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Within Leonardo’s own lifetime his fame was such that the King of France carried him away like a trophy and was claimed to have supported him in his old age and held him in his arms as he died. Interest in Leonardo has never diminished. The crowds still queue to see his most famous artworks, T-shirts bear his most famous drawing, and writers like Vasari continue to marvel at his genius and speculate about his private life and, particularly, about what one so intelligent actually believed in.
In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease. —Giorgio Vasari
The continued admiration that Leonardo commanded from painters, critics and historians is reflected in many other written tributes. Baldassare Castiglione, author of Il Cortegiano (“The Courtier”), wrote in 1528: “… Another of the greatest painters in this world looks down on this art in which he is unequalled …”while the biographer known as “Anonimo Gaddiano” wrote, c. 1540: “His genius was so rare and universal that it can be said that nature worked a miracle on his behalf …”
The 19th century brought a particular admiration for Leonardo’s genius, causing Henry Fuseli to write in 1801: “Such was the dawn of modern art, when Leonardo da Vinci broke forth with a splendour that distanced former excellence: made up of all the elements that constitute the essence of genius …” This is echoed by A. E. Rio who wrote in 1861: “He towered above all other artists through the strength and the nobility of his talents.”
By the 19th century, the scope of Leonardo’s notebooks was known, as well as his paintings. Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1866: “There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfilment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.” Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1896: “Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it be the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values.”
The interest in Leonardo’s genius has continued unabated; experts study and translate his writings, analyse his paintings using scientific techniques, argue over attributions and search for works which have been recorded but never found.Liana Bortolon, writing in 1967, said: “Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge … Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century.