LEONARDO
DA VINCI


Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction; if there is anyone who seems to embody the Renaissance completely and totally, it is this grouchy and self-centered painter, scholar, inventor, scientist, writer, anatomist, etc. He seems to span the whole of human knowledge as it was known at the time, and combine all this knowledge into this one vast, syncretic whole. For all this genius, however, he could never really finish very many projects (which seems to be a general rule prevailing among geniuses; they never finish projects, I think, because they get bored too easily), nor did he ever realize most of his inventions in real terms. As one surveys his notebooks (written backwards to prevent unwanted eyes from peering into his secrets), one find helicopters and submarines, hundreds of years before anyone else will think of them, but at no point does he sit down and actually build these marvelous inventions.

Strewn through his notebooks is a small treatise on painting he intended to publish, but never did because, like so much else that he started, he never finished it. I've chosen this because, like Pico's oration, the first part of the treatise signals a major shift in the European world view, one that more than anything establishes the character of the Renaissance and its inheritance. The first part of the treatise printed here is meant to justify linear perspective; the second part explains how linear perspective is made possible. I want you to understand in reading this treatise that linear perspective isn't really just a painting technology that previous generations were too stupid to invent; rather it is based on a world view, one that remaps the human landscape to privilege human beings and the uniquely human perspective (as opposed to the divine perspective). This new world view is also based on new theories of "visibility," which are expressed in the chapter "Linear Perspective." Read these two passages carefully. What is the function of the human eye? How does the definition of the human eye contrast with the early Christian and medieval view of God? Why does da Vinci go through elaborate pains to prove that objects can be visible everywhere? Is he just being silly? What does the whole argument with the mirrors "prove"? What in the modern world view seems to derive from the thoughts expressed here?


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