Leonardo da Vinci’s Regret

Leonardo is admired as il uomo universale—one who did outstanding work in many fields.

He was the best but not the only universal genius in Renaissance Italy. The idea to try your hand at everything was in the air in his time and place.

It was as old as the first Renaissance artists, men like Giotto and, especially, Donatello.

St. George by Donatello

Donatello is even criticized by his first biographer for trying everything. He had too many things going, says Vasari. He spent as much time on unimportant trinkets as on great statues and paintings. “He delighted in everything, and so he tried his hand at everything, without worrying whether what he was doing was worthwhile or not.”

Donatello’s “I can do that too” ambition was contagious. His student Verrocchio picked it up. He made everything from great equestrian statues to belt buckles and ingenious toys.
And Verrocchio went one further: when he was young he studied the sciences, and especially geometry. He thought about art and read the classics. His shop was not only a school of crafts—it was a university. The young apprentices who worked there got a look at the whole universe and felt there was nothing they couldn’t do.

In walked, of all people, Leonardo da Vinci, age 12—the most perceptive, the most talented kid in the world, all ready to learn. Verrocchio’s workshop was better than a school. The theoretical and the practical were taught side by side. It must have been the most exciting place a perceptive boy would ever see. Here may well be a portrait of the young Leonardo. They say Verrocchio used him as a model for his David.


David by Verrocchio

Leonardo became the worst tinker and doodler and jack-of-all-trades of them all and he was criticized for losing perspective. Vasari even states that on his deathbed, after “lamenting bitterly” and repenting, Leonardo “protested that he had offended God and mankind by not working on his art as he should have done.”

No one else mentions such a confession and Vasari, a great friend of Michelangelo, cannot be trusted. The confession may well be merely what Vasari supposed had happened—or should have happened.

Michelangelo resisted the temptation to do everything. He must have thought Leonardo had made a fool of himself tinkering around and frittering away his genius.

An airplane by Leonardo

From very early on, Michelangelo decided to limit himself to stone sculpture and to just one subject: the male nude.
True, he got railroaded into painting (the Sistine Chapel) and into casting a colossal statue in bronze. But he resisted the temptation to do everything that occurred to him. It was a very great temptation. There was so much to do and to be in his time.
Was he right to do that?

Now, after all these years, who can say that either man was wrong. Could Leonardo really have done better than he did? And if Michelangelo had stuck to sculpture, the world would have been without his paintings.
But as models for aspiring artists neither one is really right. No conscientious teacher would allow his best student to horse around all day and night on “hundreds of follies and outlandish experiments”, starting dozens of projects and finishing none; nor would he let his young student get away with a resolution like Michelangelo’s.

Read about one of Leonardo’s gags in  Leonardo da Vinci’s Pet Dragon

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This entry was posted in art, art history, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Vasari. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci’s Regret

  1. ivdanu says:

    In a way – and maybe in more than one – you are, swallows, the Vasari of our time (no kidding!) but in more trustworthy…

    As for the uomo universale- Michelangelo’s approach (limitation, concentration) is the sensed one. who could seriously think it is possible to be so many things (when only two – a scientist and an artist! are already too much?)

  2. wrjones says:

    Well told again. Who can say what the effect of “fooling” around with different ideas might be. It may well be that a failed belt buckle, followed by a failed flying machine, followed by a failed scuplture, followed by a failed painting lead to a great work of art/science that otherwise might not have worked its way into the mind.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Thanks for the very nice compliment. But there was just one Vasari and one Italian Renaissance.
    I guess most artists have had to turn down commissions they considered not quite in their “line”. “Do that which only you can do” was somebody’s advice.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Bill: True, but that’s looking back at it. Looking ahead, directing yourself, you wouldn’t go after the great work through all those byways, would you? There’s only so much time.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Vaguely related to this post is something I just happened upon by Paul Graham, author of Hackers and Painters. It’s an essay on the importance of where you live. He mentions Florence in the 15th century and that got me thinking about this post.

    Maybe in an environment as full and ambitious as Florence in the 15 century it was not surprising that a number of artists were multi-talented. 100swallows says it was in the air. Though I haven’t responded to this post right away it has been in the back of my mind, raising numerous questions. Was Florence really something special, so special that some of its most talented people couldn’t decide what to focus on? Is there something similar today, perhaps with technology? Are there rare periods in history, maybe every few hundred years, where there just seems to be an explosion of creativity.
    I was once talking to an art history professor from Cornell about Piero della Francesca, one of my favorite artists at that time. He said it was unfortunate he never moved to the large cities, like Florence or Rome. If he had done so he would have become a much better artist. Well I think he’s great enough as is but it does make we wonder if people like Leonardo, Donatello, Verrocchio weren’t as talented and as ambitiuos, and maybe as distracted, as they were at least partially because of the extraordinary place in which they lived.

    100swallows, as usual it’s a pleasure to see these illustrations. Giotto was another favorite of mine at the same time that Piero was. I didn’t realize he also was multi-talented.

  6. rich says:

    Very interesting subject, well presented, Swallows!

    To do a real good work, to excel, one would have to concentrate on a single discipline. As they say: Jack of all the trades, master of none.

