Food for the Soul: da Vinci Part 2 – Milan

Leonardo is the perfect symbol both of the Renaissance and the modern man: complete, versatile, creative and future oriented“- Dr. Claudio Salsi, Director of Conservation of the Sforza Castle, Milan

By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout

Our year-long fascination with Leonardo’s legacy continues, fueled by various European exhibitions such as a celebration of his scientific achievements in Milan – a city where he spent his most productive two decades of his life, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural life of the region.

While the world at large recognizes him mostly as an artist, Leonardo considered himself more of an engineer and inventor than a painter. He just happened to draw and paint better than any of his contemporaries. There is a famous, and possibly apocryphal, story that after a teenage apprentice Leonardo painted an angel in Verrocchio’s picture The Baptism of Christ, that angel was so good that his master has never touched a paintbrush again.

The angel on the left is by Leonardo.
Andrea Verrocchio and Leonardo, The Baptism of Christ at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Da Vinci’s scientific side of his life is even more out of the ordinary. He was so fascinated with technology and science while living in a thoroughly pre-technological era of simple wood and metal machines, powered by water or a horse. For us, brought up in the world made of artificial substances (plastics, alloys), constant sounds of machines (vehicles, power tools, sound systems, generators, sensors etc.) and the invisible world of convenience (electricity, digital communications, maglev trains), Leonardo’s world is that of unimaginable physicality and simplicity. And yet his mind would rise over these wood and cloth surroundings to ideas that involved flying, deep sea diving, or modern surgery. His thought processes towered over those of his contemporaries as well as thinkers who came for centuries after him.

Heart and blood vessels by Leonardo da Vinci. Codex Atlanticus, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is a collective loss to mankind that practically none of his scientific inventions and discoveries have been put to use during his lifetime; some of them we not re-discovered until hundreds of years later. For example, as the 15th century medical drawings can prove, the knowledge of female reproductive system was extremely sketchy at the time and not until late 19th century it approached the accuracy and knowledge of Leonardo’s studies.

The list of Leonardo’s discoveries and inventions that were centuries ahead of its time is long: anatomical discoveries like the functioning of an aortic valve (not properly researched until 1960’s), the mechanics of a bird flight (not understood until 17th c. when Newton and Bernoulli formulated their physics laws), and his versions of transportation devices – a bicycle, a tank and a submarine that were only successfully produced in the 19-20th c. Leonardo did not publish anything – not his botanical or engineering studies, not his ideas for inventions, and none of his absolutely accurate anatomical drawings. His arrest and a trial in his youth may have been a cause of his subsequent lifetime secrecy, or perhaps this was because he was passionate about scientific research but indifferent to the accolades that would result from his discoveries. You could say his attitude was almost a reverse of what happens in the modern scientific world if you take for example at the current Theranos affair. In any case, this feels such a pity. Imagine the progress of medicine if his absolutely correct research into heart structure and blood flow would be available in the 16th century instead of the mid-20th?

The famous art museum and library in Milano, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, is currently holding a year-long display of Leonardo’s notebook called Codex Atlanticus, a collection of over 1000 pages filled with technological drawings, out of which the museum selected 46 sheets of the most beautiful and interesting examples of his research. Four consecutive exhibitions detail his drawing methods and his studies in architecture and science.

The current presentation is open till June 16 and it centers on his studies of civil engineering projects: hydraulics, textile machines, punching machines etc. Looking at these pages you get a glimpse into a mind that wanders in all directions. There is a charming page where Leonardo drew – very accurately – a map of southern Europe with Italy drawn in great detail, Spain and France (England has been cut out by someone from this page and only a rectangle of a white paper remains). At the same page there is a small drawing of a flying machine. Would he perhaps be thinking of flying far, far way and already mapping the course? There are hundreds of incredibly precise drawings of all the elements that for a new textile machine or every cog and gear for a new hydraulic press that would cut down on the manual labor. He does not only invent – he is spending a lot of energy on improving things, automating the process or the size of the machine.

Just opposite the most venerated opera building of Teatro della Scala, there is a statue of Leonardo, wearing his trademark beard, a beret and a long cape, surrounded by four of his pupils. The Milanese have an affectionate nickname for this statue of the master and his four pupils (they call it “one and four” – referring to a bottle and four glasses which is a common way of ordering wine for the table). For the Milanese, Leonardo is still here, a local guy, so to speak. The Sforza Castle is opening this May to the public a newly restored bedroom decorated by Leonardo for his patron Ludovico Sforza. The restoration undertaken to remove salts that threatened the painting has also led to some new discoveries: “To our greater surprise, we verified that there was a band of 7 to 14 layers of lime – two meters high – which had never been removed, and that underneath there were the drawings traced by Leonardo to prepare his composition” says Dr. Salsi, the Chief Conservator of the Sforza castle.

Restored ceiling decoration by Leonardo in Sala delle Asse in Sforza Castle.
Photo image: courtesy of the Sforza Castle

Milan is also home to the most famous of da Vinci’s frescos, The Last Supper, that he painted at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie for the monks’ dining hall. The artist could not refrain from experimenting and instead of using a traditional fresco technique of mixing pigments with wet plaster, he used slowly drying tempera paints. It allowed him to stretch the process of painting to three years but the paint started flaking off within his lifetime. On the opposite wall there is a fresco painted by the local Milanese artist Giovanni Donato da Montorfano – he took only a year to paint it and the colors are perfectly preserved but… the picture feels artificial, ordinary and lifeless when compared to the damaged and barely visible Leonardo’s fresco. The Last Supper portrays real people – agitated, upset or disbelieving when they hear the news that there is a traitor amongst them.

Next to the church there is a small vineyard that was given to Leonardo by Sforza as payment for his services and that was opened to public to celebrate the most famous Milanese on the occasion of the universal exposition Expo 2015. Today the vineyard is a public space where you can wander around and even have a glass of wine from the same grapes that Leonardo used to drink. Talk of a continuous tradition for 500 years! Da Vinci’s principal years of living in Milan fall between 1482-1500 but if you wander around the city, there are still so many traces of his work, his research and his life.

Milan is experiencing a transformation from a city designed for business and industry into a prime tourist destination. While the popular cultural destinations of Florence and Venice are groaning under the assault of world travelers, Milano is becoming the way to enjoy both the highlights of European history and the modern, fashionable city without the crush and rush of other beautiful Italian destinations.

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