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