Leonardo Da Vinci: artist, thinker and revolutionary – Part Three

The artist’s task is not merely to mirror reality in an unthinking way but to impart a special meaning and feeling to what is being depicted: “The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason,” wrote Leonardo, “is like a mirror which copies everything placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.” [part 1]

The Mona Lisa

Leonardo developed a technique known as sfumato (“smoky) that produces a blurred effect. He understood that in real life there are no fixed lines – the profound idea first expounded philosophically be Heraclitus, that everything is and is not, because everything is in flux. The idea behind this is permanent mutability, where everything is constantly changing, shifting, so that it is and is not. The sfumato effect, which blurs the outline, paradoxically renders the face more realistic, not less, while at the same time introducing an air of mystery. Around the cheeks and under the chin we see areas of shade (chiaroscuro) – the dramatic effect is the result of the unity of opposing elements of tenderly glowing light and pitch darkness.

The best example of this is his most celebrated work, The Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is instantly recognisable that it has acquired the status of an icon. For many people the Mona Lisa is Leonardo da Vinci. And, as we shall see, this popular perception is not altogether wrong. However, the paining we see today is not the same as the original. The bright colours have faded into a murky brown. In the original the sky, lakes and river were painted in a vivid ultramarine blue, made from the precious laps lazuli imported at great cost from as far as Afghanistan.

The dialectical conception of the unity of “is and is not” permeates the whole picture and is especially noticeable in the famous smile. Here the contradiction is explicit. Once again, the sfumato effect means that there are no clear lines around the lips, or any of the contours of the face. The smile is captured, not as something fixed, but as something in motion. The smile is either coming into being, or else it is fading away. What is depicted here is the transition between two states – either from joy to sorrow or from sorrow to joy. And all human life consists of a constant tension between these two opposed poles, fluctuating between them.

This was a painting so special for him that he refused to hand it over to the person who had commissioned it, a painting he kept with him until his death and which is considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece. This painting La Gioconda – more famously known as the Mona Lisa – has fascinated generations of art lovers with its mysterious and indefinable qualities, that are also in the final analysis the result of his masterly use of light and shade.

This painting has been the subject of much speculation and puzzlement. What is the meaning of this enigmatic female and her mysterious smile? In this painting things are not what they seem to be. At first sight, this painting appears to breathe a sense of calm and tranquillity. It depicts a young woman in what appears to be a state of utter repose against a peaceful background of nature. Yet this static impression is entirely deceptive.

Leonardo believed that the “eyes are the windows of the soul.” The gaze of the Mona Lisa is one of the most striking features of the picture. Like everything else about the painting, it has an ambiguous and contradictory character. That mysterious gaze is highly ambivalent. Is she looking at us, or beyond us, to something that we cannot see? Freud thought that this gaze contained sexual undertones. Maybe so, but it could also contain a different message – one that says: I know things that you do not know, and will never know. It is a knowing look.

At first sight it appears that this painting is a picture of absolute repose. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that it is anything but tranquil. It is steeped in the spirit of dialectical contradiction at every level. This is an “edge of chaos” painting, and it is this that gives it its extraordinary power. The first contradiction is the smile itself. If we divide the face into two equal haves, it immediately becomes evident that the smile itself contains a contradiction – one half is smiling, but the other is serious.

This contradiction expresses the complexity of human feelings, in which conflicting emotions frequently coexist. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)a lifelong friend of Leonardo, closely observed the calamities of the society in which he lived,. He wrote the following lines, which express the tragedy of his own times, with which Leonardo was only too well acquainted:

"Io rido, e rider non passa dentero;

Io ardo, e l'arsion mia non par di fore."

"I laugh, and my laughter is not within me;

I burn, and the burning is not seen outside."

Human feelings are rarely simple. We can laugh and cry at the same time. This is a profound expression of the human condition in all its complexity. Here we have the bittersweet combination of feelings that gives life its peculiar beauty and which stirs within us a very deep emotional reaction.

In this painting human emotions are intimately connected with tensions and contradictory tendencies in the world outside us. There is an implied parallel between this and the human figure. Within us are light and darkness, laughter and tears, joy and sadness. And these contradictory elements and emotions coexist and struggle within us, as do light and darkness in the world of nature.

