Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, The Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, (1512) | Reale Library, Turin (Italy)


Da Vinci was inserted in a socio-historical context with given circumstances that contributed to the emergence of the renowned artist/thinker we know today

Talking about the Renaissance and not talking about Leonardo da Vinci would be a discrepant error. Perhaps this artist is the one who best summarizes the way in which the worldview of that period worked, in which the archetype of a human being was to be multifaceted.

As we know, work is the founding category of social being, and Leonardo da Vinci playing the role of painter, sculptor, engineer, architect, scientist, among other activities – all of which arose from the fact that Da Vinci was not only an excellent observer of nature, but also a modifier – shows us how material conditions developed in the feudalism-capitalism transition, increasing the potential of human beings. One cannot deny the revolutionary role of art if it is used in such a way as to break with the old world.

Renaissance art acted as a tool of unimaginable utility for the revolutionary bourgeoisie and its conception of the world, creating the idea of ​​genius, the individual, the human being disconnected from divine wills and “representatives of God” on earth. Reproducing the movement of water in a painting, dissecting animals, knowing how the mechanics of tools work, the list is immense, which makes us reflect on the role of human beings in nature, as it was not just by observing nature that we left the pre -history and we arrived at a complex social structure, we observed it and transformed it.

The modification of our material reality is a dialectical process where our consciousness is the reflection of our material and social reality, but not in a crystallized form, it is a reflection that, subsequently, with the continuous emergence of new human needs, new forms emerge of changing reality through work – and with these new objective forms arising from work, new needs arise as well as new conscious elements, and so on. It is absurd reductionism to believe that only the material world influences the field of ideas in a rigid way. I affirm here that our consciousness is secondary in relation to the surrounding reality, but without excluding the fact that consciousness has an important role of mutability in the surrounding reality, otherwise we would be denying dialectical materialism itself in the course of history.

The level of accuracy of our consciousness also comes from the technical progress that social relations have generated. The development of tools that helped in the field of optics certainly contributed to the improvement of certain artistic manifestations. That said, it is worth explaining the enormous contributions made by Islamic thinkers in the medieval period, which were extremely important when they spread throughout Renaissance Europe, from the Hispano-Berber Abbas ibn Firnas (809-887) with his polished stones that were precursors to glasses modern, until the Iraqi polymath Ibn Al-Haitham (965-1040) also known as Alhazém, who demonstrated the dynamics of the functioning of the human eye. These, among many other scholars, have enormously developed the scope of this meaning that is so important to us not only in the artistic field, but in the field of knowledge as a whole. Technical advancement has contributed and continues to contribute to the expansion of our sense organs.

Through work, conscious elements and possibilities for theorizing about the surrounding totality are constructed. Lenin himself had stated that “theory without practice is worthless, practice without theory is blind”, (obviously that Lenin and Da Vinci belong to different fields, but the reasoning is valid), and that was what Leonardo da Vinci did, sought to theorize everything he had absorbed when observing nature from a scientific perspective, a shame that despite the material conditions of that period being more developed than the conditions in the period of the high middle ages, they had not yet developed enough for a batch of Da Vinci's theories were put into practice.

Just like any type of production, art also requires a certain technical development to be carried out harmoniously. Let’s see what L. A. Tckeskiss says: “The relationships between the material side of art and technique are evident: taking, for example, music, we note that its richness and multiple forms can only exist and develop with the existence and evolution of technique. (instruments), because musical instruments are needed for music; This means, in other words, that art itself also requires a certain technique. […] We can, therefore, establish that art, reflecting the life, aspirations and ideas of a certain class, has its existence completely linked to technique and in its form and content depends on the development of social relations and thus also on the evolution of productive forces. Between art and the productive forces it is necessary to go through a complete gradation of several phases: productive forces, production relations, social relations, psychological manifestations and their harmonious expression, then we will arrive at art.”¹

Da Vinci putting his theories into practice was faced with a lot of mistakes and we know this today for the simple fact that we have already put many of his plans into practice, such as flying or diving in deep waters. That said, Leonardo da Vinci's drafts have some obsolete technical structures if we look at them from the perspective of a 21st century engineering individual. And let it be clear that I am not trying to belittle the theoretical works of Leonardo da Vinci, which have very rich contributions, after all, it is the theories that give us guidance on how to act in practice. What I have been trying to maintain is that theories will never be free from technical errors, which must be resolved through practice.

As he himself stated: “Those who are enchanted by practice without science are like helmsmen who enter the ship without helm or compass, never being sure of their destination” – just as Lenin said: “Human practice demonstrates the accuracy of materialist theory of knowledge, said Marx and Engels, describing as 'scholasticism' and 'philosophical subterfuge' the attempts made to resolve the fundamental gnosiological question, without resorting to practice”.²

Vitruvian Man

Study on Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy

Leonardo da Vinci was obsessed with knowledge, a perfectionist who was never completely satisfied with his work, never at rest, even differentiated in the way he wrote, from right to left was how Da Vinci did it. His paintings still cause an immediate shock today and can serve as a tool to explain one of the fundamental laws of dialectics – everything is simultaneously interconnected and at the same time there are elements with their particularities.

