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COMMENTARY: Leonardo da Vinci is humanity’s greatest gift

['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']
['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']

Did You Know with Alan Walter

Two years ago, a depiction of Christ as ‘Saviour of the World’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), sold for US$450 million, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold at auction; almost twice as costly as the previous record holder. The painting is now said to be owned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

I believe that the price reflects a growing realisation that Leonardo is unmatched as the most gifted human being ever to have lived. And that this will further enhance the value of other examples of his artistic output; especially since the surviving body of his work is slim and mainly held in the worlds leading museums. Only about 15 to 20 existing paintings are attributed to him, with two of them -the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper" - being among the most famous works of art in the world.

As well as dominating the artistic scene in the 15th century, Leonardo, an illegitimate child with no formal education, left his mark in the world of science and engineering. His broad range of interest included mathematics, engineering, military hardware, flying machines, anatomy, surgery, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, architecture, and cartography.

He lived in an age when medical practices were crude, and knowledge was sparse. Surgery was not taught in most universities, and ignorant barbers instead wielded the knife, being called into cases by physicians. These jacks-of-all-trades would also extract teeth in addition to cutting hair, applying leeches for bloodletting, and performing embalming.

It was in this environment that Leonardo produced detailed anatomical drawings that survive to this day, studying dismembered bodies to increase the knowledge base of the medical profession. Leonardo's dissections and documentation of the human brain and skull, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels helped to describe the physiology and mechanics of movement for the first time.

Leonardo was also revered for his technological ingenuity. In detailed drawings he conceptualized flying machines, helicopters and armoured fighting vehicles. He also designed triangular-shaped bastions, structures that appeared two centuries later in military fortifications built by the French at Louisburg and Annapolis Royal, which provided protection for the soldiers inside the fortress to defend the entrances.He also made major contributions to the future veterinary profession dissecting and drawing the anatomy of many animals, including horses, cows, birds, monkeys, bears, and frogs, and comparing in his drawings their anatomical structure with that of humans. All this work carried out over five hundred years ago while taking time out from his artistic endeavours.

For a long time, people did not realize the wealth of information that Leonardo had left behind. More than his paintings, his brilliance was hidden in the textbooks that he filled. When they came to light they included beautiful illustrations and notes that no one could read. Others finally figured out that Leonardo was writing the notes backwards. He did not want people to pry into his work and easily read them.

When people could read the notebooks, they were amazed at his intricate explanations such as that of a bird’s flight leading to the design for a lighter-than-air vehicle. There were designs of a machine that we now know as bicycle. He even designed a forerunner of a parachute.

He provided a courageous example to future geniuses such as Galileo (1564 – 1642) the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, who was tried by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, for professing that the Earth was not the center of the universe based on his work with his “Galilean” telescope, and for that blasphemy he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Leonardo's fame within his own lifetime was such that Francis I, the King of France supported him in his old age and held him in his arms as he died.

Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth century Italian biographer concluded his chapter on Leonardo with the following words:

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill.”

Writers continue to hail him as a genius while speculating about his private life, including what one so endowed actually believed in, other than devotion to his life’s work.

Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at alanwalter@eastlink.ca.

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