CHAPTER ONE LEONARDO DA VINCI – HIS LIFE AND ART

DAN BROWN’S CHOICE OF LEONARDO DA VINCI AS THE ARTIST CENTRAL TO HIS BOOK AND ITS TITLE CHARACTER IS BOTH INTERESTING AND SENSIBLE . KNOWLEDGE OF LEONARDO HAS COME DOWN THROUGH THE CEN­TURIES TO PRACTICALLY EVERYONE IN THE WESTERN WORLD. HE IS PROBABLY THE GREATEST EXAMPLE OF UNIVERSALITY THAT THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN. LIKE ALBERT EINSTEIN, LEONARDO DA VINCI IS A HUMAN TRADEMARK INDICATING “GENIUS.”

In his day it was by no means rare for people to dabble in more than one area of knowledge or expertise, but despite this there was not, even at that time, anyone who could match him as painter, sculptor, architect and engineer. Not only that, he explored nature so that he could gain an understanding not just of how things worked, but why. Dan Brown is right to say, therefore, that Leonardo was a “wor­shipper of Nature’s divine order.” While his contemporaries were painting plants from pictures in books, he was copy­ing directly from nature. His choice of plants in his paint­ings was symbolic. As Dan Brown tells us in shocked tones, he did indeed dissect corpses: about 30 in total, averaging roughly two per year while he was studying. It was illegal, but whether he actually exhumed the bodies himself is a different matter. The Church believed that the human body had to be buried intact so that it could be resurrected in the Last Day of Judgment. Nonetheless, Leonardo appears to have had the sanction of the Church in this practice; no doubt many influential people were impressed by the skill shown in his drawings presenting the human body in vari­ous layered forms. In other words, it was forbidden to dis­sect corpses, but nobody could be bothered to take action over Leonardo’s doing so. (This apparent disregard for the law in some cases may ring bells with anyone familiar with the legal system in Italy today.) Leonardo’s detailed draw­ings contributed greatly to the body of medicine from which we benefit today.

His inventions showed considerable vision. Be drew designs for tanks, the parachute, the car and the helicopter which would not be realized for centuries. He even designed a tele­scope 100 years before Galileo. To Leonardo, man’s highest sense organ was sight because of its ability to relay with accu­racy. His philosophy was thus saper vedere -knowing how to see. For Dan Brown to say that Leonardo painted Christian themes as a means of commercial enterprise to fund his lavish lifestyle is, perhaps, unfair on the man. He executed everything that he did with unparalleled skill and came from an affluent back­ground. What is true is that he never painted an interpretation of the Crucifixion. He could also hardly be described as hav­ing created an “enormous output” of Christian art; of the mere seventeen surviving paintings that can definitely be attributed to him, several are unfinished.

He is referred to by art historians simply as “Leonardo.” The name “da Vinci” is not a surname; it only describes where he was from. It is similar to referring to Alexander the Great just as “the Great.” However “da Vinci” is in such common use that there is no ambiguity.

Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of Ser Piero, a successful lawyer and landlord in Florence in Italy. His mother was a Florentine peasant who later married a local workman. Leonardo was brought up on his father’s estate in Vinci, near Empoli, where he was treated as a legit­imate son, and it was there that he was educated in reading, writing and arithmetic. He studied Latin, higher mathemat­ics and geometry later on.

When Leonardo was about fifteen years old, his father apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio, from whom he learned painting, sculpture and technical-mechanical arts. It was at this time _that he would have met another Priory of Sion Grand Master, Botticelli, who was also apprenticed to Verrocchio then. It is probable that he started his studies of anatomy at the neighboring studio during this period. He worked independently in Florence until 1481. Many of his works date from this time, including the largely unfinished Adoration of the Magi.

