Celebrating half a millennium of Leonardo da Vinci

The famous painting The Mona Lisa is but one of his many achievements

In Summary

• The famous artist was a polymath of all times

Artist Leonardo da Vinci
Artist Leonardo da Vinci

A polymath is a giant of the mind. Such a person tends to possess encyclopedic knowledge akin to that of Plato or Aristotle of old, or Cheikh AntaDiop of Senegal.

As we sum up this year, one remembers the constellation of ideas that have animated it. The attempts to find meaning in the highlights of the year here in Kenya may require a polymathic mind to achieve. Such a mind perhaps possesses epic prowess to synthesise knowledges of different fields and area in a complex manner to offer meaning and sense to the realities around us.

This year marks 500 years since the death of the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). From literature to astronomy and from botany to music and other shades of the arts, he straddled his century as a colossus. Today his name refuses to fade away as many across the world followed adventures of the protagonist Robert Langdon in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2003). The novel was a global bestseller in the last decade, selling millions of copies. The thriller was later transformed into a Hollywood blockbuster under the same title and directed by Ron Howard in 2006, attaining further acclamation.

An academic discipline exists today on the study of the origin, history and use of proper names. It is called Onomatology or Onomastics. It is interesting to see how resilient the great Italian genius is from a survey of how his name and names of his famous artwork are everywhere around us even in Kenya. Apart from the title of the novel above, which reminds us of the renaissance artist, the famous painting The Mona Lisa is another that Kenyans can remember immediately.

Montezuma Monalisa is a respected funeral home in Kenya. It has branches in Nairobi and Machakos. For the necrophobes, the same name Mona Lisa means a hotel in Thika that goes by it. Another hotel by the same name exists in Mombasa County.

Those with a passion for new generation music across East Africa, popularised by Willy Tuva of Citizen TV and radio station, associate with Mona Lisa in another dimension. It is the title of an arty song by the duo Nasty Thomas and Mustapha from Kenya, who used to sing under the brand of Deux Vultures (Two Vultures) at the turn of the century. Mona Lisa is a common and popular name of many Kenyan female citizens today.

Da Vinci painted greatly and his other famous works apart from The Mona Lisa include, among others, The Last Supper and The Vitruvian Man. He believed that Arts and Science were not diametrically placed opposites and therefore irreconcilable. He viewed the two as joined essences for the mind to express and put to use. In our country as we debate the two fields of knowledge, we can be guided by this philosophy. As David Mulwa, the renowned Kenyan thespian and theatre don shared with the Star, We need both the arts and the sciences, for the two are stronger pillars than an edifice based on one.

Scholars across the world will deliver lectures, mount exhibitions and vernissages in honor of Leonardo Da Vinci this year. In Zambia, the Italian Embassy in Lusaka had a whole week of activities in memory of the great polymath, which climaxed with a public lecture at the University of Zambia.

As we take stock of Da Vinci’s influence over the half a millennium epoch, across the world, and fields of knowledge, let us remember that the unfolding globalisation has made it possible for renaissance footprints to appear all over the world, at least onomatologically.  

Dr JKS Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University