Monday, February 13, 2012

Let's just call him Leonardo, shall we?

Leonardo, possible self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci is probably the Renaissance man who gave birth to the concept of "Renaissance man." Wikipedia, our go-to for instant information, calls him a "painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer." His name - Leonardo - is enough to identify him, and any other Leonardos are merely pale shadows. "da Vinci" simply tells us where he came from - the little Tuscan town of Vinci. While still in Vinci, he would have been known as Leonardo di ser Piero (the son of the notary Piero). The place identifier would only become relevant once he was living elsewhere, but it is no stand-in for a name. (Wiki, by the way, seems to confuse the titles "ser" [notary] and "messer" [a knight, usually]; Piero was a notary. Which was a much bigger deal then than it is now, but still no knighthood.)

So why do so many people refer to him as "da Vinci"? Or worse, "Da Vinci"? I know, I know, it's traditional, people do it, we all know what it means, etc., etc. But it still annoys me. It makes no more sense, aesthetically or informationally, than calling Saint Francis of Assisi "Of Assisi" or Joan of Arc "Of Arc."

Of Assisi

Of Arc

In a time when very few people had surnames, this sort of thing comes up a lot. Piero da Firenze, Jacopo da Firenze, Giovanni da Firenze, and Lorenzo da Firenze are not the four da Firenze brothers; they are four 14th century composers who all lived in Florence. (And I've been known to form an opinion of a history book based on how it indexes such people. If I find them tucked away under D for "da", I'm not likely to think highly of that book.)

Of course, sometimes during the middle ages and the Renaissance people did get tagged with a place-related name, and it stuck, all by itself. This was true of the scholar and poet Poliziano, tutor of Lorenzo de' Medici's children in Florence, whose name simply means "the guy from Montepulciano." Back at home in Montepulciano, where he was surrounded by other poliziani, he was known as Angelo Ambrogini.


Poliziano's house in Montepulciano

At times, a person may be so firmly identified with a city that the name of the city becomes the name of the person, no matter how everyone else in the same town feels about it. One example of this phenomenon is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, known to pretty much everyone (yes, even me) as Palestrina. His town proudly displays his statue, so apparently his fellow citizens don't mind.

Palestrina, Palestrina, and Palestrina in Palestrina

But even he probably wasn't hailed as Palestrina by his friends and neighbors, as he did his daily shopping and strolled around the piazzas.

If we were to use this approach with Leonardo, we would simply call him "Vinci." Not "of Vinci," but the town itself.


A lovely town, but a town is a town and a human being is a human being. Consider this a plea for awareness when using names. If we're going to use a nickname or a place name for a historical figure, then as a matter of respect for that person, we should at least know that we are doing so.

Images in this post: Leonardo possible self-portrait, c. 1513; St. Francis (fresco in Basilica Inferiore di San Francesco, Assisi), by Cimabue, 1280; Joan of Arc, miniature, Paris; Poliziano detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco in Santa Trinita', Florence, 1482-5; Poliziano's house photo by Tim Heath; Palestrina lithograph by Henri-Joseph Heere, 1828; Palestrina photo by FelixH; Palestrina statue photo by Mario1952; Vinci photo by Axel41. Photos of Palestrina, Palestrina statue, and Vinci all licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Other images public domain.

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