LEONARDO DA VINCI, “A MIND IN MOTION”, AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY
In having frequently found occasion to visit London’s art galleries and witnessed the many distinctions that may be perceived to occur between the stylistic flourishes which serve to discern the various disciplines of different draftsmen, I became fascinated with the notion of artistic genius, a subtext that, in blessing the superficiality to which paintings inextricably ascribe with a hidden depth that can successfully elude common understanding, may be proven to grant contemporary criticism an axis of contention that permits grounds for speculation upon different attitudes towards human awareness.
Naturally, in recognizing that many paintings presently displayed within public art galleries hail from a different epoch to my own, a term beneath which the notion of genius can further exceed the platitudes of contemporary understanding in it’s attempts to describe the time frame that once served to inspire it, a large of amount of academic study has been devoted to paintings that have, despite antiquity, perceptibly retained an intellectually abstract premium, a perspective which may, in some small part, grant an insight into both how the world was once viewed and what, within the spectrum of human industry, mankind may have been capable of achieving as it languished precariously upon it’s surface.
Having been born in the late fifteenth century as the architecturally conceived engine of what was later to become the European parliament gradually mustered impetus against a crusader ethic that had, in suffering to both poor finance and the Black Death, yet successfully managed to enter the Mediterranean basin, “Leonardo Da Vinci” is perhaps the best known artist to which the term genius has, within recent years, been applied, a premium beneath which his work represents both the finest example of the craftsmanship of it’s era and a testament to the extensive reserve of human ingenuity invested in what was ultimately to become modern Europe.
The observation that “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” work was, in having been beautifully realized also blessed with an enviable degree of intellectual concision that retained a purity of soul to which the trivial pedantry of human thought seldom ascribes served, in this manner, to place the artist’s paintings at the apex of scholarly endeavor devoted to clerical research, an aegis beneath which his unique insights into medieval science have, over many years, come to represent a benchmark against which to compare the constituent elements of human intelligence throughout the various stages of it’s evolution.
Having learned something of “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” creative prowess whilst engaged in curricular study at school, a term beneath which the great Italian polymath was, owing to my ignorance in such matters, incidentally interpreted by me to have been a genius upon the strength of his portraiture alone, I was naturally delighted to discover that the “British Library” in King’s Cross was in the process of staging a show devoted to the display of an extensive collection of scientific documents that had, in conjunction with the artist’s better known works, notably been written by him whilst commissioned as a military hydraulic engineer by “Cesare Borgia” the Captain General of the Italian Papal army.
Ostensibly held to commemorate the quincentenary of “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” death, a pretext beneath which three of the artist’s codices devoted to the observation of terrestrial physics had been compiled together for display purposes, “the British Library’s” current exhibition promised, alongside providing a fascinating overview of fifteenth century science, to grant a degree of insight into the mind of perhaps one of it’s greatest proponents.
Swiftly making headway across town to view the show, a journey which, in presenting me with an opportunity to speculate upon the manner in which mathematics may be applied to perspective as I stared vacantly out across the many irregularities that constitute London’s urban scheme from the window of my train, incidentally gave me cause to reflect upon the architectural work of the Florentine builder “Fillipo Brunelleschi” and the academic mandate beneath which he must presumably once have labored in efforts to achieve the measurements for his structures, I hastily disembarked at “King’s Cross” station and, doffing my cap at the many vendors of Polish food who had circumstantially accumulated at it’s girth, made forth towards the British Library.
Arriving at the door of the archive earlier than expected, a lapse which unexpectedly presented me with an opportunity to stroll at leisure around “Michael Takeo Magruder’s” “Imaginary Cities” art installation within it’s entrance hall, I eventually managed to purchase a ticket for the “Leonardo Da Vinci” exhibition and hesitantly passed into the display hall’s sanctum.
Unlike most of the shows that I have found occasion to investigate in recent years the series of displays devoted to “Leonardo Da Vinci” were confined to a single room neatly situated beside the sprawling wonder cabinet of the “Making Your Mark” exhibition that is also presently being held at the library, a chamber which, in being lustrously illuminated with green strip lamps skirting it’s walls at ground level behind a thin film of semi-permeable fabric, served to bless the event’s proceedings with a subdued incandescence.
