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W&L's George Bent Teaches Leonardo da Vinci in DVD Set

As George Bent has discovered, it’s one thing to prepare to teach a Washington and Lee Spring Term course on Leonardo da Vinci, and it’s quite another to film 36 half-hour lectures as part of The Great Courses program.

Bent, the Sidney Gause Childress Professor in the Arts and department head at W&L, admits that the production of the DVDs for The Great Courses required additional research in order to cover both Leonardo’s personal and professional life within the framework of the political instability of Europe in the late 15th- and early 16th-century, a period known as the High Renaissance.

The Great Courses will publish Bent’s Leonardo DVDs on April 6, 2012, making them available to a wide audience as part of the program’s efforts to meet an increasing demand for lifelong learning. The Great Courses maintains a catalog of more than 390 courses by professors from leading colleges and universities in diverse fields such as philosophy, history, literature, science, and the arts.

Bent was perfectly at home creating the Leonardo course on video.

“Italy was a battleground with French, Spanish, Germans and Swiss marching through the Italian countryside,” said Bent. “They were burning things, taking territory and threatening the people who were spending money on art. Usually, great artistic movements tend to happen in times of relative stability where patrons, audiences and artists feel comfortable spending money on big art projects. So it raises the big question: why are these patrons continuing to expend a lot of energy on art and architecture in the face of these very real threats?

“I tend to take the stand that these dukes, princes and kings were using art and architecture as an arm of diplomacy. They used it to make themselves culturally significant in an effort to carve alliances with other people and make them think Italy was worth protecting and saving. It was pure propaganda and very interesting.”

While Bent does discuss Leonardo’s art in some detail, he pointed out that the artist was not very prolific. “He did only 18 paintings that we know of. And in some regards Leonardo’s influence was minute because he had so few students and kept so few friendships and alliances. So when he died there were only a handful of people who actually tried to copy his style and fewer still who could do it. He was such a gifted draftsman that no one could copy him,” said Bent.

But some of Leonardo’s ideas were appropriated by other artists — compositional motifs, themes of Madonnas and modern portraiture, which Bent said Leonardo invented. “A great example of his influence is that Leonardo was one of the first artists we know of in the early modern period to deal with the theme of erotica,” said Bent. “He painted a picture that is now lost, but that seems to have influenced 16th- century paintings of nudes by Titian and others. So directly, he influenced very few. But indirectly, he influences artists up to this day.”

Much of the lecture series revolves around Leonardo’s scientific drawings, engineering ideas, examinations of the human body and anatomy and his exploration of human flight, to name a few.

“Obviously, Leonardo had a brilliant mind and imagined things that would never come to fruition until the 20th century,” said Bent. “He anticipated a lot of things that we have today, particularly in military science. He was hired as a military engineer by Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan in 1481 to invent weapons of mass destruction. So he invented the tank, the submarine, the machine gun and the parachute. He also invented this wild giant scythe which rotated as a horseman rode his stallion onto the battle field. It was a machine intended to cut opposing soldiers off at the knees and it was both diabolical and brilliant.”

Bent said that the one thing that held Leonardo back was the lack of the combustion engine. “He didn’t have any way to drive these things with the force that he needed. His designs for the airplane, for example, really form the fundamentals of aeronautic design in the 19th and 20th centuries, but he didn’t have a way to get a human being up into the air and keep him up there,” said Bent.

Bent described Leonardo’s work as representing the single greatest break with the past that history has seen. “Everything that he did, everything that he touched, was a complete departure from the past. That’s what makes him and his period the High Renaissance as opposed to the Early Renaissance,” said Bent.

“He was a completely modern thinker and is very relevant to us today.”

Bent received his B.A. in history from Oberlin College and his M.A. and PhD in history of art from Stanford University.

Further information about The Great Courses can be found at http://www.thegreatcourses.com/

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