Decoding da Vinci

He was the original Renaissance man: master painter, an inventor of flying machines and weapons of w

Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford and curator of the "Leonardo: experience, experiment and design" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, must be a happy man - secure in the prospect of popular triumph. Nobody can doubt that the vast, and inexplicable, success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code will swell the visitor numbers. Animations of Leonardo's drawings and models of his great weapons of war, such as his flying machine, tank and crossbow, will attract some; the collection of pages from his notebooks or "codexes" - tiny but jostling and tumbling with force, curiosity and invention - will attract others.

But perhaps the most powerful attraction will be the sheer idea of Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance man. Few artists exert such a hold on the public cultural imagination; the man from Vinci remains in a class of his own. And it is we, of course, who put him there. Why?

One reason is that he was different. To us, he seems an artist who uniquely straddled the worlds of individual creativity and rational science. He detected similarities and metonyms in the physical world, depicted them and worked upon them with forensic skill. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis: Leonardo was a master of the visual dialectic. His work does not just offer us a world-view, nor (whatever Dan Brown's readers may believe) create clever puzzles for the illuminati. It engages us in argument in the clear, rational light of day - and his conclusions are written upon the modern world.

One of the paradoxes of art - of any text, written, visual, spoken - is that it is completed only at the point at which it is read or viewed. The consumer does not merely consume, but builds, or rebuilds, one instance of the text - and by doing so, also rewrites his or her own perception of past and present. In this way, the influence of an artist flows backwards as well as forwards.

In one of Leonardo's more charming observations, he notes the similarity between tresses of hair and flowing water, and draws both to show us. If we then read Ovid, we see Arethusa's tresses enveloped in the stream. It seems to us that Ovid is seeing, impossibly, through Leonardo's eyes. Leonardo influences not just the future, but the past. True, it is our personal construction of the past; but is there any other sort?

All art, all texts, can have this effect, but Leo nardo is more potent than most because of his "genius". This characteristic has been described as the ability to see similarities where mere talent sees only differences - a defining character istic of Leonardo's work. Arguably, judging by his notebooks, his art was the by-product of his observation of the world, rather than the world being a repository of potential art. His curiosity forces him not only to notice the similarity between water and hair but to look for the reason. "Observe the motion of the surface of water," he wrote, "which resembles the behaviour of hair, which has two motions, of which one depends on the weight of the strands, the other on the line of its revolving; thus water makes revolving eddies, one part of which depends upon the impetus of the principle current, and the other depends on the incident and reflected motions."

Here is the rational man at work. It is at Leo nardo's rationalism that we marvel, as much as at his art: his technical skills (he was a master of water in the engineering, as well as the figurative sense), his war machines and helicopter, his solar power and plate tectonics and double-hulled ships, his foetus in utero, his Vitruvian Man, and his famous parachute ("If a man have a tent of linen without any apertures, twelve ells across and twelve in depth, he can throw himself down from any great height without injury").

Our wonder is both amplified and complicated by our appreciation for his art: the luminous sleight of hand in the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, or Lady with an Ermine. Stunned by his versatility, we christen him the Renaissance man, not because he meets the brief for the polymath in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (a 16th-century equivalent of a "personal development" manual), but because he resolved what we now experience as an almost insurmountable tension between the "creative artist" and rational man.

The tension between arts and sciences is a product of Romanticism which lingers horribly to this day. Leonardo, however, would not have had access to such Romantic ideas as solitude, individualism, the sublime, "creativity" and science, nor even the idea of "the artist". If today we marvel at Leonardo because he could simulta neously respond to the sublime and remain analytical, we do him, and ourselves, a disservice and perpetrate an offence against history.

Even the Renaissance itself is a modern construction. It is more likely, in reality, to have been a small, elite cultural movement confined to the usual - and profoundly social - smattering of super-rich nobility, crooks, arrivistes and trustafarians. Artists had to scramble for status. Meanwhile, the great mass of people lived in a world which, far from glowing in the new light of humanism and the rediscovery of classical antiquity, simply got that little bit worse.

The idea of "the artist" would only come later; to some extent, it was unwittingly invented by Leonardo. If we accept that "the Renaissance" and "the artist" are both concepts which had no relevance to him, Leonardo begins to emerge from the mythology we have built around him. He was a man who embodied the particular attributes of the period in between the medieval and the modern: primarily, an insatiable curiosity and tireless enterprise.

Leonardo's defining achievement was not his art, but his rare ability to look closely at the world and see it as it is. Most of us cannot. And when we encounter someone who can, it is not enough to recognise him; we must believe in him, even at the cost of inventing things to believe in.

When Bill Gates bought the Codex Hammer (previously the Codex Leicester) in 1994 for $30.8m, critics were dismayed that such a treasure should disappear into the hands of a strange oligarch. They were wrong; Gates subsequently challenged scholars to come up with new ways of seeing Leonardo and, according to Peter Furtado, editor of History Today, the V&A exhibition is one of the results. We should be thankful.

It may be true that we can never see the distant past clearly: the present, and everything in between, are too much in the way. But we can find new ways of picturing Leonardo; though they will, of course, actually be ways of picturing ourselves. Gates's involvement in this exhibition is an irony that would have amused Leonardo himself. A man who made his name in another time of cultural upheaval, and who has grown unspeakably rich by selling people a world seen through glass, is partly responsible for showing us more of the man from Vinci, who looked at the world as it was, undistorted by Windows.

"Leonardo: experience, experiment and design" is at the V&A, London SW7, until 7 January 2007. More info and tickets:

Leonardo da Vinci: a brief history
Researched by Matthew Kennard

1452 Leonardo is born in the small Tuscan town of Vinci, near Florence, son of a peasant woman and a Florentine lawyer.

1466 Starts his apprenticeship with the notable Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. It is in his studio that Leonardo first exhibits his precocious talents as a painter.

1476 While living with Verrocchio he is accused of sodomy with a young boy.

1477 Becomes an independent master. He embarks on his first commissions, which include the Benois Madonna and Ginevra de' Benci.

1482 Enters the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and serves him for 17 years, until the duke's fall from power. It is during this time that he completes much of his greatest work, including paintings and weapons design for the duke.

1490-95 Produces a prodigious number of detailed studies ranging across a variety of scientific fields, from geometry to architecture, and all fastidiously compiled in notebooks.

1495-98 Paints The Last Supper.

1499 His longtime patron, the Duke of Milan, is sent into exile.

1500 Returns to Florence and meets a new patron, Cesare Borgia. In 1502, they begin travelling around Italy for a number of years in what is known as Leonardo's "Nomadic Period".

1503-1506 Begins work on the Mona Lisa. Most historians believe it is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant.

1506 Meets Count Francesco Melzi, who goes on to become Leonardo's pupil and companion for life. There is some speculation that they were also lovers.

1513-16 Works in Rome under the patronage of Giuliano de' Medici, whose nephew Pope Leo X commissions him to create various works.

1519 Dies in Cloux, France, aged 67.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shopping: How it became our national disease