The Wizards, Chapter 5 From Evolution Through Art

The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Verrocchio and da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery
The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Verrocchio and da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery

Young Da Vinci and Pure Light Vibrations

If a young artist was fortunate, he would have guidance from a living mentor. Up to that point, the artist would be limited to having imaginary dialogues with the paintings, reality, and his works. So many times, as a teenage artist, I wished Michelangelo could have told me how to solve a difficult problem. Without that knowledge I was stuck using the time-consuming trial-and-error method. But an art mentor cannot be just anyone. A mentor has to be a wizard. Teachers can only teach you what they know. If they don’t know too much and the student has talent, then the monotony will kill the student’s enthusiasm. A magic touch is required to tap the student’s potential; if the teacher has that, then it will fuel the young artist for life. This mentor would be the fifth voice of the artist’s quintet of creative voices.

Earlier we discussed that the first artists would have learned about the materials from a craftsperson, but learning about materials from an experienced artist is transcendent. Tanning a hide with colored-mineral pigments shows an apprentice how to blend a beautiful color and how to apply it evenly; even how to correct botches. But to an artist, color is not a thing in itself. Color is a means to impart light, render nuanced anatomical shapes, and to convey movement through space on a two dimensional surface. Color, used in an artist’s technical way, is pure energy. The teacher who can transmit this is indeed a magician.

A perfect example of the mentor giving wings to a young artist is in the painting The Baptism of Christ by Verrocchio (1472–1475). Above is a detail of two angel portraits, part of a much larger painting. Da Vinci, in his early twenties, collaborated on this painting with his mentor Verrocchio, the leading Florentine artist at the time. Da Vinci painted the angel on the left. Legend has it that da Vinci’s mastery was so great that Verrocchio hung up his brushes and never painted again.

Leonardo joined Verrocchio’s workshop as a 14-year-old boy, where he would have been a janitor, model, brush cleaner, slag sweeper, and paint mixer learning everything to do with painting, sculpture, and how this workshop worked. When his chores were finished he would have lessons in drawing, painting, and sculpting. At 17 he graduated to being an apprentice, then became a Guild of Saint Luke licensed master at 20––which is when he would have started painting this angel.

Verrocchio’s angel on the right is a culmination of techniques, lines, forms, light, shadowing, coloring, proportions, and textures. It is a remarkable textbook of major skill sets that placed in da Vinci’s hands resulted in one of the best painted figures in the Italian Renaissance. Notice the difference in character: Verrocchio’s angel looks grumpy, flatter of face, sad, and a little jealous with his curled lip, baggy forlorn and dull eyes with their odd misdirected glance. Da Vinci’s angel looks angelic, reverent, with his beautifully shaped nose that anticipates the structure of the Mona Lisa’s. And the angel’s glance is perfectly directed towards the head of Christ (not shown). I can’t help but notice the similarity of da Vinci’s angel face with the face of the great Medici Venus. Side by side, they share the same brow, nose, and facial structure. Given that da Vinci had support from Lorenzo de’ Medici, it is plausible he had access to works from the vast Medici collection. It was already a practice for contemporary Renaissance painters, such as Botticelli in his famous Birth of Venus, to emulate this ancient sculpture.

Medici Venus (detail), circa 120 BC,
marble copy in the Praxitelean tradition. Uffizi Gallery

Another da Vinci mastery is the halo’s ellipse. No one paints ellipses better than da Vinci. Later in his career he would extravagantly indulge in making precise and delicate ellipses on the plates and glasses in his Last Supper.

The painted fabrics are also a telling difference between the two artists. The blue fabric in the da Vinci has a muted, subtle light, smoky sheen, and wooly texture. The dark brocaded sleeve is lovingly detailed, wrapping the folds in glimmering detail. The tones on the other angel’s blue wrap, fur collar, and shirt are more strident and abrupt; less lovingly done.

