O, Leonardo, I wonder if you know how mysterious you are to us! Over the course of history, a myriad of decent men -- experts and ordinary people, alike -- have made numerous attempts to decipher the code of your life. Indeed, you created many unparalleled masterpieces that are celebrated all over the world, but many of your other works were left unfinished and scattered. What a pity!
The ideas you put forth through your masterpieces impressed me a great deal. The time in which you lived had seen a transition from the Classical concept of an extensive self as part of the whole universe, to the idea of an autonomous individual of free will. By celebrating the extensive self, your contemporaries also had their view of the world altered; in your time the world was seen in the relation to the self, and therefore, the world was and only was what human perceived through the senses. This idea was demonstrated clearly in your artworks since you yourself stated that. “Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: […] Develop your senses -- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Of all the five human senses, the eye played the most important role in assisting humans to get a grasp of what and how the world was because only vision could touch the faraway places that we could not touch, taste, hear or smell. Standing from a vantage point, we could use our eyes to discern the whole scenery, thus having the broadest view of the world. I could see this notion from your landscape drawings and paintings, which provided the viewer with an aerial view and a perfect proportion of the real topography -- something preceded by none.
The eye captured the world, interpreted it as somehow fitted with the mind, thus giving us the notion that we possessed the world. From what the eye perceived, an artist let his imagination take wings and created a world of his own which was expressed through his masterpieces. O, Leonardo, was that your idea when you said, “The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.” With the eye as both the perceiver of the world and the supplier for the imagination, an artist knew about the world and could design everything that was within and without the known Universe according to his free will!
Indeed, in the end, the intensive, autonomous self was the main factor that had the power to shape the concept of the world in an artist’s mind. In other words, the world of nature depicted in a painter’s artworks represented not only the actual world but also his own mindset. The eye not only recorded the world but also reflected our own inner souls.
You once said, “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” With these words, did you mean that nature was but only what we perceived it? Did nature exist only when human’s perspectives shed light on it, O Leonardo? So what did you think nature was? Was nature just a mechanism for us human, who were at the center of it, to take advantage of, or was nature a living being with a soul of its own?
I understand that you were caught between the two schools of thoughts regarding the definition of nature: mechanism and animism. Because our view of the world also contained our own perspectives, different people had their own interpretations of the world surrounding us. However, as a scientist you analyzed and observed nature (and our own body as part of nature) to see what it really was, but as an artist you perceived nature with an aesthetic pleasure to see the subtle relationship between nature and human.
These two schools of thought -- mechanism and animism -- depended greatly on how we placed ourselves in the context of nature and how we discerned ourselves through the eye, as well. Sometimes, the eye could be misleading, since seldom was the truth bare for the eye to see. You understood this, did you not, O Leonardo, since you once said, “The greatest deception men suffer is from his own opinions”?
This led to the question of whether this world ever really existed as we saw it. How did we know if reality was real? Did our senses tell us the right things, was the world what we believed it to be, and was the world the same if our senses were different? There was a saying in my time which raised the question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?” Indeed, no one can ever answer this question with absolute certainty, since we all perceive the world through our senses.
The Future World.