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Sunday, March 18, 2018

An Interview with Leonardo






Photo: Wikimedia
I sat with Leonardo in a sunny afternoon in a café in Milan, at the Piazza Mercanti (Market Square). The square dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries and was the commercial centre of the city. Various traders, such as bakers, cobblers, and tailors conducted their business here.

Leonardo, as usual was in his dandy style and his perfumed air, wearing a rose-pink tunic.
He seemed at ease with himself, sipping his cappuccino. 
I asked him:
“ The first thing people want to know is about the Mona Lisa painting. People are not sure who she actually is, who is she?”



Leonardo:
“She is Lisa, a Florence born woman whom married in her teens to a cloth and silk merchant who later became a local official, she was a mother to five children and led a comfortable ordinary middle-class life. You can see her clothing is rather simple and ordinary and her gown,  the scarf around her neck does not indicates her aristocratic standing.”
I said:
“Mona Lisa is very famous for her smile. But there are people who see her faint smile as a sad smile.”
Leonardo: 
“I painted it by using the “sfumato” technique which translated means ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’.  In this technique I did not use an outline,  but used different tones and shades of paint to create an illusion of  light and shadow. Starting with dark undertones I built the illusion of three-dimensional features through layers and layers of thin semi-transparent glazes. You used darker shades to highlight features and borders of the subject.”
I said:

“Probably because of this sfumato technique both the eyes and the mouth were prominent features. When the viewer looks at the eyes, the mouth falls under the viewer’s peripheral vision and therefore the features of the mouth are not clear, this along with a little shading at the cheek bones make the mouth look like a smile. But once the viewer focuses on the mouth, the smile disappears, as it was not meant to be a smile.”
Leonardo:
“That is probably why some people see her smile as a sad smile.”
I said:
“ Aside from paintings you are also well known for your ideas on engineering, anatomy, geometry, and other scientific observations of nature.
You once presented King Francois of France with one of your robotic lions.  It was an amazing feat of engineering, it moved its head, shook its tail and opened its jaws. When François was invited to tap the lion with his sword, its body opened to reveal a mass of lily flowers. Considering the technology available to you, the lion was nothing short of a miracle. “
Leonardo, talking a bit proudly:
“I also told Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, that I can share my secrets of my war machine inventions, I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable with which to pursue and defeat an enemy... I can also make a kind of cannon, which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail... I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages — either straight or winding — passing if necessary under trenches or a river... I can make armored wagons carrying artillery, which can break through the most serried ranks of the enemy. In time of peace, I believe I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings, both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another. I can execute sculpture in bronze, marble or clay. Also, in painting, I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be.”

I said:
“Bravo, but you are also known as a slow painter and  notorious for leaving your work unfinished, like “the Virgin and Child with St Anne”, “St Jerome in the Wilderness”, “The Adoration of the Magi” and the Bronze Horse commissioned by Ludovico Sforza. Your reputation for not finishing things meant that you no longer received big commissions.”
Leonardo:
“Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail. For instance, experience shows us that the air must have darkness beyond it and yet it appears blue. If you produce a small quantity of smoke from dry wood and the rays of the sun fall on this smoke, and if you then place behind the smoke a piece of black velvet on which the sun does not shine, you will see that all the smoke which is between the eye and the black stuff will appear of a beautiful blue colour. And if instead of the velvet you place a white cloth smoke, that is too thick smoke, hinders, and too thin smoke does not produce, the perfection of this blue colour.”
I said:
“ It seems that you love nature very much. The Mona Lisa painting has a natural landscape background, there is a winding road and a bridge. The landscape seems wild and there is uninhabited space of rocks and water which stretches to the horizon, at the level of the Mona Lisa's eyes.” 

Leonardo:
“Nothing originates in a spot where there is no sentient, vegetable and rational life; feathers grow upon birds and are changed every year; hairs grow upon animals and are changed every year, excepting some parts, like the hairs of the beard in lions, cats and their like. The grass grows in the fields, and the leaves on the trees, and every year they are, in great part, renewed. So that we might say that the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones the arrangement and connection of the rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage the tufa, and its blood the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies round the heart is the ocean, and its breathing, and the increase and decrease of the blood in the pulses, is represented in the earth by the flow and ebb of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the vegetative soul is in the fires, which in many parts of the earth find vent in baths and mines of sulphur, and in volcanoes, as at Mount Aetna in Sicily, and in many other places."
I said:
“ You are also known to love animals very much, you even questioned the morality of eating animals when it was not necessary for health.  The mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to you. Giorgio Vasari told us how when in Florence you passed places where birds were sold you would frequently take them from their cages with his own hand, and having paid the sellers the price you would let them fly away in the air, thus giving them back their liberty.”
Leonardo, his face glowing:

“Aside from that, I was also thinking  about how to make a flying machine learning from the movement and the configuration of the bird’s wings. What are the differences in air pressure above and beneath a bird’s wing, and how might this knowledge enable man to make a flying machine?
The flying machine must imitate no other than the bat, because the web is what by its union gives the armour, or strength to the wings. 
If you imitate the wings of feathered birds, you will find a much stronger structure, because they are permeable; that is, their feathers are separate and the air passes through them. But the bat is aided by the web that connects the whole and is not permeable.”
I said:
“The Last Supper was painted literally hundreds of times throughout art history, by different artists in different styles. Your Last Supper is seen more natural and dynamic than the rest. Judas is fully included in the group, rather than separated, and the figures are engaged in lively interaction.” 
Leonardo:
“It is the moment after Jesus said ”One of you shall betray me…”. 
The painting shows the emotions of love, dismay, and anger, or rather sorrow, at the apostles  failure to grasp what Jesus means.
Bartholomew who was drinking and has left the glass in its position and turned his head towards Jesus. James, twisting the fingers of his hands together turns with stern brows to Andrew. 
And Andrew, with his hands spread open shows the palms, shrugs his shoulders up his ears making a mouth of astonishment.
Thomas thrusts himself  with finger extended as if to prod Jesus to explain himself more clearly.
Peter speaks into John's ear and as John listens to him, Peter holds a knife in one hand.
Judas is grasping a small bag of the 30 pieces of silver he has been paid to betray Jesus and has  knocked over the salt pot - another symbol of betrayal.
Philip is asking “Lord, is it I?”  Jesus replies, “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me”.  We see Jesus and Judas simultaneously reaching toward a plate that lies between them, even as Judas defensively backs away.” 

I said:

“ Thanks Leonardo for the chat, I see you would be remembered in history as “The epitome of a Renaissance man”. 


This is an imaginery interview in memory of Leonardo da Vinci.







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