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Leonardo da Vinci: The animal rights and vegan activist within the artist

Liberator of caged birds, vegetarian ... whatever the myths or realities about Leonardo, one thing is certain: he was ahead of his time in questioning the superiority of humans to animals.

JONATHAN JONES: ‘Leonardo da Vinci was not just a wondrous artist. He was also a wonderful man. Anyway this is what his first biographers claimed in the 16th century. Long before such ideas were widespread, let alone fashionable, he defended the rights of animals.. It obviously associates Leonardo with the image of Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached a sermon to the birds and – as shown by the painter Sassetta in the National Gallery collection – negotiated peace between the people of Gubbio and a wolf… Liberator of caged birds, vegetarian … whatever the myths or realities about Leonardo, one thing is certain: he was ahead of his time in questioning the superiority of humans to animals…

Whether or not Leonardo really set birds free, he definitely did question the superiority of humans to the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a repeated theme in his notebooks. He writes in them that humanity is not “king of the animals” but merely “king of the beasts”, that is, a more powerful beast than the rest: and he goes on to rage that we use our power to raise animals for slaughter. Warming to his theme, he points out that none of the other animals do what some humans do, and eat their own species – he was writing this at a time when the Florentine explorer Vespucci (or someone using his name) published sensational stories of cannibalism in the New World…

Leonardo da Vinci’s assertion that we are animals, and do not have any God-given right to eat our fellow creatures, was totally at odds with the culture of his age. As the historian Keith Thomas has narrated, interpretations of Genesis in his time aggressively declared that animals are created for human use. Only in the 18th century did more sensitive attitudes become widespread…

It would be wrong to reduce him just to a predecessor of modern ecology… Yet his incomparable imagination let him anticipate our own debates today. A letter to his patron Giuliano de’ Medici actually refers to “our Leonardo da Vinci” as someone who refused to eat meat. It is further evidence that Vasari’s saintly image of Leonardo the liberator of animals is rooted in reality. We are dazed by the paintings. If we explore his notes and the early stories of his life, we are equally amazed by the man’. SOURCE…

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