The connection between humans and nature, between organic and inorganic life is suggested by her hair, which falls in curls that suggest swirling water. The drapery of her dress is not in a Renaissance but in a timeless classical style. It swirls like water, suggesting an affinity of the central figure with the natural background. This underlines the same idea of constant change. Even the sitter’s pose suggests change and movement. She is sitting on a chair with her body facing one way, and her face towards us. This twist is a well-known trick (used by photographers today) to suggest movement.

The placidity of the face conceals the existence of invisible subterranean forces – passions that lurk between the surface and which are as dangerous and uncontrollable as the forces of untamed nature. The figure in the Mona Lisa painting rises out of an equally strange and ambiguous landscape. Just as the smile is “lop-sided”, so the landscape is lop-sided, and indeed vaguely threatening. The ambiguity in her smile is echoed by nature.

There is a deeply subversive message in all this. In a very perceptive article entitled “the Story Behind the Smile” (Radio Times, 3-9 May, 2003) Nicholas Rossiter writes: “Leonardo is illustrating the constant process by which the natural world evolves over millennia, and challenging the biblical theory that it was created by God in just six days.” (Radio Times, 3-9 May, 2003.)

The particular and the universal

The painting also suggests another contradiction – the unity of the particular and the universal. The background is nature – the timeless universal – but the figure in the foreground is intensely personal and belongs to the here and now. We have before us a single, fleeting moment in time, that elusive moment when a smile begins to form on the lips, or else begins to vanish – a moment of becoming that is the very opposite of the timelessness and eternity of nature. The two opposing elements are here seen in their unity.

The background, which seems to occupy a subordinate position, in fact plays a very important part in the painting. In the background we see strange rock formations, resembling those at a place in the Arno Valley known to locals as The Valley of Hell. These alluvial deposits were formed by the erosion of the Appenine mountains. Leonardo was fascinated by geology and filled many pages of his notebooks with his observations on this area.

We also see something resembling the Buriano Bridge, which crosses the river Arno some 40 miles from Florence. Leonardo was well acquainted with this bridge because of its economic and military importance for the city of Arezzo, where he was employed by the notorious Cesare Borgia as a military engineer. In his boyhood, Leonardo had seen the catastrophic effects of the flooding of the Arno. Here the river is depicted flowing down from the mountains, cutting a path through the valley on its way to the sea.

Beneath the surface placidity of nature, terrifying and uncontrollable forces lurk unseen, though their presence can be intuitively sensed. In this vision, nature is never still, but constantly changing – and changing into its opposite. The mountain that towers in the background is too high – it threatens to collapse. The river is too full – it threatens to overflow. The two lakes on either side of the face have been deliberately set at impossible levels, where one seems to tip into the other.

Here we have the unending, restless cycle of birth and death – of the rise and fall of mountains, the birth and death of rivers. This sense of change in nature was an idea that was deeply ingrained with Leonardo.

The figure in the foreground emerges from a background of nature, and is intimately linked with it. The predominant element in the painting is water, both in the two lakes and in the river (presumably the Arno). This has a deep philosophical significance. What element is more changeable and therefore intangible than moving water? Heraclitus said: “We step and do not step into the stream; we are and are not.” This is the philosophical idea that permeates the painting.

Life and death

In this painting, the universal is united with the particular and is indistinguishable from it. Although the Mona Lisa is so highly individualised as to be unforgettable, she is also a generalisation – the eternal female, above all time and space – which emerges out of nature and represents its eternal generative principle. And here another mystery of the Mona Lisa becomes clear: she is clearly pregnant. This is obvious from the position of her hand, which is resting gently on her belly.

The subject of the portrait is assumed to have been Lisa del Giocondo (hence the popular title of La Gioconda). This theory seems to be supported by the fact that the Mona Lisa is wearing a black veil. It is known that Lisa del Giocondo’s daughter died in 1499, four years before Leonardo started the painting. So it is about death and also about new life. On the one hand, on the other hand, she appears to be pregnant. There is no life without death and vice versa.

At the time when he was working on the Mona Lisa, Leonardo dissected the cadavers of dead women and examined foetuses – a completely illegal activity – in order to gain a better understanding of the female anatomy and the mystery of birth. So amazingly accurate were his drawings that they were later used by students of anatomy.

