I recently delivered a course down in Coker for the WEA about Leonardo da Vinci [1452 – 1519], following a renewed interest in his work after we passed the 500th anniversary of his death. Whilst I have huge admiration for da Vinci’s work, my interest for this course lay in the man and what drove him and so my research began with reading Vasari’s biography on da Vinci written mid 1500s and based on interviews from people who had actually known him. Much to my surprise I realised that da Vinci’s life as an artist was not dissimilar from artists today. In other words, nothing much has changed.
Did you know that da Vinci was born a bastard, was gay, was ambidextrous, a vegetarian and pacifist, which must have been a challenge considering the violent times in which he lived, that he loved horses, his comforts and, above all, beauty? He was a tall, handsome man and legendarily strong. He also had a portfolio career. He worked as an artist, an engineer, an architect, a cartographer, a scientist and an inventor. Was he a man before his time or a genius? Almost certainly. But was he any different from our artists today? I don’t think so.
As a bastard child in the mid 1400s, Da Vinci was not afforded a formal education. Rather, he was ‘home schooled’ by tutors before being apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, a friend of his fathers, after showing a talent for drawing. Verrocchio became a mentor and a friend, and da Vinci continued to live with him even after his apprenticeship had ended and his father had set him up in his own workshop. Effective mentors are worth their weight in gold.
Da Vinci knew he was a talented artist, but he seemed to yearn for acknowledgement of a different kind. During his lifetime he had two significant employers; Duke Ludovico Sforza (1482 – 1499) and Cesare Borgia (1502 – 1503). Both his appointments to these great men was as an engineer, but he didn’t work as such for either. Sforza asked him to paint and sculpt, and Borgia asked him to draw maps to help him win wars. It was only after he left Borgia’s bloodthirsty employ and returned to Florence, setting up a workshop again, that da Vinci started doing what he really wanted to do; a serious enquiry into flight and human anatomy. He recorded his findings in a number of codices, which were tragically never published.
On invitation from the King of France, King Frances I, da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Choux (1516 – 1519). He was in his 60s and had suffered a stroke and was unable to paint anymore. But King Frances I admired da Vinci and wanted to look after the great man in his final years. According to Vasari, da Vinci died in his arms.
What can we learn from da Vinci’s life? For me, it’s reconfirmation that artists are prized for their multi-talented, practical and lateral thinking, but so often are not given due recognition or reward for it. They still struggle to gain respect for who they are and what they do, and above all, they struggle to earn fairly and consistently. In all the National Trust country estates I’ve visited over the years, I’ve never been to one that was bought or built by an artist (and I don’t consider William Morris’ Red House an estate).
The question we need to ask ourselves is, what would our society look like without art or artists? Can you imagine the National Gallery or the Tate Modern consisting of posh offices rather than housing artwork? If that looks scary to you, then ask yourself this; what can you do to support our creative industries? And not tomorrow, but today.