In 1482, he entered the service of Ludovico Sforza, a.k.a. Ludovico il Moro (The Moor), the Duke of Milan, where he was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et inegarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the Duke”). Sforza was a close friend of Rene d’ Anjou, yet another Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Leonardo spent the next seven­teen years there until Ludovico fell from power. In addition to painting, sculpture and designing court festivals, he was a technical adviser in-architecture, fortifications and military matters, even serving as a hydraulic and mechanical engi­neer. It was at this time that he developed his universal genius most fully.

During this period he completed only seven paintings, including the first version of The Madonna of the Rocks men­tioned by Dan Brown. This was an altarpiece which would be displayed at the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The magnificent The Last Supper, which is painted on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, was also paint­ed at this time.

Leonardo then started to develop his idea of a “science of painting.” He concluded that painters, using their superior ability of sight, were the perfect mediums to transfer knowledge pictorially and he therefore used his art to teach. This is particularly important to an understanding of Leonardo da Vinci’s role in The DaVinci Code. Leonardo did not just paint a pretty picture ofThe Last Supper. It was his way of telling us something of immense importance in a way that has come down the centuries to us and can be under­stood by anyone who has access to his code. When present­ing text and illustrations together, he gave priority to the illustration. The illustration does not express the text; the text serves only to explain the picture.

Between 1490 and 1495, he wrote treatises on painting and architecture and books on the elements of mechanics and human anatomy. He also continued studying in various sci­entific fields. He wrote and sketched detailed accounts of everything he did, which amounts to a total of thousands of pages, many of which survive to this day.

As Leonardo was left-handed, mirror-writing was not too difficult for him. It was not an easy style to read and his spelling mistakes and abbreviations compounded the diffi­culty. Nor were his notes always written in a logical order. He used mirror writing throughout his work, but his corre­spondence to others indicates that he was also at ease with conventional handwriting. Leonardo’s main biographer, Serge Bramley, has examined all of Leonardo’s surviving manuscripts and concluded that he wrote with both hands in both directions.

One of the consequences, if not the reason for his use of mirror writing, was that the ink did not smudge when he wrote with his left hand. He could also, of course, have had the intention of writing secretly as he did not want others to steal his ideas. An additional reason for security could have arisen from his unconventional ideas on Christianity. As Dan Brown points out, during Leonardo’s time left­ handedness was associated with the “left-hand path” and satanic forces. Therefore left-handed people were regarded with suspicion; it was unusual back then to find someone who was as open about it as Leonardo. He wrote with the intention of publication and in the margins of one of his anatomy sketches he asks his followers to ensure that his works are printed.

By the beginning of 1500 Leonardo had left Milan and returned to Florence via Venice, where the governing coun­cil asked his advice on the impending Turkish invasion in Friuli. Leonardo recommended flooding the area. When back in Florence, Leonardo started a cartoon for the paint­ing Virgin and Child with St.Anne, and Madonna with the Yarn-Winder. 1 In 1503 Leonardo left Florence and entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the Duke ofValentinois, who was the natural son of Pope Alexander VI and the most feared person of his time. He was suspected of having murdered his brother, but the crime of which he was undoubtedly guilty was the murder in August 1500 of his brother-in-law Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, the second husband of his infamous sister, Lucrezia. Leonardo was fascinated by Borgia, who at 27 years old was only half Leonardo’s age.
1 This painting was stolen from Drumlaring Castle in the South of Scotland in August 2003.

At this time, Leonardo engaged himself in making city plans and topographical maps. His work formed the foundation of modern cartography. In 1503, he returned to Florence and planned a canal that would run from the city to the sea. This was never actually carried out, but there is now an expressway connecting Florence to the sea and it runs on exactly the same route as that which Leonardo proposed.

Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa while he was working on a mural for the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence between the years 1503 and 1506. He left this painting unfinished when he then returned to Milan at the request of Charles d’ Amboise, the Governor of the King of France in Milan. He spent the next six years in Milan, concentrating on architec­ture and was paid the princely sum of 400 ducats a year. He painted the second version of The Madonna of the Rocks at this time.

