« НазадПродовжити »
*** Several of these Papers appeared originally in the “Westminster Review,”
FOOTPRINTS ON THE ROAD.
LEONARDO DA VINCI-THE ARTIST.
It has frequently been remarked by historians and biographers that great men never exist separately, but always have correspondent minds among their contemporaries. Were we to condense the opinion into an aphorism, we should say that greatness is peculiar rather to the age than to the individual. And it must be acknowledged that every distinguished generation, every remarkable character, every empire, and, we might even say, every principality, has afforded brilliant illustrations of this aphorism. While Socrates, for example, was instilling morality into the incipient philosophy of Greece, Confucius was founding a religion among the Chinese. While Epicurus was dreaming in the gardens of Athens, Euclid was ripening the science of geometry at Alexandria. While Cicero was intoning his voice to the sound of a flageolet, Vitruvius was planning a triclinium, or drawing the proportions of an aqueduct. Were we, in short, to survey the whole annals of intellect, we should discover only repetition after repetition of this very beautiful companionship among the illustrious. We should discover a Quintilian contemporaneous with a Tacitus ; a Petrarch with a Giotto; and a Voltaire with a Gibbon. Yet the simultaneous appearance of genius is scarcely so surprising or unaccountable as the simultaneous growth of various branches of human knowledge. There have been periods in which a mysterious impulse has been given to the intelligence of mankind, when at one bound sciences have overleapt Alps upon Alps of difficulties, and the barren fields of literature have waved with golden harvests and perennial fruit, as though they
had been stricken by the wand of a necromancer. Centuries of ignorance and obscurity have suddenly become pregnant with mighty truths and still mightier principles; and, in the birth of those new eras, a moral light has streamed over the world brighter than had ever before visited its inhabitants. In astronomy, this coincidence is attested by the advent of Tycho Brahe and Copernicus ; in navigation, by the expeditions of Cabot and Columbus; in poetry, by the creations of Hesiod and Chaucer. It is not, however, to the progress made in any particular department of learning, nor to the development of any distinct bough upon the tree of know ledge, that the contemplation of the career and character of Leonardo da Vinci would naturally direct attention; -it is rather to the general dawning of the intelligence of modern times, of that more divine and more comprehensive intel. ligence than was ever perceptible in the halcyon days of antiquity, before the robust faculties of the ancients had become emasculated through over-cultivation.
If we examine the most deplorable of all the deplorable records of humanity, we find that subsequently to the incursions of the northeru barbarians under Alaric and Odoacer, a Night of Igno-. rance gloomed once more over the Roman peninsula, and gradually extended its darkness throughout the dominions of Western Europe. The intellectual beams which had hitherto radiated from the metropolis of that vast empire appeared, in their physical subjection, to have been utterly extinguished ;-and the ultimate removal of the imperial government to Byzantium threatened to enforce the blow which had been administered by the brands of savage invaders. The Genius of ancient Italy was veiled; the treasures of learning were either forgotten or destroyed; the seeds of knowledge were trainpled into the dust, and the very place of their burial was obliterated. Upon the regions sancti. fied by 80 much glory and wisdom the desolation of eight fruitless centuries descended, and in the lapse of that dismal interval the fate of the Italian people seemed to acquire an inexorable confirmation. According to the rotation which is observable in the phenomena of burning mountains, the old verdure appeared to be permanently covered by the irruption and incrustation of a new soil-a soil distinguished for a long while by its sterility, and at length only sprinkled with a sickly and stunted vegetation. Towards the close of the thirteenth century, however, the dormant capacities of Europe asserted their energy, and the barrenness of many preceding ages was compensated by the fecundity of a few generations.
On tlie capture of Constantinople, as we have already inti
mated, the moral and intellectual decay of Italy seemed to approach its consummation. The evil destinies of the capital and its environs appeared to be definitively accomplished by the transportation of the sovereign authority to the shores of the Marmora. Yet the consequence of that great movement was exactly the reverse of what was anticipated. Out of the very forlornness and abandonment of the population arose the means and the deeds of its redemption-another Minerva emerging from the pangs of Jupiter. The establishment of the Byzantine dynasty proved, in fact, to be an occurrence the best calculated to ensure the resuscitation of ancient Europe. A direct intercourse was thereby restored between the Latins and the Greeks, and the effect of that renewed intercourse was the wholesome incitement of the former to philosophic enterprise and mental speculation. Under that benign influence, the aspect of the peninsula was rapidly transformed from an exhausted antiquity to a vigorous and propitious youth. The land which was still strewn with the débris of the colossal empire, which was still disfigured by the devastations of the Vandals, whicb, above all, was still oppressed with the oblivion of its long sorrows, gave indications of the revival of its glory and its adolescence. The obscurity of the past floated from tbe veiled Genius of that illustrious country. The treasures of its classic erudition, like the entombed gems of the Etruscans, were restored to the daylight, unmutilated. The seeds of knowledge, trodden down and despised by insensate generations, sprouted up through that universal sterility, and gave forth a barvest and a vintage.
Iu order that the lethargy which ages had rendered the habitual condition of the popular mind, might be effectively dispelled, it was essential that the works of the antique writers should be transmitted from the libraries and cloisters of Greece. Until that was accomplished, indeed, the very materials of scholarship would be wanting. The existence of such a necessity has been more than insinuated by Gibbon, where he observes that “ before the revival of classic literature, the barbarians of Europe were immersed iu ignorance, and their vulgar tougues were marked by the rudeness and poverty of their manner.” * When ouce, however, the movement of regeneration bad commenced, its effects becaine manifest in achievements of the most surprising and gigantic character. Scarcely twelve months had elapsed after the day when the matchless compositions of Homer found an * Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, vol. vi. p. 431. Quarto edition, 1788.