More than one string to his bow

18th April 2003 at 01:00
Painter, engineer, inventor, anatomist - Leonardo da Vinci did it all, and more. Heather Neill reports on a BBC series that reveals the visionary purpose of the original Renaissance man.

Leonardo. BBC 1, April 20, 27, May 4, 7pm

Despite Leonardo's rudimentary schooling, his achievements were extraordinary: the painter of "Mona Lisa" was also an anatomist who drew detailed diagrams of embryos and investigated the mechanics of sight. He was an engineer who designed flight machines, a parachute, a diving suit and a prototype armoured tank. He made maps, studied nature and geology - and he designed spectacular parties.

It is with this apparently trivial talent that The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything, the first programme of Alan Yentob's ambitious and revealing three-part series, Leonardo, begins. The genius may have been unconstrained by conventional religion and learning, but he had to make a living and, 500 years ago, the wealthy families who ran the rival Italian city states were necessary patrons.

The powerful Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who liked to impress, made the most of his inventive employee's talent. This, incidentally, gives the film-makers an opportunity to set the Renaissance scene with brilliant colour, spectacle and teeming bacchanalian crowds.

Mark Rylance as Leonardo, by contrast, is thoughtful, almost impassive, his face often an intelligent mask for his own voice-over of Leonardo's words quoted from his notebooks.

Before he arrived in Milan, the young Leonardo, born out of wedlock in 1452 to a wealthy lawyer and a simple peasant woman in the Tuscan village of Vinci, had been apprenticed in Florence to Andrea del Verrocchio. At the time, painters were regarded as jobbing artisans rather than high artists, but Leonardo made his name in his early twenties with typical daring. When Verrocchio's studio was commissioned to paint "The Baptism of Christ", the young apprentice was entrusted with an angel on the left of the group. He used oils, then almost unknown in southern Italy, where the common medium was still tempera, made from water, egg-yolk and pigment.

His life-like, glowing figure stands out from the rest and so impressed Verrocchio that he is said never to have painted again. Soon after, Leonardo was accused of sodomy, then punishable by death and, although the case came to nothing, he left for Milan.

The first programme provides some idea of the extraordinary breadth of Leonardo's interests and his unfettered originality. While others painted stock figures, he spent hours in the streets collecting real faces.

His masterpiece from this period, the fresco of "The Last Supper" in the church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, despite its poor condition, shows a new approach to the painting of religious subjects. Not only are the characters recognisably real, but he has chosen to fix the moment, as if in a snapshot. In the same programme, his "tank" design is realised and a version of his doodle of a parachute, a conical apparatus, is tested in a drop from 10,000ft in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

Yentob and his team repeatedly relate Leonardo's interests to his early experiences. He describes in his notebooks (many of which are in the royal collection at Windsor Castle) an incident when he was still in his cradle.

A kite flew down and landed on him, the tail feathers beating, for a second, inside his mouth. Leonardo himself recognised this to be a life-changing moment.

In the second programme, Dangerous Liaisons, his drawing of a hang-glider is used to develop, build and test a working version with nail-biting suspense, an example of many possible flight machines.

But perhaps the strangest and most surprising experiment is the testing of a diving suit made of pig leather treated with fish oil, with which Leonardo proposed converting Venetian soldiers into an underwater army that could walk on the sea bed.

Whatever Leonardo's other achievements, his reputation still rests on his ability as a painter, and on "Mona Lisa", in particular. This is the subject of the third programme, The Secret Life of the Mona Lisa.

The identity of the subject seems to have been proved beyond doubt by a reference in the will of Leonardo's companion of many years, Salai. She is Lisa del Giaconda, the wife of a merchant, possibly pregnant, and painted against a primitive landscape. Yentob and his team have discovered strange rock formations near Leonardo's birthplace which may have inspired this background.

So, we have a woman, universal and particular, possibly bearing one of the embryos that so fascinated the painter, against a landscape that suggests the age of the Earth; a snapshot and a psychological study that also hints at the eternal. Leonardo carried the painting with him for 13 years, taking it to France, where he died at the court of King Francis I in 1519.

Yentob as a presenter is the antithesis of David Bellamy: serious, contained, intense and allowing the subject to speak for itself. His passionate commitment nevertheless shines through. He leaves us with a sense of da Vinci as a flawed but marvellous figure, whose genius flourished in an age that did not divide knowledge into subject chunks - when, indeed, it may have seemed quite feasible to know "everything".

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