The face on da Vinci’s angel looks like it was sculpted by pure light vibrations. Verrocchio taught da Vinci how to illuminate the skin. Both angels in this painting have it, but with da Vinci it is magically flowing from within and without. His right cheek’s ridge is beautifully lit, the light then gently cascading down dimly lighting the neck. This subtle lighting accomplishes a flow of forms through space; the form of the peach-tinted cheek is gently placed forward. The forms of the neck and chin are slightly pushed back into space giving the angel’s head an elegant rotation through space. And notice the moist glint of light on the angel’s upper lip. Da Vinci’s ability to put a glassy glint in the eye and moisture on the upper lip and to pull it off successfully is extraordinary. 

One thing puzzled me: why was Verrocchio’s angel looking towards da Vinci’s angel and not towards Christ? While da Vinci’s angel was lit by the glow of reverence the other angel had a worn look of wistfulness. Could these have been metaphorical self-portraits? The old artist who did his very best but without a magic touch, plaintively looking at a gifted genius?

But Verrocchio deserves undying credit. He wasn’t just teaching da Vinci techniques, he was enabling his pathways of mind, emotion, and senses. Nothing like a craftsperson, this art master was teaching techniques to serve the spirit of the artist. With techniques and spiritual insights the teacher was giving the student knowledge on a staggering scale.

The prehistoric artists had trouble with human faces, either from lack of ability, knowledge, or spirit to do so. The ancient Greeks created universal stylized faces of beautiful, impersonal gods. The Romans made detailed realistic portraits of living wizened, often ugly, power brokers. With this da Vinci angel we get a stunning evolution of a universally beautiful head with enough realistic touches to feel like a real person, yet imbued with a feeling of divine inspiration.

Commensurable of Parts

Two thousand years before da Vinci, the golden age of Greece was flourishing, circa 480-430 BC. One of their most important artists was Policlitus, also spelled Polykleitos. He was also an exceptional mentor, running a workshop that lasted for three generations and helped produce the great sculptors Scopas and Lysippos.

He wrote the first recognized treatise on sculpture, The Canon. It is a theory that revolves on the theme of To Kallos—the beautiful, good, and noble. Policlitus’ stunning evolutionary art theory proposed that human proportions, tension, and torque are the technical means to arrive at the sublime (to kallos) in art. Not to leave it at theory he affirmed it by creating the bronze Doryphoros, The Spear Bearer.

Both the original treatise and the sculpture are lost to us. We know the substance of the treatise because it was widely referenced in antiquity. And most of the original Greek bronzes were melted down for their ore and used for war. The Romans thought it was the right thing to do, and made up for the loss by having craftsmen make marble copies of the Greek original bronzes; a little like substituting a Chinese factory art reproduction for the Mona Lisa.

Policlitus (Polykleitos), Doryphoros, The Spear Bearer, originally bronze, 450-440 BC. This is a marble copy circa 120 BC. Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Policlitus (Polykleitos), Doryphoros, The Spear Bearer, originally bronze, 450-440 BC. This is a marble copy circa 120 BC. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The ancient Greek thinker and physician Galen wrote about Policlitus’ theory of symmetry in the second century A.D.:

…beauty consists in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and of all the other parts to each other, as they are set forth in the Canon of Polycleitos.[1]

Two hundred years before Doryphoros, there was a tradition of sculpting life-size standing male nudes. They were reminiscent of stoic Egyptian sculptures—stiff, abstracted, with rudimentary anatomy. One point of naturalness they had was taking a half step forward. Policlitus took this step as encouragement to rethink how all the human moving parts fit together.

One stunning development he mastered was the contrast between muscle tension and relaxed ease. In this copy we can see the left leg is slack, which is complemented by the relaxed right arm. They are contrasted with the rigid right leg and the taut left arm (more obviously seen with the back view, not shown). Psychologically, this is a yin yang thing, the equivalent of inhaling and exhaling deeply—effort and release.

Already mentioned was Policlitus’ emphasis on anatomical proportions, from major groups down to the little finger. The theory is that perfectly balanced proportions give us an intense satisfied feeling of rightness. Think of elegant and simple solutions to complex problems, or a well-proportioned woman, or a car with beautiful lines. In visual art ugliness is quite easy to achieve: just mangle a hand, give a cauliflower ear or a swollen foot on an otherwise graceful figure. Often ugliness is a direct result of artistic incompetence; sometimes it is done on purpose, which is unforgivable. Policlitus’ demanding theory of proportions is even more difficult than it sounds, yet when mastered, it gives an otherworldly feeling of pleasure for the artist and an amenable audience.

