The Da Vinci – The Genius exhibition, which recently opened its doors in Gauteng (previously displayed at the Chavonne's Battery Museum in Cape Town), may leave you puzzling over his extraordinary drawings and sketch books, awed by his inventive creations (many of which form the basis of some of our modern technology), and left feeling perhaps a little trivial in light of the ingenuity and volume of his achievements through his life. I think instead though, that we should be inspired by the greatness that the human mind can achieve. I for one am going to pull out my sketch book a little more often.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a 15th Century Italian Renaissance “polymath” (i.e. someone who does and can do just about everything). He was not only an artist (for which he is more famously known) but a prolific visionary, inventor, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician, musician, instrument maker, singer and stage set designer. He expressed his ideas in over 6000 tiny pages of notes and sketches and some experts believe that his curious use of mirror writing and an unusual alphabet embed his own unique patent within the work. Despite this inherent challenge, the curators of the exhibition spent over ten years decoding his notes in order to create scale models of over 120 of his designs. It’s an overwhelming exhibition which unlocks the inner workings of this man’s mind.
From an illegitimate birth in 1452, Da Vinci had overshadowed the work of his master Verrocchio with his brilliance by 1469. He attained one of his most famous commissions, Virgin of the Rocks, in 1483 when he was only 31! His work represents and embodies Renaissance philosophy and also represents what was happening in war-torn Europe at the time – art is always a reflection of society. Renaissance thinkers hungered for knowledge, freshness, newness, adventure and exploration. Although he was apparently a pacifist, his “horrible” war machines were inspired by the violence and death of war. He must have had a strong stomach as his anatomical sketches involved illegally stealing and dissecting bodies from graves (and they would not have had formaldehyde in those days)! Perhaps this shows that his hunger for newness and invention would make him go against even his own principles in order to push through boundaries. Yet in contrast, his paintings inspire beauty and reflection. And his “flight” inventions, which include the forefathers of the parachute and the helicopter, represent a kind of innate desire to defy gravity and escape earth. Perhaps this again was about pushing boundaries.
He always studied long before he made. He spent months observing objects, people and animals - there is so much to be learnt from what already exists around us. He believed that nature forms the foundation of the makings of the machine – machines replicate nature. The Renaissance ethos placed man at the centre. Man gains power and strength by imitating nature’s forces in machines. There is the simplicity of the transfer of horizontal to vertical motion in a lever that assists in making heavy weights defy gravity. Mathematical principles when applied to the shape of an object affect its trajectory. Simple things like ball bearings reduce friction in machine parts. The golden ratio (displayed in his depiction of the Vitruvian man) shows a striving for perfection that is found in nature, and interestingly, the human body also has ball bearings and levers. Hi flying machines represent man’s striving towards mastering the forces of nature. He even invented the first principles of a robot by placing mechanisms that could control a knight’s suit of armour (man makes a machine of a man). Much much later some of his robotic studies were used by NASA in developing satellites. He also studied water and wind. He experimented with sound and sight (the camera). He imagined an ideal three-dimensional city. The beautiful curves of the human body are represented in his art, softly moulded forms. Unlike the brutality of the war machines there is sensitivity and delicacy in the brush strokes of the Mona Lisa. Realism was softened by emotion and feeling. He was also able to sketch and paint the human body accurately because he understood how the human body actually works. This was revolutionary in the art world at the time.
It’s obvious that he was a key thinker of his time, which has had a long lasting legacy for us today but we must remember that he lived within the "right time" and the "right place" and there he had the freedom to explore. He was funded by wealthy patrons and benefactors, and lived within that Renaissance mindset that didn’t limit people to only one discipline. However I think we need to learn from this. We may not have similar lives and similar privileges but we all have great minds and we all have freedom to discover and explore if we step beyond the boundaries. Perhaps his invention of the mirror room “reflects” this notion above everything else. Like the scariest change room you’ve ever seen, this is a hexagonal shaped room with mirrors on each inside face. Due to its shape you are able to see every part of yourself endless times. For me, this reflects the endless creative possibilities that lie within me (and each one of us). It shows me who I really am (every single part) and the question is, does that instil fear or excitement? Either way, I hope that I’ll not forget that boundaries are an illusion and Da Vinci proves that they shouldn’t limit us.
