Hagiography without context – how not to celebrate a historical figure

This is not so much a blog post as a brief comment. Today marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the Renaissance artist-engineer Leonardo da Vinci. This of course has led to a massive bun fight in the form celebrations not just today but throughout the entire year–exhibitions, articles, blog posts, etc., etc. The one thing that has been missing in almost all of the articles, posts, broadcasts and so on that I have come across up till now has been context. We get told that Leonardo was unique, a genius, one of a kind, a visionary, an amazing polymath, a man of the future and all of the verbal hyperbole that you can think of but in almost all cases there is absolutely no context presented for his life and work.


Francesco Melzi – Portrait of Leonardo Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I said above, and also in an earlier blog post, Leonardo was a Renaissance artist-engineer and his whole life and the wide spread of activities are actually characteristic for the carrier profile of a typical artist-engineer. He was not as unique in that sense as these hagiographic portraits without context present him. He is one of a crowd, a man of his times not some sort of freak or anomaly beamed back from the future into the fifteenth century. There are plenty of other polymath Renaissance artist-engineers, who were his predecessors and role models, as well as his contemporaries. To quote Leonardo da Vinci: The Man Behind the Myth on Google Arts & Culture, one of the better articles:

The way that Renaissance knowledge brought together many different disciplines and studies cannot be applied to modern times. In the Renaissance, Leonardo was one of many polymaths – perhaps the best, together with humanists like Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco di Giorgio Martini. 

Saying this does not diminish his stature. Whilst one of many Leonardo was primus inter pars, a man whose undeniably immense talents let him delve deeper, develop further and express better than any other of the Renaissance artist-engineers. However, if you really wish to understand and appreciate Leonard you can only really do so if you view him embedded in the historical context in which he lived and worked.

A good example of this is the notorious Vitruvian Man drawing by Leonardo, which at least two sources that I have read in the last few days claimed originated with Leonardo.


In fact, as I demonstrated in an earlier post, Vitruvian Man was an iconic image of the Renaissance artist-engineer milieu well before Leonardo produced his version of it. However, his version is superior to all the others.

An exception to the hagiographic posturing being presented on Leonardo is today’s essay on Thinking 3D about Leonardo’s anatomical drawings by Monica Azzolini, Leonardo Inside Out, which embeds his efforts in the medical history of the time. Do yourself a favour and read how to do it properly. Also readable is the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science essay Leonardo da Vinci’s Intellectual Cosmos: Exhibitions with Museo Galileo and Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, which features a reconstruction of Leonardo’s library and so his rich and diverse sources.


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Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

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