Compiled from three primary codices, the “Codex Arundel”, which, in having once been owned by “Thomas Howard The Fourteenth Earl Of Arundel”, was recorded to have been acquired by England’s Royal Society in the seventeenth century, the “Codex Forster II”, a pocket book which, in having once been owned by the private collector “John Forster”, was bequeathed to Kensington’s “Victoria and Albert Museum” during the nineteenth century and the “Codex Leicester”, a series of manuscripts which in, having initially been owned by “Thomas Coke, The First Earl Of Leicester”, were notably bought by the computer software entrepreneur “Bill Gates” in 1994, the British Library’s exhibition represented a relatively comprehensive overview of the scant amount of material which yet remains of the artist’s work.
Originally recorded to have served as a constituent element in a corpus of twenty notebooks drafted by “Leonardo Da Vinci” throughout his lifetime many of which were notably lost alongside an amount of church material during the religious upheavals the sixteenth century, the three codices displayed at the British library nonetheless served to grant a fair degree of insight into the peculiarly beautiful manner in which the artist chose to convey the many aspects of natural science that once inspired his intrigue.
Upon entering the exhibition hall and being confronted by a pencil sketch describing a number of weathered men of Italian extraction drawn by the artist, the first thing that I noticed was the linear precision of “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” writing, a mastery of calligraphy which, in presumably having been applied to paper with a quill stylus and being incorporated into all manner of literary techniques including codification, encryption, mirror writing and illustration, inferred that he had treated his written work in much the same manner that he had his paintings, carefully sculpting each letter with a delicacy that would not look out of place as a typeface on a modern word processor.
The first series of documents on display at the library were, in being derived from the “Codex Arundel”, primarily devoted to “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” observations upon the movement of fluids, a theme which, in relating to his period of employ as a “master of water” by the Florentine government, included a number of sketches drafted in red chalk of the river “Arno” in Florence alongside a series of tracts comparing the destructive ability of water to break arches and cause fissures in walls against it’s propensity to retain a suppleness that would shame art, a sphere of interests that, in further studying the movement of aquatic animals, concluded with a series of designs for inventions devoted to both measuring the velocity of liquid and enabling men to breath beneath it’s surface, mechanisms that, in many instances were notable for preceding modern devices of a similar contrivance by many years.
In conjunction with his observations relating to the physiognomy of marine creatures, “Leonardo Da Vinci” was also witnessed to have espoused an interest in the incidental symmetries which occurred in semi organic structures such as conch shells and more specifically, the flight of birds, a subject that, in inspiring him to examine both the center of gravity and musculature of a number of avian species, he was further renowned for pursuing in a treatise devoted uniquely to such things.
Perhaps through association with his observations pertaining to the movement of water, “Leonardo Da Vinci” was noted to have devised a set of theories relating to the motion of ripples, waves, eddies and bubbles, a pretext which, in colluding with his better known ideas relating to optics, represented a fairly lucid appreciation of the varying grades of invisible force that may be ascribed to spatial environments, a tenet confirmed with a number of diagrams sketched by the artist that, in describing the operative mechanism of woodwind instruments, dwelt upon the movement of both air and smoke through valves.
Being renowned for having disavowed formal erudition in favor of direct observation, “Leonardo Da Vinci” was nonetheless perceived to have been influenced by a number of Greek ideas throughout his life time, notably those pertaining to “antiperistasis” or the creation of kinetic force through the imbalance of static objects, a school of thought which, in maintaining as it’s objective, the manifestation of perpetual motion through the employ of cleverly devised lop sided mechanisms such as fulcrums and counterbalanced wheels, was noted to have appeared repeatedly in the artist’s work.
Including within it’s compass a number of entries made by other writers covering topics as diverse as the inventory of shopping lists for public feasts, monetary transactions, details relating to the admission of new pupils into the artist’s college and extracts from contemporary books of the era, the “Codex Arundel”, was although comparatively disparate in structural terms, nonetheless witnessed to present a fascinatingly diverse account of Florentine culture at the turn of the fifteenth century.
