[NetBehaviour] Politics and Sustainability -- The Esperienza of Leonardo da Vinci

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sun Feb 20 19:02:07 CET 2022

Hi all,

Given the high European membership on this list I would imagine that there is a lot of anxiety regarding the possibility of land conflict currently dominating the news.  There certainly is deep apprehension in the US, as far as I can tell, and personally I share this albeit from a much greater distance.  Sometimes history both forward and backward seems a cruel repeat of tragedy and loss.

There may be no contribution that art and science, much less my own speculative hypotheses about Leonardo's philosophy about them, can make to alleviate the suffering of the next decade and century.  It may be simply another case where ghosts of past harm revive themselves and dominate all possibility.

However, that scenario can never be known for certain in advance.  Sometimes science and art do have a capacity to make a positive difference.  The change can even be significant at times.  Therefore many people continue to attempt to realize hopes for the best.

As part of my headlong tumble into studying Leonardo for the first time as my pandemic hobby I learned also about the great influence of Dante on both Leonardo and modern European culture.  Dante, like Leonardo, wrote in vernacular Italian rather than Latin to bring discussion of science and art into the mainstream "public sphere" as one might call it.  Leonardo did not speak or read Latin, so perforce Dante was his primary poet.

Leonardo wrote in the introduction to his Treatise on Painting that "Painting is poetry which is seen and not heard, and poetry is a painting which is heard but not seen. These two arts, you may call them both either poetry or painting, have here interchanged the senses by which they penetrate to the intellect."  He also wrote, "If you [the poet] would say: but I describe for you the Inferno, or Paradise, or other delights or terrors, the painter can beat you at your own game, because he will put it directly in front of you."  There is no question that Leonardo considered literature and the visual arts -- the two fundamental components, since literature encompasses poetry as well as music, of even 99% of internet art today -- to be integrated elements of the same form of practice.  There is also no question that small-m modernity, including every postmodernism and every theory offered by the twentieth century, traces its foundation to Dante and Leonardo.

Therefore, with crises of sustainability impinging on every shore, it is not silly at all in itself to look back and retrace some of the steps which led to the present place.  The manner in which one looks back can, of course, be futile or misguided but it can also in principle be otherwise.

As Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale University wrote in Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (1993), "Dante invests the word 'esperienza' with extraordinary overtones."  The term means "experience" in the same sense as English but it also means "experiment" as in those of scientific method.  Dante elaborates both meanings and discusses the fundamental importance of each in depth.

Leonardo also writes of both senses of the term, including such aphorisms as "sound rules are the issue of sound experience, the common mother of all the sciences and arts."  He personifies Esperienza as the true teacher, guide, and master of art and science:

"Experience does not err; only your judgments err by expecting from her what is not in her power. Men wrongly complain of Experience; with great abuse they accuse her of leading them astray but they set Experience aside, turning from it with complaints as to our ignorance causing us to be carried away by vain and foolish desires to promise ourselves, in her name, things that are not in her power; saying that she is fallacious. Men are unjust in complaining of innocent Experience, constantly accusing her of error and of false evidence."

Wondering if the Mona Lisa might be a "portrait" of this philosophy, I started to look for uses of "experience" and "esperienza" as an avid but amateur pandemic sleuth and found them in great abundance.  One can trace many of these same ideas after Leonardo's time, through Montaigne's final essay "Of Experience," Bacon's Novum Organum, Emerson's essay "Experience," as well as the first sentence of Hamilton's Federalist No. 1 and the last paragraph of his Federalist No. 85, the last of those papers.  The term is also highlighted by English philosopher of mind (and more) David Hume, as quoted in the aforesaid Papers.

The portrait, untitled by Leonardo himself but named by later critics Mona Lisa or La Gioconda, more than resonates with the term quite eloquently in the literary, visual, scientific, and philosophical senses.  The hypothesis that it is a conscious allegory, directly comparable to Apelles' lost and ancient Calumny, is beyond plausible and may even be said, in my opinion, to be probable.  However, it has never been discussed in any scholarship on Leonardo in the last 500 years, making a full discussion even if uncertain a simply uncompleted task of due diligence.

The importance of Esperienza -- portraiture and allegorical detective work aside -- as defended by Dante and Leonardo cannot be overstated.  Its centrality is, as Mazzotta writes, "extraordinary."  It embodies, without any exaggeration, that principle and the only principle which may steer as it were the sciences and arts along a sustainable course amid the myriad unsustainable ones.  The principle is therefore, inasmuch as the arts and sciences may contribute to positive political outcomes, indirectly relevant to politics.

At first thinking that just comparing Dante to Leonardo would be more than enough for my unschooled capability I soon realized there was an additional figure of key relevance to any modern appreciation of Dante and Leonardo.  This was Leonardo's contemporary and younger colleague in the employ of various Florentine political administrations (including the Medici family over multiple generations), the political official, philosopher, and author Niccolo Machiavelli.  Like Dante and Leonardo, he also wrote of esperienza, and Fortune, and history, and the role played by knowledge of the arts and sciences.

Machiavelli is said to have invented modern political theory and his influence is still seen almost everywhere to this very day.  I am no expert on his work and ideas, only this year reading his books, but I can tell right away that the philosophy of Leonardo and Dante differs from his in some extremely relevant and important ways.  I don't really know how to articulate these and therefore am working on that as my project for this year.

The general drift of the distinction between Dante and Leonardo on the one hand, and Machiavelli on the other, can be captured in the quote from Machiavelli which first prompted me to juxtapose the three Renaissance figures (a quote I stumbled across quite by accident in an article about Brexit while writing about the portrait-as-Esperienza hypothesis):  his infamous assertion that Fortune is a woman who must be beaten and bullied by the Prince who wishes to possess her.  This coercive, amoral, nihilistic, and violent credo is in polar opposition to the ethos represented by Beatrice and Fortuna in Dante as well as by Esperienza and Fortuna in Leonardo.  Machiavelli in archetypal form seeks to force the teacher, instructor, guide, and source of "all the rivers of human art" (Dante) into servitude of military conquest.

These facts are not in dispute for the most part.  I have yet to research the nuances, and of course the relevance of either to the twenty-first century quest for sustainability is almost completely unknowable.  Still, in so far as the practice of the arts and sciences is subject to any free agency on the part of human beings at all -- which I believe it is at least some of the time -- it is in the choices which govern said practice that the options for better or worse futures reside.

So which will be chosen, Beatrice and Esperienza or Il Principe?  It is of course yet and always to be determined.

All very best,





The first paragraph of Hamilton's Federalist No. 1 (writing as Publius):

"AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."

The final paragraph of Hamilton's Federalist No. 85, the final Paper:

"The zeal for attempts to amend, prior to the establishment of the Constitution, must abate in every man who is ready to accede to the truth of the following observations of a writer equally solid and ingenious: "To balance a large state or society Usays hee, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able, by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite in the work; experience must guide their labor; time must bring it to perfection, and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes which they INEVITABLY fall into in their first trials and experiments."3 [Hume] These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all the sincere lovers of the Union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the States from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagoguery, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from time and experience. It may be in me a defect of political fortitude, but I acknowledge that I cannot entertain an equal tranquillity with those who affect to treat the dangers of a longer continuance in our present situation as imaginary. A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety. I can reconcile it to no rules of prudence to let go the hold we now have, in so arduous an enterprise, upon seven out of the thirteen States, and after having passed over so considerable a part of the ground, to recommence the course. I dread the more the consequences of new attempts, because I know that powerful individuals, in this and in other States, are enemies to a general national government in every possible shape."

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