A third innovation that Policlitus accomplished in theory and practice was creating a torque in the figure. Instead of the figure standing squarely on, he rotated the body’s core, a little like a winding staircase with a twist of slanting steps. This gives the sculpture a bewitching sense of living motion in a medium that is permanently rigid. Later, Giorgio Vasari would say of Michelangelo, the greatest master of this technique, that the “… outlines of the forms turned by him in such a way as could not have been achieved by any other but Michelagnolo.”[2] Viewing this sculpture in real life sets off this experience: just make a turn of your head, or step in any direction, and it will bring forth a new curve to see, giving the sense that he is alive. If you are lucky enough to experience this, it is one of the greatest experiences in art appreciation.

It has been said that art is the technology of the soul. Through connecting the complex pathways of how techniques can trigger certain types of emotions, Policlitus had the goods. And that he wrote a treatise to guide his students and pass those techniques on to the world makes him one of the greatest aestheticians of the human form. 

Michelangelo’s Start

Vasari, a close personal friend of Michelangelo’s, was a painter and architect, but his fame is for his art history tome, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, one of the great art historical works covering the Renaissance artists. Vasari tells us that when Michelangelo was young, perhaps between 10 and 12 years old, he was a student of grammar, but he would secretly draw at every opportunity, sometimes getting beaten by his dad for his intransigence. But there would be no stopping his interest in art. Michelangelo made friends with Francesco Granacci, a teen, six years older, who was an art apprentice at the master Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop. Francesco, who shared his drawing lessons with Michelangelo, would be his first art mentor.

Michelangelo’s father realized that his 14-year-old son was destined to be an artist and made a contract with the Domenico Ghirlandaio workshop. Michelangelo must have already made quality drawings, because the workshop paid him to apprentice, instead of the other way around. As with da Vinci, Michelangelo would gain professional fundamentals in art making from mixing pigment to finished commissioned works.

Figure 10 Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and His Grandson, 1490, tempera on wood, 25×18″, Louvre, France.

Ghirlandaio painted a range of works from monumentally ambitious biblical scenes, some with over 40 figures laboriously rendered in perspective, to intimate portraits. He worked hard to improve upon awkward Byzantine Christian art, improving human proportions and realism. He painted one fascinating double-portrait, An Old Man and His Grandson. (When I was 16 years old, I did an oil pastel copy of this painting). The sympathetic old man with a wart-covered nose, looks kindly on his angelic grandson. A metaphor for the old Christianity and the new humanism that was sweeping Italy? Or was it a personal statement, perhaps both? It must have been psychologically conflicting for this older master to see how effortlessly a young genius could eclipse him, and yet feel love and affection for this new generation.

Vasari writes how he had been collecting drawings, and one of them was an early Michelangelo, probably done when he was 14 years old. The drawing was a copy of one of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s paintings. The interesting thing was that Michelangelo didn’t literally copy the figures but corrected the anatomy as he drew—an unheard of thing for an apprentice to do. Later Ghirlandaio said, “This boy knows more about it than I do.”

Michelangelo had only apprenticed in the Ghirlandaio workshop for a year or so when he came to the attention of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose net worth has been estimated to have been $129 billion in today’s currency. This would be a significant change in fortune for the young Michelangelo.

Lorenzo de’ Medici and His Humanists

The greatest mentor to Michelangelo was not an artist but one of the wealthiest men in Europe, Lorenzo de’ Medici. He devoted his considerable resources, as did his grandfather Cosimo, to radically injecting humanism into the arts and humanities. Cosimo commissioned neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino to translate all of Plato’s dialogues from Greek into Latin and to lead the Florentine Platonic Academy, which Lorenzo continued to sponsor. Between the grandfather and grandson they launched the Italian Renaissance through money, influence, philosophy, aesthetics, and art. One of the most ambitious cultural enterprises in the history of the world, Michelangelo was to be the most famous result.