In this painting we have a sense of concealed (or repressed) passion – the kind of passion that is generally regarded as dangerous because it threatens to break up the established order, and because it is uncontrollable. It reminds us that beneath the surface appearance of calm, terrible forces are accumulating that can destroy us. This is true both of inanimate nature (floods, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms) and of human nature (uncontrollable passions like anger, fear, rage, jealousy and anything related to the sexual drive). All these lurk beneath the surface all the time.

In his study on Leonardo, Freud speculates that paintings like the Mona Lisa express unconscious sexual strivings related to Leonardo’s childhood experiences. He lost his mother, although she had apparently acted as a wet nurse for his first three years. So he would have some recollections of a mother’s natural love and affection. Later he had a stepmother, who also treated the young child with great tenderness.

Is this maternal tenderness what is reflected in these female faces, linked to unconscious sexual drives? Possibly, although it must be said that there is many of Freud’s assumptions in this essay are forced and arbitrary. But in any case the matter does not end there. If all that Leonardo’s painting expressed was a purely personal message referring to the artist’s psychological state it could never have had the universal effect that it has had.

These paintings have a wonderful sense of the passing of time and at the same time a sense of the eternal. There is also the idea of generation, of the element of sexual reproduction as the regenerative principle of nature. There may, however, be another message in the way Leonardo depicts Gioconda’s hair. In 16th century Italy, it was considered immodest for a woman to wear her hair draped over her shoulders as we see here: loose, flowing hair was synonymous with loose morals. It seems that Lisa del Giocondo and her husband did not accept the painting, and this may be part of the reason for their dissatisfaction.

Here nothing is what it seems at first sight. Even what appears to be the quintessence of womanhood turns out to be something else. The unity of opposites is equally conveyed by the fact that the Mona Lisa – and many of Leonardo’s other women – are really androgenous, that is, they contain elements of male and female. This can be seen in the pronounced jaw line – a male characteristic. The ideal of beauty is half male, half female – a conception well known in classical Geek art.

Tit has often been remarked that the faces of Leonardo’s women have a strangely androgynous character. There is an explanation for this. It has been established that the proportions of these faces correspond exactly to those of Leonardo’s own face in his self-portrait. Here we have the unity of opposites carried to an extreme: here we have the unity of man and woman, completely mingled and undifferentiated. Man and Woman are one.

The face of the Mona Lisa, apparently a unique and unrepeatable portrait of an individual, is, in fact, not unique. The same face and the same mysterious expression can be seen in the wonderful painting of the Virgin with St. Anne. It is not even the face of a woman, though it appears to be. From measuring and comparing the faces, it has been concluded that they all have basically the same face: it is the face of Leonardo himself.

The last years: in France

Self-portrait (1512), Leonardo da VinciSelf-portrait (1512), Leonardo da VinciIt is said that a prophet has no honour in his homeland. Now showing signs of age, and with the threat of Papal anger always hanging over his head, finally he decided to leave priest-ridden Italy altogether. He spent the last years of his life in France, where he was received with full honours at the court of the king. We have a marvellous self portrait of Leonardo as an old man painted at this time. He never saw Italy again.

The failure of Italy to achieve national unite meant that this wonderful potential could not be realised. Italy was reduced to an economic and cultural backwater. The centre of gravity of world history was moving away from Italy towards the new nation states of France and England. Their star was rising, while that of Italy was about to enter into a cruel eclipse that would last centuries, until Italy was finally united by revolutionary means.

We may even see the fact that Leonardo spent his last years in France as an expression of this fact, or at least an anticipation of it. Neglected in his native Italy where his star was eclipsed by the rise of Michelangelo and Rafael, the old man received a hero’s welcome in France, where he was venerated as the greatest artist of his age. The French king was one of those Renaissance monarchs who, when not engaged in wars and hunting, took a lively interest in ideas and art. Francis I aspired to give his court the air of an Italian Renaissance court by importing artists and men of letters, including not only Leonardo but also Cellini.

He had Leonardo installed in a palatial residence near to the royal apartments where he could have easy access to him. It seems that Francis revered the old man and engaged him in long conversations in which Leonardo astonished him by the wide range of subjects he knew in depth. But it is clear that Francis saw Leonardo more as a great philosopher than as a great artist (one must remember that at that time philosophy was synonymous with science).

