Ideas

Monster buff Leonardo da Vinci would have loved Halloween

Leonardo da Vinci would have loved Halloween. The renaissance artist and engineer was also a monster buff. Writer and historian Ross King unveils da Vinci’s sketches and stories of monsters, beasts, giants and dragons, and explains how the artist’s views on fantasy were in contrast to an increasingly rational age.

'His interest in the grotesque, the ugly, the reptilian goes back to when he was a child,' says historian

Leonardo Da Vinci would have loved Halloween. This sketch shows a design he created for a two-person dragon costume. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Scattered throughout Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, are drawings and sketches of monsters, beasts, and dragons. The renaissance artist is most known for his precise and beautiful paintings, his technological inventions, and accurate anatomical sketches.

But da Vinci had another passion — drawing fantastical creatures. 

"His interest in the grotesque, the ugly, the reptilian goes back to when he was a child," said writer and historian Ross King, who delivered a lecture called Leonardo's Monsters at Carleton University. 

Ross has no doubt that da Vinci would have loved Halloween.

Leonardo da Vinci strove for beauty and proportion in most of his works, but in this sketch he plays up the monstrous features of the subject. Many believe Quienen Massys' Grotesque Old Woman was referenced by this image that da Vinci created. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

Leonardo da Vinci's father asked young Leonardo to paint the wooden shield of a peasant in Vinci.

"Leonardo started think what he could paint on it so as to terrify anyone who saw it," wrote da Vinci's biographer Giorgio Vasari.

"To do what he wanted, Leonardo carried into a room of his own a number of green and other kinds of lizards crickets, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and various strange creatures of this nature, and from all these he took and assembled different parts to create a fearsome and horrible monster."

An example of Leonardo's sketches of unusual beasts from his notebook. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

No copies exist of the painting based on this monster, but Leonardo's surviving notebooks have hidden samples of the artist's interest in monsters. One of King's favourites is a dragon, lurking among sketches of cats.

"At one point the cats begin to mutate into a mountain-lion type creature, a panther, and then within that we have a dragon. So I think what's fascinating is he could do very detailed drawings of things he could see and touch and play with, and he could also do very detailed drawings of things he could never see and only existed within his imagination," King said.

Hidden in this careful anatomical study of cats is an angry beast, and a cuddly-looking dragon. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

According to King, these sketches serve as a reminder from the great artist that the imagination can be just as important as science, judgment, and reason, and in a world of progress it's important to hold on to a sense of wonder and fantasy.

"This idea of just letting the imagination run free — giving it a free rein, which people didn't do back in his time, and I think we don't do enough either," said Ross.

"We get very fixated on getting the latest data… sometimes it's nice to shut all of that out and go beyond the five senses and let the imagination take us somewhere we're not expecting and maybe didn't know existed."

In these sketches, Leonardo da Vinci plays with unusual faces. The centre three heads are likely interesting faces he found around town. The top and bottom heads are likely grotesque faces from his own imagination. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)


** This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.