In what way was Leonardo Da Vinci a Renaissance man?

In this essay I will explore in what way Leonardo Da Vinci was a Renaissance man by defining the term “Renaissance man” itself, looking at his work and life, the prevalent philosophies of the time, and comparing him to other contemporaries who also have been called Renaissance men.

Terms & concepts

The term Renaissance man comes from an ideal developed in Italy during the Renaissance, the Uomo Universale (translated: Universal man) and is expressed well by Leone Battista Alberti’s notion “a man can do all things if he will”. This ideal, which in the Renaissance is closely tied to the rise of humanism (see below), is at its core the belief that people should try to develop their own abilities as much as possible and embrace all kinds of knowledge. (Britannica, 2020)
Another more gender neutral term for Renaissance man is polymath, a term first used in “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton (Murphy, 2014), derived from the Greek “polymathēs” which literally translates to “having learned much”. (“Polymath”, 2023)

Humanist in a Renaissance context refers to the teachers and students of “studia humanitatis”, or humanities. These studies included Latin and Ancient Greek literature, grammar, history, rhetoric, poetry and ethics/moral philosophy and was introduced in addition to the earlier medieval curriculum of trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). (“Renaissance Humanism”, 2023; Burke, 2020) The rise of these additional studies gave way to the ideal that an educated man was to be well rounded and knowledgeable within multiple fields, and often it was seen as good form to be both learned and athletic.

Leonardo Da Vinci, the polymath

Ludwig H. Heydenreich says in his Britannica article on Leonardo that he’s a “painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose skill and intelligence, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal” (2023) which is interesting as Burke argues that Leonardo was in fact not a humanist in the Renaissance sense and that he had described himself as “a man without learning” (omo sanza lettere) in one of his notes. (2020, p.41) Except for his early elementary education in reading, writing and arithmetic he was generally self taught. He keenly observed the world around him and experimented with what he saw, and absorbed information from masters of different disciplines. (Burke, 2020) For example, his extensive knowledge of anatomy came from dissecting bodies that he would observe and meticulously sketch and he would later collaborate with Marcantonio della Torre, a professor of medicine at the University of Pavia and a physician-anatomist on some of these dissections to gain an even deeper understanding. (Heydenreich, 2023)
He was also an avid reader and around 1503 he had some 116 books in his collection whose topics ranged from religion to mathematics to medicine and he endeavoured to teach himself Latin so that he could read medieval manuscripts in their original form. (Cartwright, 2020)
With whatever kind of work he took on, he would draw upon knowledge from both previous and contemporary masters of the crafts and combine their knowledge with his own observations and experiments to refine old techniques and invent new ones.

…and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.” (Vasari, 2009, p.89)
Leonardo’s interests and skills ranged from music, painting, sculpting, engineering, architecture, cartography, and mathematics, and his notes also covered such things as geological and botanical studies in addition to the more known mathematical, anatomical, and mechanical ones. (Heydenreich, 2023; Burke, 2020) He was also known to constantly do chemical experiments with his paints and the preparation of his painting surfaces which suggests a decent grasp of chemistry as well, despite a lot of these experiments seeming to have had less than ideal outcomes. (Burke, 2020)

“Truly marvellous and celestial was Leonardo, the son of Ser Piero da Vinci; and in learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficience, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.” (Vasari, 2009, p.90)
Despite his otherwise overflowing love for Leonardo, Giorgio Vasari describes him as flighty, picking up new areas of study, but dropping them quickly. (Vasari, 2009) This is also shown in his body of work, only 17 surviving paintings can with certainty be attributed to him and several of those are unfinished. (Heydenreich, 2020) Leonardo’s tendency to start but rarely finished was a source of mockery from his contemporaries despite his fame and as Burke notes, the dialogue where a speaker condemns people who ‘are always trying to do things they don’t know about and neglecting what they do know about’ from Castiglione is generally taken to refer to Leonardo. Burke even goes so far as to coin the phrase “Leonardo Syndrome” to refer to the state where polymaths disperses their energies on so many projects that they rarely finish any of them. (2020)

Other Renaissance men of the period

Hailed beside Leonardo as the ideal of a Renaissance man is Leone Battista Alberti, mentioned above, who is also commonly thought be the source of the expression. Alberti was an Italian polymath and Renaissance humanist who counted poet, architect, priest, linguist, philosopher, cryptographer, and author in his skillset.
Other noteworthy contemporary polymaths were Nicolaus Copernicus (mathematician, astronomer, and Catholic canon), Michelangelo (sculptor, painter, architect, and poet), Gallilei (astronomer, physicist, and engineer) and Shakespeare (playwright, poet and actor).
All of these people, except Shakespeare (more on this below), are Renaissance humanists and as such well educated. They have contributed to the sciences and philosophies within several fields, and often to some degree criticised the concurrent world view and learning, pushing for new ways of thinking.
Of all of these, Shakespeare is perhaps closer to Leonardo in that he didn’t have a higher education, as indicated by a printed attack on Shakespeare in his early career, written by the university educated playwright Robert Greene, in which Greene accuses Shakespeare of reaching above his rank and being a “Johannes Factotum”/Jack of all trades which in this context referred to a second-rate tinkerer of the works of others. (“William Shakespeare”, 2023; Schoenbaum, 1987) As we all know about Shakespeare to this day, but not necessarily of Robert Greene, I would say Shakespeare did just fine without that university education that Greene touted so highly.

In conclusion

When talking about a historic individual you have to also understand the society and time said individual lived in to be able to grasp who they were and what they were about. Context is key to full understanding.
The Renaissance with its increased circulation of information via exploration, conquest, and old texts returning to Europe from the Byzantine empire, the invention of printing that brought this information to a larger audience, and the increased wealth that enabled more people to engage with this knowledge, all made for fertile ground for the emerging ideal of the universal man. (Burke, 2020) It’s also important to note that the essence of being a universal-, or learned-, man at the time of the Renaissance was interdisciplinary thinking. (Babich, 2020) Being able to properly study the antique texts again, to reevaluate and recontextualize them, to question, argue and ponder upon them and (re-)integrate the wider view of humanism and nature. It was definitely the start of a big paradigm shift with the Renaissance in many ways being the soft start of, and bleeding into, the Enlightenment era that followed.

Artists and engineers in the Renaissance period were especially prone to being polymaths since as they started to be more widely educated as well, they started breaking down the barriers of communication between scholars, thinkers, and practitioners. (Burke, 2020) Leonardo’s notes are a good example of this, both in terms of him communicating complex ideas in a new way with both visuals and text, making them easier to digest, and by the fact that he has notes about asking other masters for information or help with a certain problem he was working on.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why Leonardo is hailed as a Renaissance man, considering his range of subjects and the impact his studies have had both with his contemporaries and more modern artists, scientists, and engineers. It can definitely be argued that a lot of his observations and the inventions based upon them were ahead of his time as the tools and technology were not quite there to support the scope of his visions.
On the other hand, it could also be argued that he was merely an excellent observer and interdisciplinary thinker who was not afraid to experiment and fail until he figured whatever he was working on out. Or until frustrated, distracted or bored enough to simply abandon the experiment, much to his beneficiaries’ dismay.

In conclusion, Leonardo was definitely a polymath and Renaissance man in terms of the period’s ideals, but he was one very much on his own terms, staying true to his own curiosities and keen observations about the world he lived in.

Reference list

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