Creating Leonardo: Commemorating 500 Years of Leonardo’s Legacy

In 1519 Leonardo da Vinci died in France and a myth was born. The mythologized Leonardo is the quintessential “Renaissance man” whose paintings and drawings inspire and whose inventions still fascinate us. The historical Leonardo is a uniquely appealing window into the society and culture of Renaissance Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci’s achievements continue to amaze us, even after 500 years: iconic images like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man; a remarkable range of artistic and scientific drawings; and inventions far ahead of their time. His notebooks go beyond the writings of other artists of his era, in recording his observations on the world of nature and man. His intense curiosity about “how things work” led to ground-breaking creations: from studies of plants and mountains, to comparisons of the motion of hair and water, to renderings of the human form, based on dissections. His innate abilities were shaped by his unusual early self-education, followed by his fortunate apprenticeship to Verrocchio, the most accomplished painter and sculptor in Florence. Leonardo worked for a variety of patrons, each affecting his work by supporting different sides of his talent. Join Humanities West in exploring Leonardo’s vast achievement and his interaction with the world that shaped him.

With support from the Stanford Department of History and the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies; the Stanford Humanities Center; the Italian Cultural Institute; the UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies; and the Leonardo da Vinci Society.

Friday, February 22, 2019 | 7:30 – 9:30 pm

Introduction / Paula Findlen (History, Stanford)

Leonardo and the “Beloved Ladies”: Science and Poetry / Martin Kemp (History of Art, Oxford). Leonardo’s fervent and sometimes spurious arguments against poetry in his “comparison of the arts” indicate how seriously he took poets as direct rivals, not least in a court context. His library was well stocked with poetry. Leonardo’s innovations in the portrayal of women in his paintings of Ginevra de’ Benci, Cecilia Galleranti, Lucrezia Crivelli and Lisa del Giocondo are in profound dialogue with the poetic conventions of the “beloved ladies” —who were the stock subject of Italian poetry from Dante onwards. Leonardo’s accumulative aim was to surpass the poets. The theme will be illustrated by dramatic readings from Italian poetry (in translation), ranging from the giants to lesser known court poets who wrote specifically about Leonardo. Featuring Bay Area actor James Carpenter in a dramatic reading.

Performance: Leonardo-Inspired Music Clerestory, Introduced by Clifford (Kip) Cranna (Dramaturg, San Francisco Opera). The men’s classical vocal ensemble Clerestory performs a program of a cappella music inspired by Leonardo. From masterworks by the great Italian cathedral composers of his time, to meditations on the Last Supper, to inventive tributes like Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, we’ll hear how Da Vinci inspired—and perhaps was inspired by—the resonant sound of echoing choirs.


Introduction / Paula Findlen (History, Stanford)

Leonardo’s Library:  The World of a Renaissance Reader Paula Findlen (History, Stanford). Leonardo was a lifelong learner, inveterate note-taker, and writer with an uneven and highly self-directed education. He lived in a world in which Gutenberg’s printing press, created shortly before his birth, had begun to transform the nature of the book but manuscripts still mattered a great deal. Early in life, Leonardo owned very few books, but over time his collection grew until he had his own library, in addition to books he borrowed from others. Throughout his life, Leonardo encountered many different kinds of learning; the diversity of his interests led him to read and think broadly. His library is a key to how he interacted with and learned from his world.

Leonardo’s Knot Caroline Cocciardi  (Independent Scholar). Humanities West  gets all tied up in the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death by asking: What do all of da Vinci’s paintings have in common? Caroline Cocciardi answers that question by exploring da Vinci’s passion for knots and mathematics. She traces da Vinci’s evolution from traditional knots (aesthetically appealing and ornamental) to mathematical knots (patterns that tell a story within his art). Da Vinci’s combined expertise in art and mathematics gave him the unique ability to translate these minuscule, interlaced wonderments into the glorious visual beauty found in his masterpieces: Mona LisaLa Bella PrincipessaAnnunciation, The Last SupperSalvator MundiPortrait of Isabella d’Este, and Lady with an Ermine.

Leonardo and the Lure of Machines Pamela O. Long (Independent Scholar and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow [2015-2020]). Leonardo was fascinated by machines and mechanical contrivances. This lecture explores his fascination first by considering the ways in which it was one shared by his culture. The lecture will discuss Leonardo’s machine drawings as part of a growing machine culture in which some of his contemporaries, such as Mariano Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio, also drew and wrote about machines. Others avidly studied and copied their works. It will explore the ways in which Leonardo applied innovative drawing techniques to machines. It will discuss his machines on paper and the extent to which they were his own inventions. Finally, it will discuss his notebook, the Madrid Codex I, with its many wonderful drawings of machines surrounded by extensive texts. Central to the talk is this question: What was central to Leonardo’s interest in machines and what was his investigative approach to the many mechanical devices and machines that he drew? 

Leonardo’s Legacy: Homage and Irony / Deborah Loft (Art HistoryProfessor Emerita, College of Marin). Taking the long view, what is the significance of Leonardo as an artist, over time? What inspired other artists, from his era to ours, and how did their selections reflect their own times? Echoes of his innovative ideas appear in the work of such Renaissance artists as Titian, and the woman artist Sofonisba Anguissola.  His subjects and techniques also informed the work of 17th century artists, including Rubens. In more contemporary work, Leonardo’s art has become a touchstone for the European tradition, as referenced ironically in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Yasumasa Morimura, , and others. “Leonardo” is even the name of a newly designed software system at SAP (the German rival of Oracle.) What are the current meanings of his iconic status in the artistic and digital worlds?

Panel Discussion with the presenters