Comment Opinion & Features

2019 is the year of Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper, the most widely reproduced religious painting of all time

Leonardo died 500 years ago this May

The single currency devised by the European Union, the euro, is 20 years old this month. My personal disappointment with this financial innovation is that the European Central Bank decided against featuring a human face on the notes.

If the bank had chosen a human face, surely the outstanding candidate would have been a personage who had already featured on Italian banknotes: Leonardo da Vinci.

As it happens, we mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death this year. He died on May 2, 1519, at the Château d’Amboise in the Loire valley, aged 67, probably of a stroke. He was working under the patronage of King Francis I of France, who said of him: “There has never been another man born into the world who knew so much as Leonardo: not so much about painting, sculpture, architecture – and a very great philosopher.”

The centuries have endorsed and added to that view. Leonardo da Vinci was not only a painter of great genius – his Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous picture – but he was also the epitome of the Renaissance man. He was a master of painting, architecture, engineering, science, anatomy, geology, botany and astronomy. He foresaw the invention of the helicopter, the parachute and the tank in his drawings and etchings. He produced the blueprint for many future inventions, from an adding machine to a bobbin for a sewing machine. He foresaw the ultrasound scan: his drawings of the development of the unborn child in the womb are astonishingly biologically accurate.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock in the Republic of Florence to an older legal notary (who was previously childless) and a young peasant mother, Caterina. His paintings of women and motherhood were particularly tender. Freud thought that his depiction of the Virgin, the Infant Jesus and St Anne was an extraordinary evocation of motherhood: behind a mother is another mother.

Leonardo was in the employ of two popes, Alexander VI (the notorious Rodrigo Borgia: unedifying in morals, but elevating in art) and Pope Leo X.

Italy is justly proud of this most phenomenal Italian, yet Leonardo belongs to all Europe, and to all hum­anity. The Last Supper is the most widely reproduced
religious painting of all time, and has presented the world with a Gospel narrative that is visually unrivalled.

This is the year of Leonardo da Vinci.

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The UN has designated 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, to try and support 6,700 languages that are said to be in peril. Many could disappear by the end of the century.

It’s a mystery why some languages fade while others adapt and survive. Ireland has struggled mightily to preserve and revive Irish. But, while most of us have an affection for Irish, few of us speak it, despite 12 years’ school instruction. Whereas Israel revived Hebrew with remarkable success.

The late Lord Jacobovits, Chief Rabbi of Ireland and subsequently of the British Commonwealth, said to me: “Perhaps if Irish had been the language of your religion as well as your nation, it might have had a better chance.”

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My New Year resolution is to cease bothering St Anthony quite so frequently about losing stuff.

It’s an old person’s habit, I know: wandering around disconsolately asking: “Where did I put those specs?” Or keys. Or my notebook, in which I write down my little list of tasks that must be ticked off.

Just before Christmas, I spent an entire morning searching for the notebook so that I could find out what I needed to do. St Anthony kept me waiting before he delivered an answer – just to teach me a lesson, I suspect. The lesson being: pay attention to where you put things. (The notebook was finally found under a landline telephone which I seldom use.)

Losing or misplacing small everyday items is upsetting somehow. It adds to a general sense of confusion and lack of control over one’s domestic life. It invites constant self-reproach: “How could I be so careless?”

It’s a warning especially given to those whose sight is deteriorating or impaired: be sure to keep everything in its place.

Yes, I’ve made this resolution before – but practice makes perfect.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4