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Alter egos... centuries apart

Born in different eras, Leonardo da Vinci and Le Corbusier had many similar strands of creativity. They were quite alike in their curiosity, realms of imagination and inventiveness19 May 2019 | 12:11 AM

As the world commemorates 500 years of Leonardo da Vinci’s death anniversary and his unique polymath genius, it’s time to remember another multi-faceted genius born centuries later.

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Rajnish Wattas

As the world commemorates 500 years of Leonardo da Vinci’s death anniversary and his unique polymath genius, it’s time to remember another multi-faceted genius born centuries later. 

Though he had little formal learning, Leonardo is considered as the prime exemplar of ‘Universal Genius’ or ‘Renaissance Man’. He was a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination” whose interests included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, botany and cartography.

Quite amazingly, five centuries later one finds echoes and imprints of Leonardo’s multi-faceted creativity in Le Corbusier, born on October 6, 1887. The legendary architect-planner of Chandigarh was also self taught with no formal training in architecture, and much like Leonardo, an interdisciplinary polymath who learnt it all by apprenticeships, insatiable curiosity, copious observations and studies of the world around him. Formally trained as a painter in his hometown, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, he soon transcended it — creating confluence between art, sculpture, architecture, science, engineering and study of nature. Much like Leonardo, he also dabbled in synthesis between mathematics and human proportions.

The many similar strands of creativity and their curiosity, realms of imagination and inventiveness leave one wondering.

Leonardo da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, in a remote Tuscany village of Italy, was given only elementary education. At 14, he was left at the workshop of artist and engineer Andrea del Verricchio, a leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. While living with Verricchio, Leonardo was exposed to both theoretical knowledge and a wide range of skills, crafts and subjects, including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and study of the human anatomy. Leonardo was a prolific draftsman, keeping journals full of small sketches and detailed drawings. He recorded all manner of things that took his attention and recorded these in 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and natural sciences displaying an enormous range of interests, including studies of faces and emotions, whirlpools, war machines, flying machines, architecture and more. Similarly, Le Corbusier, too, during his apprenticeships at the offices of architects August Perret in Paris and of Peter Behrens in Berlin and during travels to eastern European countries, Italy, Greece and Turkey as a youth kept numerous notebooks and journals where he recorded his keen observations. These include sketches of human hands, animal figures, sea shells and many other natural things and phenomenon and, of course, architectural masterpieces. Many of these later evolved into forms and creative seeds for his architectural forms, paintings and sculptures. 

A competition held for the Milan cathedral requiring a lantern tower gave Leonardo his first architectural opportunity and he also conceptualised church designs with central temple like plans topped by domes.

Milan had then been ravaged by plague and, as an architect and city planner, Leonardo proposed a radical ideal plan envisaged at two levels. The upper level was designed for beauty and people and pedestrian Life. ‘Let only wide streets and arcaded walkways... flanked by beautiful homes and gardens,’ he desired. The lower level was for commerce, transportation and salutation and sewerage at lower levels. The two were to be connected by spiral staircases.

Quite interestingly, Corbusier, too, in 1922 had presented his model of the ‘Ville Contemporaine’, a city of three million inhabitants. With the advent of the machine age, he believed that the new, modern city needed to be built as vertical towers with circulation for pedestrian and motorists at separate levels. The various city functions would be segregated into separate land use zones to liberate the ground space for continuous parklands. 

Leonardo considered himself more of a scientist than an artist. Such was his self-confidence that in a job application to the ruler of Milan, he listed  in the first 10 paragraphs his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, machines, buildings and many other things. Only in the end he added, “likeways in painting, I can do everything”.

Mathematics, in particular, perspective, symmetry, proportions and geometry, had a significant influence over his drawings and paintings. He knew of Vitruvius’s work — that with the navel as the centre, a perfect circle could be drawn around a body with outstretched arms and legs, and evolved his own model known as the Vitruvian Man.

Le Corbusier similarly devised  The Modulor as a standard model of the human form to determine good anthropometrics and correct amount of living space needed for residents in his buildings. He considered it as an innovative scale for ensuring harmonic proportions that ‘made the good easy and the bad difficult’. He, too, used the golden ratio in his Modulor system as a continuation of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man using the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. 

Leonardo’s fame was primarily that of a painter. He pioneered the portrait representing the inner thoughts of their sitters, not just the external appearance. His 16th-century small portrait known as the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests on the enigmatic smile on the woman’s face; its mysterious quality perhaps due to the subtly shadowed corners of the mouth and eyes such that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined. Leonardo’s most famous mural The Last Supper uses principles of perspective developed by him. Another mural, The Battle of Anghiara, commissioned in 1505 in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, was never completed. 

Though Corbusier started with elementary landscape paintings of his scenic hometown, on moving to Paris In 1918, he met the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognised a kindred spirit. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and ‘romantic’, the pair jointly established a new artistic movement called Purism. He, too, painted murals and designed tapestries that he called ‘nomadic murals’.

Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519, at Clos Lucé in Loire Valley, France. He was buried in the village church. Likewise, Le Corbusier who died on August 27, 1965, is buried in France at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin coast. Both men of fame rest in peace, buried far away from their native lands.

Echoes of Leonardo in Chandigarh

Corbusier’s plan of Chandigarh is based on segregation of various functions like living, working, circulation and care of body & spirit as advocated by Leonardo da Vinci five centuries ago for his Ideal city project. Corbusier also used the mathematical ‘golden ratio’ in evolving the layout for the city’s Capitol Complex. In his pursuit of harmonic proportions of the modular (inspired by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man  all undulatory glazings used in his buildings are based on this scale. Corbusier’s scientific studies were used to calculate solar angles at different times of the day and seasons for the City’s tree plantation schemes to provide shade where needed. The Tower of Shadows is a live demonstration of his engineering device called brise soleil sun breakers, based on solar angles and the need to reduce unnecessary ingress of radiation inside the buildings. A continuum of Leonardo-inspired fusion of art, science, engineering and architecture is manifest in the Capitol Complex’s edifices, imbued with woven tapestries, murals and enigmatic motifs/symbols.

Open Hand sketch by Le Corbusier

Alter egos... centuries apartLeonardo da Vinci: A photogravure after his self-portrait
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