|A play based on Moll—the first performance artist?|
"There's Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life.
Whoever has not got a good father should procure one." —Friedrich NietzscheOur early experiences shape our character and the way our lives unfold, and a poor start can, of course, blight a person's prospects forever. But there is a more mysterious path that leads from truly dreadful beginnings to quite extraordinary achievement. As the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies put it: “A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”
Some of the most famous people in history had childhoods that were wrecked by a dead, absent, or impossible father. We have chosen eight, but the list could have been twenty times as long. Once you start to notice, they sprout up everywhere: Confucius, Augustus Caesar, Michelangelo, Peter the Great, John Donne, Handel, Balzac, Nietzsche, Darwin, Jung, Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley—all of them victims of what psychologists would call inappropriate parenting.
Leonardo's response was to withdraw into a private world of observation and invention. The key to understanding his genius isn't in his paintings—extraordinary and groundbreaking though they are—but in his notebooks. In these thirteen thousand pages of notes, sketches, diagrams, philosophical observations, and lists, we have one of the most complete records of the inner workings of a human mind ever committed to paper. Leonardo's curiosity was relentless. He literally took apart the world around him to see how it worked and left a paper trail of the process. This was firsthand research: He had to see things for himself, whatever that meant. He personally dissected more than thirty human corpses in his life time, even though it was a serious criminal offense. This wasn't motivated by any medical agenda: He just wanted to improve the accuracy of his drawing and deepen his understanding of how the body worked (he ridiculed other artists' depictions of human flesh, saying they looked like “sacks of nuts”). Out of the notebooks flowed a succession of inventions, some fantastical but others entirely practical: the first “tank,” the first parachute, a giant siege crossbow, a crane for emptying ditches, the very first mixer tap for a bath, folding furniture, an Aqua-Lung, an automatic drum, automatically opening and closing doors, a sequin maker, and smaller devices for making spaghetti, sharpening knives, slicing eggs, and pressing garlic. It was here, too, that Leonardo recorded his remarkable insights into the natural world: He was the first to notice how counting tree rings gave the age of the tree and he could explain why the sky was blue three hundred years before Lord Rayleigh discovered molecular scattering.
|Notebook on geometry and mechanics.|
It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Most of us picture him as he appears in the one authenticated self-portrait: a sixty-year-old, bald, and bearded sage, a loner. But the young Leonardo was something quite different. His contemporary, the biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), was unambiguous: He was a man “of physical beauty beyond compare.” And that wasn't all, he was freakishly strong: "There is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might. With his right hand he could twist an iron horseshoe as if it were made of lead." And a charmer: "In his liberality, he welcomed and gave food to any friend, rich or poor . . . his speech could bend in any direction the most obdurate of wills."
But cross him and you'd have to deal with his “terrible strength in argument, sustained by intelligence and memory.” This is Leonardo, the gay Florentine about town, who was anonymously accused (and acquitted) of sodomy, whose teenage pupil and companion was known as Salai (“limb of Satan”), the precocious artist whose collection of pornographic drawings was eventually stolen from the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle, according to the art critic Brian Sewell, by a distinguished German art critic in a Sherlock Holmes cloak: There is no doubt that the drawings were a considerable embarrassment, and I think everyone was very relieved to find that they'd gone.
Leonardo was brilliant, but he was not infallible. He didn't invent scissors, the helicopter, or the telescope, as is frequently claimed. He was very bad at math—he only mastered basic geometry and his arithmetic was often wrong. Many of his observations haven't stood the test of time: He thought the moon's surface was covered by water, which was why it reflected light from the sun; that the salamander had no digestive organs but survived by eating fire; and that it was a good idea to paint his most ambitious painting, The Last Supper, directly onto dry plaster (it wasn't; what you see today is practically all the work of restorers).
|Francois I swooped in when Leonardo was temporarily sans patron and gleefully carried him off to France, giving him carte blanche to create what he liked. The French King was one of the greatest collectors and patrons of his era (his legacy can be appreciated at the Louvre, Fontainbleu, and many other locations). I recommend Rosamond Bernier's Metropolitan Museum lecture on Francois ("Taste at the Top") for some expert background on this era and some staggering images of the art the unparalleled patron commissioned and collected.|
Leonardo died in France at the age of sixty-seven. The legend has it that his new patron, King Francis I, sat by his bedside, cradling his head as he lay dying. It's tempting to see this symbolically as the abandoned child finally getting the parental love he never had as a boy. But whatever he lacked, he had more than made up for it. As the king said: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo.”