Leonardo's intellectual cosmos <

The intellectual cosmos of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is seemingly inexhaustible. It echoes the diversity and cultural abundance of the Renaissance, which he embodies in all its facets like few others of his time. He applied his curiosity and creative commitment to all fields of knowledge, from the forces of nature, both large and small, to all varieties of human form and design.

Leonardo’s era was characterized by upheavals: the rediscovery of antiquity, the rise of trade and science, the invention of printing, the European discovery of America, and the beginnings of a new astronomical worldview. The tensions affecting his time included those between Christianity and the revived pagan antiquity, faith and science, the bourgeoisie of the burgeoning cities and feudal society, new technologies and the traditional social order. The great emphasis placed on the highest level of individuality of human actors stood in contrast to the aspiration of their thinking to universal validity, while the growing potency of art began to compete with the forces of nature. All this took place alongside disruptive experiences of war, crises, and diseases such as the plague—but also the challenge posed by the new possibilities of thought, belief, and action.

Leonardo and other contemporary artists, scientist-engineers, and humanists struggled to balance out these tensions in their work, although not at the price of flattening them or accepting one-sided solutions. Instead, they succeeded in giving expression to these tensions in their creative works and using them productively. The willingness not to conceal contradictions, but to battle through them in a constant dialogue with oneself and others, was considered a virtue. Leonardo’s intellectual cosmos was deeply influenced by contradictions, such as his quest for the dynamical and even conflicted harmony of the world and his willingness to address the inherent tensions in a never-ending diversity of details, to each of which he devoted all his attention and skill.

The much-discussed antithesis between observation of nature and traditional scholarship through books was another issue Leonardo refused to deal with one-sidedly, tackling both aspects with great commitment. Compared with his predecessors, he was almost unique in how he perceived the diversity of nature, at the same time using the new medium of book printing to build up a remarkable library that influenced and corresponded to his own worldview.

To a large extent, Leonardo’s library could be reconstructed from his manuscript notes. It was unique yet reproducible. This is made clear in this exhibition, which gathers a number of works from his library, but not his personal copies, which–with possibly one exception–have not survived. Instead, the “Berlin Leonardo Library” has been compiled from contemporary works from the holdings of libraries in Berlin. In particular, they include the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (State Library of Berlin), the Kunstbibliothek (Library of Art History), and the Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen (Museum of Prints and Drawings) and, last but not least, the Library of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, which has focused on the upheavals of the early modern period and their consequences for the past 25 years and continues to study them today. The specimens we have collated testify to the accelerated dissemination of knowledge through the printing and circulation of books that helped to make Leonardo’s intellectual cosmos possible in the first place.

Leonardo grew up in an emergent and fascinating world of books in which contemporary knowledge circulated in new ways and could be combined from varying perspectives. He had ambitious plans to be an author himself but the traces of his wide-ranging work that he left for posterity are provisional and often sketchy in character compared with the cohesive style and closed form of the books he aspired to but hardly ever achieved.

The exhibition shows Leonardo’s world in a process of upheaval: in media, in the transition to a new knowledge economy, in the struggle for a new understanding of the world. Which books influenced Leonardo’s intellectual cosmos? How did he work with his books? What became of his plans to write and publish his own books? Why was it so difficult for him to bring his ideas together in book form? What was lost in the transition from the manuscript world with its many and diverse forms—in Leonardo’s case it was often a complex weave of individual notes—to the book world, and what does this loss mean for our world today and its approach to new media and knowledge economies?

The exhibition resists the temptation to categorize Leonardo as a precursor, for example, of modern science and technology. Instead, it searches his intellectual cosmos for a distant mirror of our own era of radical change. What we find there, looking through Leonardo’s eyes, are not only countless unfinished projects but also the still undecided possibilities for understanding and shaping the world in one way or another. Precisely this view of his works as open and accessible offers us the opportunity to find inspiration for balances that do justice to the tensions and contradictions of our own time.




Jürgen Renn



Leonardo’s Life and Legacy <

Leonardo was a very mobile artist. He travelled widely in his lifetime and worked for a great variety of patrons. His path took him from provincial Tuscany to metropolitan Florence and Milan, and finally to the courts of the pope and the king of France. His assignments and his own interests were extremely diverse. The view of the Leonardo phenomenon from posterity has always been defined by the ideas and preferences of the particular epoch. This installation is designed to give an overview of the stages of Leonardo’s life. The eight stages should be seen simply as a general frame, since the individual years cannot always be dated exactly. Each stage has an associated image to help clarify a specific aspect of Leonardo’s oeuvre or cast light on his intellectual and artistic legacy.

Florence 1503–1506: Giorgio Vasari. Vita di Lionardo da Vinci – title page with portrait medallion

from “Le vite de più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori” 1568

At the invitation of the Florentine Republic, Leonardo returns to the city where he had started his career. He is commissioned to paint the mural of The Battle of Anghiari in the council chamber of the city hall, today the Palazzo Vecchio. His technical experiment with wax painting turned into a fiasco. His mammoth project for completely rechanneling the River Arno was also never executed. But the portrait of the Mona Lisa (1503–1504) which he also painted at that time, became his most famous work today. In the monastery of Santa Maria Novella, where he lives and works, Leonardo compiles the most comprehensive list of the books he owns (4 ▲).

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the architect, court painter of the Medici grand dukes, and the father of modern historiography of art, influenced the popular image of Leonardo to this day with his description of the artist’s life embellished with anecdotes. The biography appeared in different versions in 1550 and 1568. Vasari’s viewpoint is quite ambivalent: on the one hand he admired Leonardo as the founder of the modern style of painting (maniera moderna), whose creations are distinguished by an almost divine grace (grazia divina), but on the other hand he uses Leonardo as a curiously negative example of instability, weird enthusiasms, and time-consuming interests remote from art. The portrait medallion of the bearded painter with the typical travelling cap in the 1568 edition was to consolidate the cliché of Leonardo as an oddball genius for centuries to come.



    Vasari, Giorgio. 2006. Das Leben des Leonardo da Vinci. Neuübersetzt von Victoria Lorini, herausgegeben, kommentiert und eingeleitet von Sabine Feser. Berlin: Wagenbach.