Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Leonardo da Vinci’

11 JULY, 2014

Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.

Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.

Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.

In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.

Steadman writes in the introduction:

In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.

[…]

Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.

Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:

The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.

The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.

Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?

All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.

Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.

If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.

O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.

Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.

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18 JUNE, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Life and Legacy, in a Vintage Pop-Up Book

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The legacy of the great artist, inventor, and scientist in illustrated “interactive” paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

As a lover of pop-up books, a celebrator of the intersection of art and science, and a great admirer of the vintage children’s book illustration of wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly smitten with Leonardo da Vinci (public library) — a glorious 1984 pop-up book that traces the life and legacy of the legendary artist, inventor and scientist in gorgeous illustrations by the Provensens and “interactive” three-dimensional paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

In the spirit of previous efforts to convey the analog magic of vintage paper engineering in animated GIFs — including Bruno Munari’s “interactive” picture-books and this naughty Victorian pop-up book for adults — I’ve animated a couple of the visuals, which is of course no substitute for the hands-on whimsy but at the very least a whetting of the appetite.

Leonardo da Vinci is, sadly, long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found. Complement it with the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful illustrations for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, some classic fairy tales, young James Beards’s cookbook, and a poetic homage to William Blake.

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23 MAY, 2014

The Long Game: Brilliant Visual Essays on the Only Secret to Creative Success, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marie Curie

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Why showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” a wise woman once said — a seemingly simple observation that is among the 7 most important things I’ve learned in the many years of doing what I do. This notion of doggedness is something countless admired creators have advocated — from Anthony Trollope’s advice to aspiring writers to Tchaikovsky’s admonition about work ethic — and it’s even something scientists have confirmed, in finding that “grit” is a greater predictor of success than intelligence. And yet, as a culture that worships at the altar of immediacy and instant gratification, we continue to romanticize the largely mythic notion of the overnight success, overlooking the years of struggle and failure that paved the way for some of humanity’s most admired and accomplished luminaries.

That mythology of genius is precisely what British filmmaker Adam Westbrook explores in his fantastic video essay series The Long Game — a feat of storytelling partway between Kirby Ferguson’s remix culture documentaries and Temujin Doran’s cinematic essays.

The first installment tackles the story of one of history’s most celebrated artists: Leonardo da Vinci, it turns out, got his big break at the age of 46 — elderly by the era’s life expectancy standards.

In the second installment, inspired in part by Robert Greene’s book Mastery (public library), Westbrook explores the notion of “the difficult years” — those rough stretches in a creative career that separate the ones who persevere and end up celebrated as “geniuses” from those who throw in the towel and sink into obscurity. From the seven years Marie Curie spent in poverty while researching radioactivity to the nine years of thankless writing Stephen King plowed through before selling his first novel, Westbrook reminds us that showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.

All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?

Complement with this magnificent read on the difference between mastery and success and an important revision of the “10,000 hours rule” of excellence.

Thanks, Kirby

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