissance would eventually be eclipsed by the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment—all of which in some way reduced the achievements of the Renaissance and undermined the accomplishments of the era’s greats. Leonardo da Vinci was one such great of the Renaissance: in fact, it may be said that he was the very first Renaissance Man, as he was interested in everything—from painting to physiology to mathematics to military tactics. He certainly did it all and his notebooks, drawings, inventions and ideas show just how capable he was of doing everything required of a truly Renaissance Man.

Leonardo at the Beginning

Like many young men in Italy in the 15th century, Leonardo carved out a path for himself in Florence: after six years of apprenticeship, he was admitted into the Guild of St. Luke in 1472.[footnoteRef:2] The Guild of St. Luke, like its namesake,[footnoteRef:3] was formed for artists and medical doctors—which shows that Leonardo was not just interested in art from the beginning but also in the human body and how to heal it. He had a powerful, scientific mind that was constantly searching for new challenges—thus, for all the work that Leonardo actually took on, he rarely completed much of it. He was an idea man who was always looking to throw himself into something different. Thus, before leaving for Milan in 1482, he left behind the unfinished Adoration of the Magi that he had been commissioned to paint by the monks of San Donato a Scopeto.[footnoteRef:4] He was off to work for the Milanese Court, where he would take up an interest in human anatomy and produce many of the medical notebooks with various drawings and notes on the human body that would be studied for ages to come. [2: Leonardo da Vinci, The Art Story, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-da-vinci-leonardo-life-and-legacy.htm] [3: Joseph B. Frey, Introduction to the New Testament (NY: Ave Maria, 1948), 442.] [4: Leonardo da Vinci, The Art Story, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-da-vinci-leonardo-life-and-legacy.htm]

It was in Milan that Leonardo painted two of his most famous works—Virgin of the Rocks (an altarpiece) and the Last Supper. True to his revolutionary nature, the Last Supper fresco was not done in the same style as previous frescoes, which were done with water color on fresh plaster; Leonardo made his with oil-based paint—which, ultimately, turned out to be a disaster as the paint did not stick and before half a century had passed, the paint had become mainly a bunch of splotches on the wall.[footnoteRef:5] Today, the Last Supper is a reconstruction of Leonardo’s original—so when one views the work now, one is seeing the work of many artists over the centuries. Nonetheless, the Last Supper in its own right remains revolutionary for many other reasons, which will be discussed in the next section. [5: Leonardo da Vinci, World Biography, https://www.notablebiographies.com/Ki-Lo/Leonardo-da-Vinci.html]


Leonardo’s artwork was revolutionary for its time as he pushed the boundaries of what had come before and sought to introduce an aspect of realism in his work that had never before been tried. He was so dedicated to achieving perfection in his art—and yet was simultaneously conscious of failing to achieve the sublime ideals that he felt he should reflect in his work—tthat he once said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”[footnoteRef:6] This from the man who painted the Mona Lisa, the Salvator Mundi, and the Last Supper: above all, the Last Supper is recognized for the profound manner in which it revolutionized painting of religious matters. [6: Leonardo da Vinci, The Art Story, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-da-vinci-leonardo-life-and-legacy.htm]

The stylistic development of the Last Supper is very humanistic in its earthliness, which was revolutionary in itself at the time. The earlier paintings of the Last Supper mainly carried with them a kind of Byzantine formalism—the characters were clean, the setting formal, the piety and saintliness of the Apostles evident and the separation of Judas from the others obvious. With Leonardo’s painting, the human side of the story emerged: each Apostle is seen attempting to cope with an idea that he simply cannot understand: the idea of Christ becoming the meal—the bread and the wine that Catholics in Leonardo’s day would receive in Holy Communion.[footnoteRef:7] Unlike in prior paintings, which depicted the saints of the Last Supper scene, in Leonardo’s their halos are gone. There is no direct symbolism or attempt by Leonardo to portray these beings in a formalistic way. The focus is on the human rather than the divine—though the divine is certainly manifested in Christ’s calmness and in the vanishing point that passes through his head. Christ Himself is, moreover, framed by the rectangular window behind him—and this serves to give the effect of a halo—a naturalistic one to be sure but one nonetheless. Thus, Leonardo incorporates the setting—the architecture—in order to convey the idea of holiness to Christ. The serenity of the blue sky out the window couples with Christ’s serene expression, rooting the composition in the heavenly while the rest of the Apostles at the table grapple with the same—and while the viewer himself must also work both to view and understand the multiple narratives coming through at once. [7: Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ (NY: Image Books, 2008), 317.]

Stylistically, Leonardo’s Last Supper contains much more depth than Castagno’s which has a Byzantine flatness to it. Ghirlandaio’s has a little more depth—but not nearly as much as Leonardo’s—which appears to reach back forever, into eternity in fact in those…

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…Leonardo and he was always watching the birds to understand how they lifted themselves off the air (which is why he developed a flying machine modeled after their wing flapping). He produced the Codex on the Flight of Birds, which consisted of his own thoughts on flight, various designs, and various insights into how birds engaged taking wing. [12: Daniel Arasse, "Leonardo da Vinci: The Rhythm of the World, trans." Rosetta Translations. New York: Koecky & Konecky(1998).]

Leonardo was so mathematically and scientifically inclined that he developed sketches and ideas for new musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, a steam cannon (an idea that Archimedes had developed as well), shells for it (with fins), and even the first robot—a mechanical knight.[footnoteRef:13] He produced a design for a single-span bridge for the Sultan of Constantinople (the Sultan did not produce the design, fearing it would not work), and he envisioned a number of other designs—such as the parachute and a giant crossbow. His active imagination thus enabled him to imagine a range of possibilities that others would never have dreamt of—and his ability to dream them up and design them in his notebooks was partially due to the fact that he enjoyed dreaming up designs more than he did actually developing and finishing them. His unfinished painting of St. Jerome in the Wilderness is one example of a work that remains incomplete—but Leonardo was not a prolific painter in any sense of the word. Other masters of the age focused on one main craft, such as painting or architecture or science. Leonardo focused on them all and set the stage for the next Renaissance Man—Michelangelo, who excelled at sculpture, painting, and architecture, just as Leonardo did. Without Leonardo leading the way, however, it is unlikely that Michelangelo would have been able to transcend the normal boundaries of the artist and hop from sculpture to painting to architectural design. Leonardo paved the way for future Renaissance Men by refusing to stay pinned in any one field. Everywhere he went, his contributions were regarded highly (if not always produced). He was viewed, in a way, as the Elon Musk of his day—engaging in every form of scientific advancement and developing idea after idea, many of which would stay in his notebooks until being developed later on by future scientists. [13: Lianna Bortolon, The life and times of Leonardo (Hamlyn, 1967), ]

Conclusion: Leonardo, the First Renaissance Man

As the first Renaissance Man, Leonardo showed how the individual genius could extend his influence and show off his range of talents by opening himself up to every sort of need that the Renaissance had cause to pursue. Hailing from Florence, the artistic center of Italy during the Renaissance, Leonardo joined the St. Luke Guild, which specialized in art and medicine—and from there Leonardo advanced into experimenting with…

Sources Used in Document:


of Vinciana. Ed. Carlo Pedretti. Renaissance Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1994): 721-723.

Popham, A.E. The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. 1946.

Sheen, Fulton. Life of Christ. NY: Image Books, 2008.

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