We went looking for Leonardo da Vinci. The interest started with a library book from school, a book that got read from cover to cover, over and over again, until all the pages threatened to fall out. Then I found a wonderful pop-up book with models of his machines. Leonardo: the original Renaissance Man. He could literally turn his hand to anything. So it was that we had to see The Last Supper in Milan (harder than you’d imagine – book well ahead). We had to go to Vinci, Leonardo’s birthplace near Florence. And we definitely, absolutely, imperatively had to see The Mona Lisa in Paris.
The museum in Vinci is lovely. It is small and modest. There are models in the museum, built from Leonardo’s drawings. These show you his genius in the simplest, most obvious terms. There are lots of ‘Did you know?’ moments. Did you know that … he designed the first life preserver, the first diving suit, the first tank, the first plane, the first bike? Leonardo came from humble beginnings, but he painted and designed for dukes and kings. He had creative ambitions, even though many of his ideas never reached their end point. He absolutely loved to experiment and he didn’t appear to be too worried if some of his experiments were not successful.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Last Supper. It took Leonardo four years to paint. He used an innovative technique for his fresco, involving varnish. This decision has caused headaches for art restorers ever since. The latest restoration took 22 years. 22 years. Why did they bother? Well, there is something about this painting that transcends any other artwork I have ever seen. Perhaps it is the setting, a simple, echoing refectory where monks gathered to eat. Perhaps it is that only a handful of people can visit at any one time. Perhaps it is because the lines of symmetry and composition are perfect. Whatever the reason, this painting literally shines. You can see Leonardo’s genius, echoing down through the centuries, even though so much of the original image has been lost.
And then there is the Mona Lisa. This small, dark, enigmatic painting is one of the most famous in the world. To be honest, it’s a bun fight. People push forwards, reaching up with their cameras, desperate to prove that they have been in the same room as this tiny capsule of genius. We squeeze our way to the front, ignoring the clamour around us. And then, as we look at the painting, we talk about Leonardo, remembering all that our books have told us. How he carried his Mona Lisa around with him, until the end of his life. How he painted this lady with a smile, so unlike the other paintings of this period we have seen. We wonder why, all these years later, so many people flock to see the handful of paintings that remain. And I whisper to my children, so that no one else can hear, ‘I reckon they just want to stand in the presence of genius.’ The children nod their agreement.
‘I think I will be an artist,’ my daughter says. And as we walk away, I can’t stop smiling.