The second series of documents on display had been extracted from the “Codex Forster II”, a pocket book, that, in having been written both backwards and from right to left in the manner of far Eastern script, was observed to have added to the cursory descriptions of the “River Arno” presented in the first codex with references to the manner in which heavenly events such as the lunar cycle may be perceived to affect terrestrial tides, a pretext beneath which a series of investigations relating to the illumination of the moon at night with solar light was also noted to have been undertaken by the artist.
Containing a series of calculations measuring the relative density and weight of earth, water, air and fire, a canon of elements that, in betokening association with the four humors of Roman physics, served to qualify a number of references made by the artist to the world as a living being that, in existing replete with a definite center much like an egg or an unborn child, saw fit to mark it’s seasonal calendar with geological erosion, the “Codex Forster II” began to assume within my mind, the dimensions of a complete cosmogony, a universal thesis which, in covering themes of both a subjective and galactic persuasion, sought to capture every aspect of both natural science and human consciousness within it’s scheme.
The third and most systematically finished collection of documents placed upon display were derived from “The Codex Leicester”, a note book which, in having been unbound at some immemorial date to form eighteen separate sheets of parchment, again referred back to “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” employment as an hydraulic engineer by the Italian army, an investigation that, in including studies of both buoyancy and terrestrial gravity within it’s compass, offered further speculation upon how the circulation of water may, with the assistance of siphons and dams be permitted reign to exert an aqueous gravity or slip stream of it’s own, a pretext beneath which the artist was coincidentally noted to present an amount of evidence disputing the occurrence of the great deluge during the biblical era.
Covering many of the themes relating to the reflection of sunlight in the night sky which were apparent in the detail of the other codices on display, “the Codex Leicester” seemed, in terms of both it’s finish and it’s date, to have represented a conclusion to many of the artist’s previous observations relating to the natural world, a term beneath which, in having clarified the various schools of conjecture that “Leonardo Da Vinci” was compelled to investigate throughout his youth, it seemed to consolidate the essence of the artist’s attitude towards physical science.
The final selection of displays on show at the Library was a transcription of the three codices placed before investigation on three respective plasma screen monitors, a format that, in allowing people to scroll down the text of the original documents with touch screen technology, directly translated “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” script into an intelligible form, granting a degree of insight into the deductive processes that had been invested in their formulation.
Reading carefully through the script as presented, I was, whether as a result of interpretative embellishment or not, drawn to the conclusion that “Leonardo Da Vinci” was a highly articulate man who, in having trained his eye upon the vast catalog of incongruous minutiae that the natural world may harbor, was, in the manner of a modern police detective, capable of formulating rational deductions to which both proofs and measurements could be applied, a process of confirmation that, after having validated it’s claims, could effectively harness nature with any one of a number of mechanical contraptions designed to this effect.
Whether or not the attitude conveyed in such documentation was the result of “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” innate fascination with physical science or a cultural prerequisite decanted, by way of civil employment, through the architectural heritage of Florence is uncertain, for the artist was, despite prodigious talent, undoubtedly a product of his era, an academic of similar extraction to those which presently exist within the twenty first century.
Maybe, in this respect, there could be truth in the maxim that a draftsman’s soul or innate gift lies within his art rather than his science and perhaps, in retrospect, this is best way to distinguish “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” peculiar genius, to pronounce otherwise being akin to academic incest, an act of constitutional self aggrandizement that reflects badly on a governing authority’s reluctance to advance ideas.
Having spent some minutes poring over the computer transcripts of “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” work, I gradually turned to leave, tracing file back towards the library’s foyer and out onto the plaza which served to bare it’s flank before seasonal encroachment, my mind singing with thoughts of Venetian canals, Stavropegial monasteries and the malt pots of old masters as I swiftly checked my bearings and crossed safely towards “St. Pancras” station for my journey home.
Running until the eighth of September 2019, the “Leonardo Da Vinci, A Mind In Motion” exhibition at the British Library is, for those interested in art, perhaps one of the most important examples of it’s type presently being staged in London, it is, in fact, difficult to conceive of art without “Leonardo Da Vinci”, he is the oldest of old masters and the first proponent of what was, in distinction to episcopal practice, to become the classical tradition, examples of his work are among the most highly prized historical artifacts on earth and retain a contemporary appeal unique to themselves, factors which ultimately contribute towards making the British Library’s current show an ideal venue to attend with children, friends or even alone in a purely academic capacity.
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