Friedrich Engels in his work Anti-Duhring states: “For the metaphysician, things and their ideal portraits, concepts, constitute isolated objects of investigation, to be analyzed one after the other and one without the other – solid, petrified objects, given once and for all. He thinks only through unmediated antagonisms: he says yes, yes, no, no, and anything beyond that is evil. For him, a thing either exists or does not exist: nor can a thing simultaneously be itself and another thing. Positive and negative exclude each other absolutely; cause and effect equally meet in a petrified antagonism. At first glance, this way of thinking seems extremely plausible to us, because it is so-called common sense. But common sense, such a respectable companion when it finds itself in the homely territory of its four walls, begins to experience admirable adventures as soon as it dares to enter the vast world of research; and the metaphysical conception, however justified and even necessary it may be in such vast fields, which expand according to the nature of the object, sooner or later encounters some barrier, beyond which it becomes unilateral, narrow-minded and abstract, losing He finds himself in insoluble contradictions, because in the face of individual things he forgets the connection between them, in the face of the being of these things he forgets their becoming and in the face of their rest he forgets their movement, because he sees no bush in so many trees. […] every organic being, at every moment, is the same and is not the same; at every moment he processes substances brought to him from outside and excretes others; every moment cells in your body die and new ones form; After a more or less long period, all the substances in this body were completely renewed, replaced by other atoms of these substances, in such a way that every organized being is always the same and yet always different. On a more precise examination, we also discover that the two poles of an antagonism, as positive and negative, are as inseparable from each other as they are opposite to each other, and that, despite all their antagonistic character, they interpenetrate each other; we also discover that cause and effect are representations that only have validity as such when applied to the individual case in its universal connection, in cause causes and effects continually exchange their position, and what is now and here is an effect then and there becomes a cause, and vice versa.”³

In a period in which art became a commodity (financially stimulated by the new rising class, the bourgeoisie, as a way of acquiring prestige and self-promotion), Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps one of the first to manage to organically unify all the elements into one painting, all the result of his exaggerated pragmatism, always questioning, always experimenting, always developing. Made with oil, a technique developed in the Netherlands, Leonardo da Vinci achieved through another technique, smoky, a new perspective on the contours where there were no longer fixed lines determining where one element ends and where another begins, a new impactful and Above all, enigmaticism began there, where the totality in the paintings was finally assuming a genuinely homogeneous character, and consequently, making what had previously been produced obsolete.

At work The last supper (made between 1495 and 1498 in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Monastery, in Milan), Da Vinci achieves an unparalleled symmetry, where the horizon line, point of view, vanishing point and lines of flight, are harmoniously converging towards the central figure of Jesus Christ.

Da Vinci used and abused his rich mathematical knowledge, nourishing his works with the geometric principles necessary to channel the central image of the work in the viewer. Body language was very important to Da Vinci, in The last supper we see the exact moment when Jesus states that there is a traitor among them, as soon as the apostles' posture transmits to us a connection with the psyche of their characters, we notice the astonishment, the indignation, and perplexity, the fear, the anguish.

The smoky technique also allowed each observer to have a distinct, more vigorous interpretation of a work of art, a clear example of this would be his best-known work, the Mona Lisa, where it is possible to notice the spectrum of moods not only for different individuals , but the same person observing the work at different times will notice an alternation of mood.

Before concluding, I emphasize again, it would be useless if Leonardo da Vinci, with his surgical motor coordination, was born in a place where society was not sufficiently developed to put some of his works into practice. His “gifts” would be worthless if he had been born in the High Middle Ages, for example. Feudal Europe and its conception of the world limited to theological-feudal spheres would also form a Leonardo da Vinci limited to these spheres, as this was the social context of the period. The artistic works lacking technical foreshortening and loaded with symbolism arising from the “supersensible world” narrated by the Catholic Church would also be the attributes of a medieval Da Vinci.

It's worth remembering that we wouldn't even know his name, after all, the concept of genius emerged in the Renaissance period, and in this hypothetical scenario he was given the trivial anonymity of the Middle Ages. I am not trying to develop idealistic speculations here, but in other words, it would be based on the materiality of the period – molded to its contents and forms present in the arts, which would not fit its complex works. If somehow in this hypothetical scenario he still conceived the same batch of technical works that he would only give rise to in the Renaissance period, he would be neglected by social structures due to the fact that he was not following the ideological path of the ruling class of the period.

Leonardo da Vinci was inserted in a socio-historical context with given circumstances that contributed to the emergence of the renowned artist/thinker that we know today, a context that must be examined in its entirety, each sphere which makes up this totality, each element with its particularities and their action on the whole.

As Walter Benjamin stated: “Over long historical periods, the entire mode of existence of human societies is transformed, and with it their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the means by which it is carried out – is not only conditioned by nature, but also by history”.4 Having said that, we can say that Leonardo da Vinci was not a man ahead of his time, it is the opposite, he was above all a man of his time.

Oscar Xavier works as an administrative assistant for companies.


¹ LA Tckeskiss, Historical Materialism in 14 lessons.

² Vladimir Lenin, Materialism and Empiricism.

³ Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring.

4 Walter Benjamin, Aesthetics and sociology of art.

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