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Da Vinci - the inner workings of a genius

Leonardo Da Vinci was a 15th Century Italian Renaissance “polymath” (i.e. someone who does and can do just about everything). He was not only an artist (for which he is more famously known) but a prolific visionary, inventor, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician, musician, instrument maker, singer and stage set designer. He expressed his ideas in over 6000 tiny pages of notes and sketches and some experts believe that his curious use of mirror writing and an unusual alphabet embed his own unique patent within the work. Despite this inherent challenge, the curators of the exhibition spent over ten years decoding his notes in order to create scale models of over 120 of his designs. It’s an overwhelming exhibition which unlocks the inner workings of this man’s mind.

From an illegitimate birth in 1452, Da Vinci had overshadowed the work of his master Verrocchio with his brilliance by 1469. He attained one of his most famous commissions,  Virgin of the Rocks  . in 1483 when he was only 31! His work represents and embodies Renaissance philosophy and also represents what was happening in war-torn Europe at the time – art is always a reflection of society. Renaissance thinkers hungered for knowledge, freshness, newness, adventure and exploration. Although he was apparently a pacifist, his  “horrible” war machines  were inspired by the violence and death of war. He must have had a strong stomach as his  anatomical sketches  involved illegally stealing and dissecting bodies from graves (and they would not have had formaldehyde in those days)! Perhaps this shows that his hunger for newness and invention would make him go against even his own principles in order to push through boundaries. Yet in contrast, his paintings inspire beauty and reflection. And his  “flight” inventions  . which include the forefathers of the parachute and the helicopter, represent a kind of innate desire to defy gravity and escape earth. Perhaps this again was about pushing boundaries.

He always studied long before he made. He spent months  observing objects, people and animals  - there is so much to be learnt from what already exists around us. He believed that nature forms the foundation of the makings of the machine – machines replicate nature. The Renaissance ethos placed man at the centre. Man gains power and strength by imitating nature’s forces in machines. There is the simplicity of the transfer of horizontal to vertical motion in

a lever that assists in making heavy weights defy gravity. Mathematical principles when applied to the shape of an object affect its trajectory. Simple things like ball bearings reduce friction in machine parts. The golden ratio (displayed in his depiction of the  Vitruvian man  ) shows a striving for perfection that is found in nature, and interestingly, the human body also has ball bearings and levers. Hi flying machines represent man’s striving towards mastering the forces of nature. He even invented the first principles of a robot by placing mechanisms that could control a knight’s suit of armour (man makes a machine of a man). Much much later some of his robotic studies were used by NASA in developing satellites. He also studied water and wind. He experimented with sound and sight (the camera). He imagined an ideal three-dimensional city. The beautiful curves of the human body are represented in his art, softly moulded forms. Unlike the brutality of the war machines there is sensitivity and delicacy in the brush strokes of the Mona Lisa. Realism was softened by emotion and feeling. He was also able to sketch and paint the human body accurately because he understood how the human body actually works. This was revolutionary in the art world at the time.

It’s obvious that he was a key thinker of his time, which has had a long lasting legacy for us today but we must remember that he lived within the "right time" and the "right place" and there he had the freedom to explore. He was funded by wealthy patrons and benefactors, and lived within that Renaissance mindset that didn’t limit people to only one discipline. However I think we need to learn from this. We may not have similar lives and similar privileges but we all have great minds and we all have freedom to discover and explore if we step beyond the boundaries. Perhaps his invention of the mirror room “reflects” this notion above everything else. Like the scariest change room you’ve ever seen, this is a hexagonal shaped room with mirrors on each inside face. Due to its shape you are able to see every part of yourself endless times. For me, this reflects the endless creative possibilities that lie within me (and each one of us). It shows me who I really am (every single part) and the question is, does that instil fear or excitement? Either way, I hope that I’ll not forget that boundaries are an illusion and Da Vinci proves that they shouldn’t limit us.

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