James Hankins on why contemporary people find de Vinci so accessible:
Leonardo, in other words, resembles the modern type of humanist, free (or bereft) of religion, seeking orientation in the world by human reason and human observation alone. He was never a humanist such as the Renaissance produced from the time of Petrarch, over a hundred years before his birth. This circumstance removes another barrier between the artist and his modern viewers. To be a Renaissance humanist meant learning classical languages, mastering classical texts, and above all accepting the ancients—including ancient Christians—as models for modern lives. An artist influenced by Renaissance humanism (or a humanistically educated artist like Vasari) produced learned art, requiring a classical education to appreciate. Humanist art was also didactic, meant to communicate moral and political lessons. All of that was foreign to Leonardo. He had almost no formal education and could not read Latin, the doorway to all the academic disciplines in his time. As a youth he was given basic training in Florentine business methods (which he despised and flouted) and was apprenticed to the trade of making decorative objects for the wealthy in the workshop of his master Verrocchio. He is an Old Master, but he does not participate deeply in the rich Christian and classical traditions that inform the art of the Old Masters from the Renaissance down to the eighteenth century. Hence little or no knowledge of history, classical literature, or even Christian sources is required to appreciate Leonardo’s works. Your head can be perfectly empty of religion and traditional culture and still marvel at Leonardo’s recreations of nature. For most modern museum-goers, that provides immense relief from what might be called the anxiety of ignorance.
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