When the French were expelled from Milan in 1513, Leonardo moved to Rome. Giuliano de Medici, the brother of Pope Leo X, gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, which formed part of the Vatican. He was paid, but while others such as Michelangelo were working on various architectural and artistic projects, Leonardo was left with not much to do.

Leonardo was attached to the army of Charles de Montpensier et de Bourbon, the Constable of France, and the Viceroy of Languedoc and Milan, reputed to be the most powerful Lord in France in the early sixteenth century. He took over as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion after Leonardo da Vinci in 1519.

At the age of 65, Leonardo took up the offer of the young King of France, Francis I, to enter his service. He spent the last three years ofhis life living in a small residence at Cloux (later to be called Clos-Luce) near the King’s summer palace on the Loire River. His title was “premier peintre, architecte et mechanicien du Roi” (first painter, architect, and mechanic of the King) . To a great extent he was treated as an honored guest at this time.The only painting that he man­aged to complete was St.John the Baptist, and much of the only other work that he did consisted of sketches of court festi­vals. He drew up a design for the palace of gardens for the King’s mother, but these plans had to be abandoned because of a threat of malaria.

Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519 at Cloux and was buried at the palace church of Saint-Florentin. However, the church was badly damaged during the French Revolution and was eventually pulled down in the nineteenth century. His grave can no longer be found. His most devoted pupil, Francesco Melzi, inherited his estate.

Leonardo has been described as one of the first Rosicrucians and one biographer, Vasali, has described him as being of an “heretical state of mind.” This heresy is thought to include his belief that Jesus Christ had a twin brother, Thomas. In his painting The Last Supper, there are what appear to be two almost identical Christ figures. The second figure from the left shows a distinct resemblance to Christ, shown seated in the center and it is suspected that this figure may represent Thomas.

Several of Leonardo’s works are discussed by Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu, Leigh Teabing and other characters in The DaVinci Code.The more important ones are:

The Vitruvian Man

One of the latest appearances of da Vinci’s drawing The Vitruvian Man (and no doubt the most widespread) is on the Italian one euro coin, indicating that the popularity of this symbol is not diminishing. It is also featured on the cover of this book. Leonardo wrote of this drawing himself that:

Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are as follows: that is that 4 fin­gers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height.And 4 cubits make one pace, and 24 palms make a man. The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height. From the roots of his hair to the bottom of his chin is the tenth of a man’s height; from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head is one eighth of his height; from the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the seventh part of the whole man. From tne nipples to the top of the head will be the fourth part of man. The greatest width of the shoulders contains in itself the fourth part of man.From the elbow to the tip of the hand will be the fifth part of a man; and from the elbow to the angle of the armpit will be the eighth part of man. The whole hand will be the tenth part of the man. The distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose and from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is, in each case the same, and like the ear, a third of the face.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. l (of a 2 vol. set in paperback) pp. 182-3, Dover, ISBN 0-486-22572-0.

The Madonna of the Rocks

Dan Brown states that the original commission for the Madonna of the Rocks came from the nuns at the chapel of the Immacolata at the church ofSan Francesco Grande in Milan. It was, in fact, commissioned by monks from that organiza­tion. One of the versions of Madonna of the Rocks is in the Louvre and this is considered to be entirely Leonardo’s work. Experts are not so certain that the other version, at the National Gallery in London, was painted only by him. It has a more “plastic” look to it, which has led to the theory that it was a collaborative effort. This painting not only depicts the Immaculate Conception, but reflects the fact that leg­ ends regarding St. John the Baptist were popular in Florence at that time. The painting is of the infant Jesus meeting John the Baptist for the first time. Both children are trying to escape Herod’s infamous Massacre of the Innocents and John the Baptist is under the protection of Uriel, the angel. In fact, Leonardo had something of a lifetime obsession with John the Baptist. In the original sketches, Uriel is depicted as being very feminine but in the painting itself the angel has a much more androgynous quality.