The painting of Lisa del Gioconda clearly had a profound meaning for Leonardo, so much so that it was never delivered to those who had commissioned it. He carried it with him for the last 16 years of his life, taking it with him into his final French exile. Clearly its significance for him was far greater than its artistic worth. The Mona Lisa therefore ended up in France, where Leonardo sold it to King Francois I, who hung it in a bathroom! This was probably the cause of the myriad little cracks in the painting. Other works by Leonardo also suffered from neglect or ill treatment: the ignorant Milanese monks cut a door through his frieze of The Last Supper.

Like Aristotle and Hegel, Leonardo had a truly encyclopaedic mind. Leonardo – the man of the Renaissance – was a scientist and a philosopher. It seems that at the end of his life he tried to put together his numerous notebooks on different questions. Had he succeeded, he would have produced a philosophical encyclopaedia long before Diderot and D’ Alembert in 18th century France. This was the side of Leonardo that most struck the benefactor of his old age. After his death at 67 years of age the French king said that he was “a very great philosopher”. In the end he saw him more as a philosopher than an artist. In reality, he was both. This most typical of Renaissance men combined in his person the roles of artist, sculptor, scientists, philologer, diplomat and inventor.

Leonardo’s reputation as an artist rests on just a handful of paintings. The quantity of Leonardo’s artistic output was limited because he was a perfectionist. He said: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”That is why he often started a work and never finished it. All the pleadings and threats of his exasperated employers left him indifferent. The only Master he recognized was art his self. It is as if for him the act of creation itself was the point. The end result was relatively unimportant. This is clearly what he meant when he wrote: “art is never finished, only abandoned.”

With Michelangelo the art of the Italian Renaissance reaches new levels of sublime perfection. But Michelangelo was driven by religious inspiration, whereas Leonardo, the true man of the Renaissance, was not religious at all. Ultimately Michelangelo did what his masters in the Church wished, whereas Leonardo was a free and independent spirit – a natural rebel.

With Leonardo, however, we see the perfect marriage of science, technique, philosophy and art. He made a thorough study of optics in order to understand the nature of light and shade and then applied this scientific knowledge to his painting. He did the same with anatomy, and even studied human embryos in order to have a better insight into the female body before depicting the pregnant woman in the Mona Lisa.

There has probably never been a greater artist than Leonardo in the history of the world. It is not only a question of his technique, which was so advanced that even today the experts do not know how he achieved certain effects, or even how he made his colours. This art is not only aesthetically beautiful, not only technically perfect.It also contains a profound philosophical idea.

All his life Leonardo was driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world. He was curious about all things under the sun, and this curiosity led him in many different directions. It was for that reason that so many of his projects remained unfinished. His restless, inquiring spirit – which was the spirit of his age – did not allow him to remain still for a moment, and several lifetimes would have been insufficient for him to complete all the tasks he set himself.

Above all, Leonardo was a keen observer of the natural world. The dead hand of religion had condemned material reality as the work of the devil and taught men and women to be ashamed of their bodies and to direct their gaze to Heaven or inwards to the salvation of their eternal soul. This was the antithesis of the new scientific outlook. Leonardo’s world outlook was essentially materialist and scientific. He said: “Only observation is the key to understanding” and “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

He also wrote: “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is, to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.” These sentences contain the essence of all modern science. This tireless investigator was not afraid to question the accepted vies of the Church and to tread dangerous paths.

Despite his insistence on observation, Leonardo was no vulgar empiricist. He also wrote: “Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this Perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.”

He saw that order arises from chaos and it is this profound and dialectical idea that is at the heart of the Mona Lisa. But the reverse is also true: beneath the apparently calm and settled reality, there are forces that can burst through at any time. This idea perfectly expresses the turbulent times of the Italy into which he had been born and the trials and tribulations of which he shared. The deep lines carved on the face of his self-portrait as an old man tell the whole story. Here is a picture of suffering that has been overcome by the quiet resignation of sublime old age. The contradictions have at last found a resolution.

In the end he said that just as a day well spent leads to contented rest, so a life well brings a contented death. We will leave the final word to Leonardo: “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

London 23rd April, 2012