Leonardo da Vinci: The incurable polymath


September 1, 1999

by Diana Renelli

“Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others: We are burial places!”

“I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men”

Leonardo da Vinci’s career as a polymath, or know-it-all, also began during his boyhood. Da Vinci’s father quickly recognized the 12-year-old’s talents and arranged that he become an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio, a painter, sculptor, and goldsmith. As Giorgio Vasari reveals in Lives of the Artists: “[he] began to practice not only one branch of the arts but all branches in which design plays a part. He was marvellously gifted.” During the course of his life, da Vinci’s giftedness eventually manifested itself in numerous disciplines including: anatomy, engineering, astronomy, mathematics, music, sculpture, architecture, painting, and natural history. The multiplicity of his colossal talents set him apart from his contemporaries and rendered him an enigma, as did his preference for a vegetarian diet.

In Leonardo: The Artist and the Man, Serge Bramly reveals instances in Leonardo’s Notebooks where the master writes of his predilection for a vegetarian diet: “he would not let his body become a ‘tomb for other animals, an inn of the deadþa container of corruption.’ In his Notebooks, Da Vinci also recorded his dietary preferences, listing salad, fruits, vegetables, cereals, mushrooms, pasta, and a particular fondness for minestrone. Although meat purchases appear in his works several times, Bramly deduces that the master likely bought the meat for his students.

Da Vinci’s writings illustrate that his respect toward animals represented a humanitarian character. He excluded meat from his diet because he thought that all creatures that moved could feel pain and that one capability did not exist without the other; thus, he ate what neither moved nor suffered: vegetables.

Vasari’s account also tells of da Vinci’s regular visits to the market where he would buy caged birds and immediately free them, further evidencing that his sensitivity to animals was a conscious effort to reduce their suffering. However, da Vinci also had a fascination with flight and is not unfounded that he wanted to observe these birds in motion so he could sketch the many fluttering wings found in his Notebooks. He designed many flying contraptions, which he eventually built and tied to his own body in the hopes that he would soar with the birds.

The evidence that points to da Vinci’s humane nature is also contrasted by the military machines and weapons that he engineered for his Milanese patron, Duke Ludovico. This contradiction in his character has challenged many scholars in their attempt to understand the man. In seeking out Sforza’s patronage, da Vinci wrote a letter that outlined how he would engineer military weapons and machines to strengthen Sforza’s army. The letter only made a small reference to his artistic capabilities. Although this dichotomy is not easily explained, Vasari not only put Leonardo’s talents in their best light but also labels the master ‘capricious and fickle’ Ç qualities which may have caused da Vinci to begin and abandon projects frequently. But the curious polymath that he was, afforded him the greatness to complete masterpieces that still leave an indelible impression.

From the September / October 1999 issue of Lifelines.

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