Lorenzo asked artist Ghirlandaio if he had any promising artists, particularly sculptors, who could be installed in the Medici household to further their talent. Lorenzo had shared his frustration that there were not more great contemporary sculptors to match the advancements happening in painting. Probably a request Ghirlandaio could not refuse, so Michelangelo at 15 or 16 years old was dropped into this Western epicenter to live, learn, and create. And like Botticelli and da Vinci, Michelangelo had the entire Medici collection of art, masterpieces from antiquity and contemporary masters, to learn from.

Michelangelo was also surrounded by the Medici network of neoplatonic intellectuals, artists, scientists, politicians, priests, and patrons of the day. Nearly all of them were fascinated with or working towards merging Christianity with Ancient Greek pagan thought and art. Imagine having a communal dinner in the Medici palace with young Michelangelo talking with Ficino about the aesthetics of the Good.

While Alberti defined concinnitas [architectural principles of beauty] as “a harmony of all the parts … fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished, or altered for the worse,” so for Ficino in De amore, “the blessed is that which lacks nothing. And that is that which is perfect in every part” (V.1). Of the blessed there is an internal perfection which is goodness, the manifestation of the Good, and an external perfection, which is beauty. Physical beauty can lead knowledge to an intuition of the Good …[3]

The Good here is similar to the Greek To Kallos, or to what I refer to as our contemporary Sublime. (It is with good reason that Marsilio Ficino got hauled before the Court of Inquisition for heresy in 1489, but luckily he escaped with only a slap on the wrist.) Ficino’s talk of sight, proportion, beauty, and how they connect to the good and divine would have spoken volumes to Michelangelo’s genius. Putting this in context helps explain the unmistakable qualities of physical beauty and proportions of Michelangelo’s works integrated with Christian subjects such as Moses, The Last Judgement, and the Old Testament (the Sistine Chapel).

Another very important mentor was the priest from the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence, which housed a hospital morgue. This priest allowed the 17/18-year-old Michelangelo to dissect cadavers in his quest to know more about human anatomy. This would satisfy Michelangelo’s quest to see past the skin to know exactly how the muscles, ligaments, and bone structure set the human body in motion.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s network of important people inspired Michelangelo through philosophy, science, history, literature, and art. And Lorenzo had the financial resources to turn this alchemy into historic gold. As grand and powerful as Lorenzo’s status was, he had a gently humorous side. Vasari tells us how young Michelangelo had sculpted a wizened old face of a grinning faun, a Greek mythological half-human–half-goat creature; which had a perfect set of teeth. Lorenzo mentioned that old men rarely have all their teeth. The next day Michelangelo chiseled out one of the teeth, and gently hollowed its cavity socket. How proud Lorenzo would have felt about this young apprentice.

Lorenzo was giving Michelangelo a gift of what I call the four “I’s” of visibility: insight, identification, identity, and illumination. This recognition from a brilliant powerful person lit Michelangelo’s course to become one of the greatest artists of all time.

“They Go Away!”

I lived in the medieval town of Rhodes, Greece for some years. While there I ran an art workshop teaching expats and some local Greeks. One lesson stood out in particular because of a complete meltdown of one of the Greek students. It was a still-life class drawing jugs, bowls, and cloth on a wooden table. This middle-aged student was composing the entire scene including the complete table legs. He drew them, in a way he thought natural, in a medieval way with the back legs splayed outwards, and front legs closer together. His table top looked like a wedge instead of a rectangle. He wasn’t distorting it on purpose, and he wasn’t being frivolous: he was drawing it the way he believed it to be true. Patiently, I took him through the steps of one-point perspective, like how railroad tracks come to a point in the distance. The student started screaming at me, “No! The back legs go away!” and aggressively gesturing with his arms how everything gets wider as it goes further away. Unperturbed, I took a pane of glass, used it as a window, and showed him how from our vantage point the front legs and table corners were the widest part of the table, not the least as he had drawn. Indeed the exact opposite of what he drew. Three more times he shouted at me that the legs and the table surface “Go away!” I thought he was crazy, and he left the class in a huff.