    On the other hand, it seems to me, there was more of an universal approach in former times. Just compare todays scientists with figures like Humboldt or Herder, for instance. Today it’s the time for specializing, isn’t it?

    Someone said: Nowadays from less and less we got to know more and more, until one day we shall know everything about nothing.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Ken: Those men certainly influenced each other, both as models to imitate and rivals to beat. So getting to Florence was wise and made a difference. It is probably true that Piero della Francesca would have improved his art by moving to the Florence of his time. But why was everyone so excited in the first place? It was the philosophy of personal worth and power to influence. That was what was unique. That and the material conditions, the financing.

    I wonder if Paul Graham thinks where you live is still important. Florence in the 14th century was a museum, a university, a workshop.
    Now there are museums and universities everywhere, and talented people, but that humanistic philosophy is long gone. Now we live in Tocqueville’s age of equality. You have to be a little crazy to imagine that you are an extraordinary being or that you can contribute more than the proverbial grain of sand. Always and everywhere you feel your own ignorance, unimportance, impotence. In fact, we are surrounded by thousands of ingenious inventions by nameless men and women. Those people are everywhere and nowhere.

    Ken: Don’t forget Giotto’s great Baptistery Tower.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Rich. It’s funny that Leonardo himself had the typical “complex” of the uneducated man–the one who hasn’t been to the university, the one who has had to “pick things up” on his own. In his notebooks he defends the so-called dilettante. Of course the learned treatises of the properly educated of his time, with a few exceptions, are forgotten–only his own experiments are fresh. We are happy for everything he did, every bit of research and even playing around. Nowadays when so much is already known you have to spend long years just informing yourself, which makes doodling and daydreaming and monkeying around very hard to justify.

  9. ivdanu says:

    Not only the post is great and very interesting, swallows but the comments too!

    No wonder Leonardo defended the dilettante! He was one of them: a genius one, but dilettante quand meme! (vive les dilettants! I know it”s a damming prejudice and all from my part, but I abhore the too savant – and boooooring! – non-dilettante… Leonardo was famous for his non finished works… Maybe, a solution for todays frustrating “too much” information is a more wholistic (?) approach, a more soulfull (but no nonsense) sort of knowing… If I could explain this I would get, probably, the Nobel prize…

    I supose I would have been kind of stressed in Florence of the 14th century… not good for creating art, maybe… but then, maybe not… anyway, a great artist would be great anywhere…it’s not the place where he live which makes him great… And I totally can relate with your thoughts about the grain of sand etc.

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    “Don’t forget the baptistry tower” — I did! Or I just didn’t know it was by Giotto. Really I think I either just didn’t know it while I was in Italy many years ago or was so fixated on his paintings that I completely forgot it. That’s really hard to imagine given how striking it is when you’re in Florence. Thanks for reminding me.

    The one problem with reading your posts is that my reading list keeps growing: Renaissance Florence, Giotto, Tintoretto, Frank Stella(I wanted to mention his book ‘Working Space’ which he wrote in the mid-1980s), two new books on Van Meegeren and probably some I’ve forgotten. But I should be doing artwork not reading! Of course if I were living in Italy I could just take a stroll to see the real thing for many of these artists………

    My guess is that genius flowers in any environment. So even though many people may not see the possibility of doing something new or valuable, but only making small contributions to what’s already been accomplished, there will be someone who will see it differently. I suspect that this isn’t due to a huge, overly confident ego so much as just a different perspective. I guess we all have our theories of history and creativity. Mine is more a belief in cycles than in constant progress. I can’t prove any of this but it’s just a hunch. So as much as I may dislike the state of contemporary art I also believe that it will revive itself.

    But you are right there is a huge glut of information and it’s easy to believe that you must understand or at least familiarize yourself with much of it before making your own statement. But I think this is an enervating path. As much as I like to read and think, and write as you can tell from my oversize posts, I really think that ‘doing’ is most important. You learn from the others but you learn most from doing. In doing so you may contribute more than a grain of sand without even thinking about it.

  11. wrjones says:

    When you are young there seems to be so much time and so many things of interest. It is only as the years go by you realize you are very unlikely to master different fields of interest.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Bill: you’ve done pretty well as a humorist and I bet you don’t even count that.

  13. kimiam says:

    doodling, daydreaming, monkeying around…Did you write this one for me? Sometimes I get lost…maybe on purpose. Avoidance and fear.

    Another great post, Swallows.

  14. elementaryteacher says:

    I enjoyed this post, as usual, even though I don’t have a specific comment to make today.

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  15. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: Oh I bet it isn’t fear. I’d say it is only discomfort at having to do someone else’s thing. Finding your own is the hardest thing in the world. Doodle and monkey around some more. Imagine poor Leonardo having to study things their way.

  16. 100swallows says:

    Eileen: Thanks for saying “only” that.

  17. Jason says:

    I’d say it was not the completion Leo was after but he sought the knowledge his work brought once it was obtained he saw no reason to finish it but take on another task that held a different taste to his mind and work till his knowledge of that had been filled as well, to him he saw no greater gift than that which he could learn

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