Chapter Three: Genius
The modern notion of the genius first appeared in early 18th century France, so Chapter 3 examines the merit of this seductive novelty. Genius was the Latin word for ‘spirit’, which is what Shakespeare had understood by it. Only in the eighteenth century did a Genius become a superman, whose accomplishments were distinguished by originality and a disregard of rules. When this coinage crossed the Channel, London periodicals had to explain its meaning to their readers: ‘The first class of geniuses are those who by the mere strength of natural Parts, and without any assistance of Art or Learning, have produced Works that were the Delight of their own Times, and the Wonder of Posterity’ (The Spectator, 1711). Later in the same century Kant simplified these claims by announcing that ‘the foremost property of genius must be originality’.
The second part of Chapter 3 tests these claims against the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci, widely regarded as an exemplary genius. In contrast to 18th century rhetoric, however, Leonardo proves to be a highly gifted product of 15th century Florence. The fame of the Mona Lisa, and of his red chalk ‘self-portrait’, are more recent constructs of the cult of genius.