The view from my "office" window
I live in the shadow of Devil's peak in the southern suburb of Newlands. It's tucked in the folds of mountain mother and known as the rainiest part of Cape Town. Although I have a view of its peak from my home office window, I often forget that this incredible piece of nature's architecture is real and not just a stage backdrop!
A couple of weeks ago, I climbed Lion's Head, on the north west side of Table Mountain with a few friends. Climbing up that conical shaped mountain seems to always cause me to contemplate life and nature - it's something to do with having a massive rock on one side of you and on the other a steep drop and glorious views over an expansive city. And so shaped by nature this city is. It's also something to do with the expending of intense energy that clears the mind of the everyday clutter of thoughts and brings the mind's focus towards one place - the top. It was a busy morning and I was struck by the desire of so many to reach the top of this peak - for what? Perhaps a nice breakfast and a well deserved rest; but something else. An innate desire to find the top; to be bigger and higher; to be humbled by the vastness of the earth and the sea; to be engulfed by nature, drawn upwards to meet our own maker, and Architect.
A tree "nave" and a Gothic Cathedral nave reaching towards heaven (tree image: margotaparis.wordpress.com)
Looking back through architectural history this desire has always been the catalyst of innovation, invention and advancement in technology. From the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Interestingly, another driving factor has been a spiritual pursuit. Think of the grand arched volts, of the Gothic Cathedrals reaching heavenwards, like trees, to bring in light and inspire the congregation to seek God.
The Burj (difficult to fit into a camera frame!)
Yet from the Twentieth century onwards, spurred by the Industrial Age a different force has driven man to reach skywards. The desire to be God. I visited Dubai in January 2012. There you can visit the world's currently tallest building, the Burj Khalifa which towers at a height of 829.8m (taller than Lion's Head). It is slender like a needle and the sun bounces off it in sharp blinding bursts. It is magnificent and surreal. It is a representation of man's defiance of nature's elements - it is man's cathedral to himself. My, how clever we have become. And Dubai is enjoying its glory for or now, until the next world's tallest building is completed in neighbouring city Abu Dhabi.
For now though I am relfecting on what defies the work of my hands, and my mind. I'm closer to heaven than the Burj Khalifa.
I wrote this poem a few years ago after a mountain climb.
Newlands Forest in the folds of the mountain (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
I've always been one to take the high road. Sometimes the steps are perilous and the incline steep, yet I've been driven towards the heights by a promise of hope. I've been afraid that on the simple path I might forsake something big and beautiful that I would never have known existed if I hadn't fought to find it.
This morning I found myself on a lone walk in Newlands forest. At every turn the steepest path would draw me towards it. The mountain's cavernous eye somehow beckoned me closer. So close and yet so far.
Nature's Cathedral (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
At the point where I had thought I might stop for a moment, I met a person sitting next to the path, earphones plugged in, fiddling with something on his iphone. Perhaps he was changing the tune of his morning. How unfortunate to be missing out on the silence, I thought. I had been so bombarded by my own thoughts when I arrived that I was relieved to at last be hearing the melodies of nature - the stream, the crickets, the birds, the wind rushing.
A sharp turn drew me towards a steeper incline. I took it hopefully but soon found it to be bringing me downwards into a sea of purple and yellow flowers. Orange and white speckled butterflies flickered above the ferns. And I was lost in it for a moment - in nature's cathedral.
Architectural philosopher, Marc-Antoine Laugier described nature's "primitive hut" as the ideal principle for architecture and structure.
Why must we always enclose ourselves with man made things when God made a canopy over our heads and strong tree columns to hold it up? Architecture is not just about buildings; about things. It is all around us. There is much to learn from what already exists; from what somehow seems hidden until we start to look for it. There is much to be discovered along the high road.
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.