Leonardo da Vinci: The Universal Man

Curiosity is an astounding thing. While it is not uniquely human, our species’ inquisitive nature has allowed us to flourish like no other animal. Though progress has been accompanied by an inability to shake off our less favourable characteristics, it’s reasonable to say that life does get better, albeit in a sluggish and imbalanced way. Perfect is perhaps impossible.
Throughout history, the world has delivered ‘purveyors of inquisitiveness’, fantastic individuals who have, be it by the power of god or the unknowing roll of biological dice, helped transform our understanding of what it is to be a self-aware.
While we can never really answer the ultimate question about existence – why is there something and not nothing? – our inquiring disposition helps us to pass the days by in a productive way, reshaping life as we know it and all the while, endeavouring to improve our lot.
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the great intellects of his age and indeed throughout history. The Florentine painter was more than just an artist; he was a writer, a musician, an inventor, a philosopher, an engineer, a mathematician and an architect … and then some.
His unique way of looking at and exploring the world is the subject of a new exhibition at the Galleria dell’Academia museum in Venice. Entitled Leonardo da Vinci: The Universal Man, the show explores his seemingly insatiable thirst for ‘all knowledge’ by examining some of his sketches.
These drawings, which were executed between 1478 and 1516, offer a lot of insight into his thought process. Annalisa Perissa Torriani, the exhibition’s curator, said they show him “reasoning and translating from his brain to his hand but always retracing his steps to add corrections and additions”.
Included in this magnificent collection of sketches is his famous Vitruvian Man, which has not been seen in public for over 30 years. In fact 25 of the 52 drawings on show – viewable from both sides incidentally – were last viewed in 1980.
The reason for this is down to the fragility of these drawings – too much exposure to light and human touch runs the risk of irrevocable damage occurring. This show, therefore, is as rare as they come. If you want a glimpse into how a genius, then this is essential viewing.
Da Vinci wanted more than to just exist. For him, the knowledge of all things was attainable, realised through active deliberation and investigation. No epiphany can ever arise from idleness. Head to a zoo and observe animals. They eat, they sleep and they potter about. Some would call this an enviable life but for many of us, it isn’t enough.
As he once said: “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding”. Otherwise we can only ever be what we know and truth be told, we don’t really know a whole lot about anything.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Universal Man at the Galleria dell’Academia museum in Venice runs until December 1st 2013.
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.