Leonardo da Vinci’s achievements as a painter often overshadow his skill in other fields. The breadth of his curiosity was simply astonishing. He was the quintessential Renaissance man: inventor, engineer, anatomist and architect. As Freud once noted, Leonardo was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”
He was also a prolific draughtsman and filled notebooks with sketches and detailed drawings of the things that caught his eye or seized his imagination. One of my favourite sketches has puzzled art historians for many years. It’s a small pen and ink drawing of a deluge of everyday objects falling from a stormy sky, A Cloudburst of Material Possessions. Painted around 1510, it depicts all manner of things falling to the ground: bellows, rakes, spectacles, bagpipes, pots and pans, set-squares, ladders and pliers.
At the top, written in his mirror script, is the statement, "on this Adam and on that Eve." And below, a lament “Oh human misery, how many things you must serve for money”.
On the face of it, the sketch appears to be a biting commentary on the victory of materialism over spirituality. And the futility of human endeavours after The Fall to understand and create the world afresh. But this isn’t a straightforward attack on the vanities that might tempt us to sin. It’s not mirrors, immoral books or paintings, fine clothes or playthings that are falling from the heavens. But functional items that we use to try to shape and improve our environment.
And any interpretation is complicated by the small lion lying half-hidden in the clouds in the top left of the drawing. Its presence is unexplained. Lions take on a variety of symbolic roles in the Bible – from strength to wisdom to tyranny – and it’s not clear what Leonardo intended here.
Fundamentally, he was a visionary, driven by boundless curiosity. He asserted that, “The grandest of all books, I mean the Universe, stands open before our eyes.” For Leonardo, the study of nature and direct experience was essential.
But he was also living in a time of war and political strife. Which was taking place during a period of profound historical transformation generated by the emergence of capitalism in Italy, the growth of the bourgeoisie and a new, predatory individualism. The remorseless focus on competition and acquisitiveness must, surely, have influenced his thinking.
The lament provides a clue. Maybe what he offers us in this sketch is a glimpse of his understanding of the limitations of human society, bound as we are by our material circumstances and the economic and political systems we inhabit. As we mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, we might usefully reflect on the curiously modern message provided by A Cloudburst of Material Possessions. As he said, “Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.”