Later I discussed this with my friend Thodoris Archontopoulos, a Byzantine archaeologist and art historian. He amusedly told me that as the Italian Renaissance spread west, Greece did not adopt the innovations of the Western Renaissance but remained heavily influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The technique of one-point perspective was challenging the student’s world view, or in another way, it was a “line in the sand” about the validity of Byzantine religion and aesthetics. Thodoris believed that Byzantine art was a way to view reality, not truthfully, but through the other-worldly, mystical lens of the church. The Byzantine artists distorted reality; in the case of perspective they presented the inverse of how we actually see.

The Church was emphasizing that the reality we see is not important and that only through the Church can you achieve salvation. Their motivation was to hold humans back from evolving, to discourage their trust or reliance on their individual perceptions. The theory is that if the Church can separate a human from their perceptions, the church will have another tool to make humanity dependent on the church. Ironically, they were using art not only to hook devotees, but at the same time to undermine art. A brilliant and questionable psychological manipulation.

This distorted manipulation of the Eastern Church was what Lorenzo de’ Medici was working so hard to change, and art would be key in leading the way. 

Listen to Your Soul

I was truly fortunate as a 17-year-old to study with artist Edgar Ewing, an American modernist. He was about 65 years old, grizzly hair, medium build, wore a tweed coat and slacks. His most outstanding feature was his eyes. They shone with sparkle, humor, kindness, and deep intelligence. How many elderly people glow with exuberant vitality? How can anyone know that you are in the presence of an extraordinary person? If anyone had the keys of what it meant to be an artist it would be this man.

One day he addressed our class: “Making art is like making love.” We were teenagers but we all knew he wasn’t taking about sex. We could tell by his bearing that he was talking about an all-encompassing love. Yet few of us knew what that was. Or how it was connected to art. Yet, he was talking to a spark that I felt for art.

In our studio painting classes he would have us dive into painting and show us how to improvise a composition and accents. It was not a classical lesson of rule-based stages. It was a leap into the unknown, a chaos of sorts. Quite similar to real life, or romantic love. You cannot program life or your lover with perfect step-by-step stages. Once the plunge into the painting was taken there would be a series of problems surfacing, some technical while others were just because a section was boring. In every case, the solution wasn’t intellectual or purely technical, it was to work the paint until there was a click, a trigger of the feeling of love for that mark of paint. He was not teaching us to be craftsmen. He was teaching us to listen to our whole being, to feel the network of senses, emotions, and thoughts—none being more important than another, and when the right moment came, when all those factors came together—that was art, that was love.

The second biggest lesson he taught us was how to protect our art. He would say, “Make money doing something else, but always and only make the art you love. Do not make art for others.” His guidance about love and integrity might sound a bit sentimental, but in practice it was profound. He understood that when art is approached from a love-based place, then commissions and art for hire are similar to prostitution. It had the same disconnects to romantic love as it had to pure creativity—it kills the fragile network of free interplay that makes genuine art. In a way this takes us all the way back to the Cave painters following their drive to make art. But between then and now some artists would get lost, thinking that at least they are painting even if the subject is not of their choosing, or they’d manage changing a color to suit a client.

I don’t know if Edgar knew explicitly that he was teaching us the techniques that could lead us on evolutionary paths, but he was certainly teaching us what the zenith of an art experience was like. He knew it and that was evident in the sparkle of his eye.

[1] Gardner, Louise, Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, inc. New York, 1975, page 164

[2] Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects: Illustrated – Biographies of the Greatest Artists of Renaissance, Studium Publishing. Kindle Edition. Location 30673

[3] Hendrix, J.S., Alberti and Ficino, (2012).School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation Faculty Papers. Paper 25, page 4


I hope you enjoyed reading this chapter from Evolution Through Art. I am an independent artist, not affiliated with any group, organization, or institution. That way I am absolutely free to pursue truth in my art and thought. BTW, ETA had 6 beta readers, two copy editors, and a final check by a professional philosopher. It would be very supportive to buy and review my book.

Thank you,

Michael Newberry

Evolution Through Art by Michael Newberry

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