Leonardo da Vinci’s talents and gifts were so massive, so encompassing and his contribution to the world so great, Art Wednesday will spend the next 4 Wednesdays to do his works and him justice.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. A leading figure of the Italian Renaissance, his work has epitomized beauty for generations incorporating, genius, creativity, art and science.
Paintings in the 1490s
Leonardo’s main artistic undertakings in Milan were a project for a huge equestrian statue to Ludovico Sforza’s father, and the wall-painting of the Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The fresco method of mural painting was not flexible or subtle enough for the slow-working Leonardo, so he adopted an experimental technique that quickly caused the picture to deteriorate disastrously. It has been many times restored, but although it is only a shadow of Leonardo’s original creation it still retains some of the immense authority that has made it the most revered painting in the world.
Leonardo da Vinci was a Florentine artist, one of the great masters of the High Renaissance, who was also celebrated as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist. His profound love of knowledge and research was the keynote of both his artistic and scientific endeavors. His innovations in the field of painting influenced the course of Italian art for more than a century after his death, and his scientific studies-particularly in the fields of anatomy, optics, and hydraulics-anticipated many of the developments of modern science.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the small Tuscan town of Vinci, near Florence. He was the son of a wealthy Florentine notary and a peasant woman. In the mid-1460s the family settled in Florence, where Leonardo was given the best education that Florence, the intellectual and artistic center of Italy, could offer. He rapidly advanced socially and intellectually. He was handsome, persuasive in conversation, and a fine musician and improviser. About 1466 he was apprenticed as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. In Verrocchio’s workshop Leonardo was introduced to many activities, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in marble and bronze. In 1472 he was entered in the painter’s guild of Florence, and in 1476 he is still mentioned as Verrocchio’s assistant. In Verrocchio’sBaptism of Christ (circa 1470, Uffizi, Florence), the kneeling angel at the left of the painting is by Leonardo.
In 1478 Leonardo became an independent master. His first commission, to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was never executed. His first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481, Uffizi), left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the so-called Benois Madonna (c. 1478, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), the portrait Ginerva de’ Benci (c. 1474, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (c. 1481, Pinacoteca, Vatican).
About 1482 Leonardo entered the service of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, having written the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armored vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay. He served as principal engineer in the duke’s numerous military enterprises and was active also as an architect. In addition, he assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the celebrated work Divina Proportione (1509).
Evidence indicates that Leonardo had apprentices and pupils in Milan, for whom he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651; trans. 1956). The most important of his own paintings during the early Milan period was The Virgin of the Rocks, two versions of which exist (1483-85, Louvre, Paris; 1490s to 1506-08, National Gallery, London); he worked on the compositions for a long time, as was his custom, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had begun. From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on his masterpiece, The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately, his experimental use of oil on dry plaster (on what was the thin outer wall of a space designed for serving food) was technically unsound, and by 1500 its deterioration had begun. Since 1726 attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, to restore it; a concerted restoration and conservation program, making use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and is reversing some of the damage. Although much of the original surface is gone, the majesty of the composition and the penetrating characterization of the figures give a fleeting vision of its vanished splendor. During his long stay in Milan, Leonardo also produced other paintings and drawings (most of which have been lost), theater designs, architectural drawings, and models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. His largest commission was for a colossal bronze monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, in the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco. In December 1499, however, the Sforza family was driven from Milan by French forces; Leonardo left the statue unfinished (it was destroyed by French archers, who used it as a target) and he returned to Florence in 1500.
In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, duke of Romagna and son and chief general of Pope Alexander VI; in his capacity as the duke’s chief architect and engineer, Leonardo supervised work on the fortresses of the papal territories in central Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists who were to decide on the proper location for the David (1501-04, Accademia, Florence), the famous colossal marble statue by the Italian sculptor Michelangelo, and he also served as an engineer in the war against Pisa. Toward the end of the year Leonardo began to design a decoration for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory in its war with Pisa. He made many drawings for it and completed a full-size cartoon, or sketch, in 1505, but he never finished the wall painting. The cartoon itself was destroyed in the 17th century, and the composition survives only in copies, of which the most famous is the one by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1615, Louvre). During this second Florentine period, Leonardo painted several portraits, but the only one that survives is the famous Mona Lisa (1503-06, Louvre). One of the most celebrated portraits ever painted, it is also known as La Gioconda, after the presumed name of the woman’s husband. Leonardo seems to have had a special affection for the picture, for he took it with him on all of his subsequent travels.
In 1506 Leonardo went again to Milan, at the summons of its French governor, Charles d’Amboise. The following year he was named court painter to King Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years Leonardo divided his time between Milan and Florence, where he often visited his half brothers and half sisters and looked after his inheritance. In Milan he continued his engineering projects and worked on an equestrian figure for a monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, commander of the French forces in the city; although the project was not completed, drawings and studies have been preserved. From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X: he was housed in the Palazzo Belvedere in the Vatican and seems to have been occupied principally with scientific experimentation. In 1516 he traveled to France to enter the service of King Francis I. He spent his last years at the Château de Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the King’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire, where he died on May 2, 1519.
Paintings until 1480s
Leonardo was enrolled as a painter in the fraternity of St Luke in Florence in 1472, after serving an apprenticeship with Verrocchio. Vasari attributed to Leonardo one of the angels in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. Leonardo stayed in Florence until 1482. Several paintings are attributed to this early Florentine period, notably an exquisite Annunciation in the Uffizi and a portrait of Ginevra Benci (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
Paintings in the 1480s
Leonardo lived in Milan from 1482 to until 1499 working mainly at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza (Il Moro). His paintings in the 1480s included portraits, notably the marvellous picture of Duke Ludovico’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani known as the Lady with an Ermine and an altarpiece of the Virgin of the Rocks, which exists in two problematically related versions, the earlier (Louvre, Paris) possibly painted when Leonardo still was in Florence, the later (National Gallery, London) still being worked on in 1508.
Since the Early Christian era, the 6 January has been celebrated as the feast of Epiphany, the appearance of God amongst men in the form of Jesus Christ. Mankind is represented by the Three Kings, who are paying homage to the Messiah. The fall of the pagan world began at the same time as his appearance. Leonardo appears to have depicted this moment, so dramatic in human history, in his panel. It remained unfinished because Leonardo left Florence and moved to Milan, though we do not know why he did so. Chemical reactions and soiling mean it is now difficult to read this fascinating panel in detail.
With this painting Leonardo declares his independence from Verrocchio, emerging with a fresh, personal style. Although unfinished, this painting is far more innovative than his previous works. The composition is constructed around a central, pyramidal grouping of figures, and, most significantly, Leonardo here incorporates lights and darks in the underdrawing of this painting.
Even though the panel remained unfinished, the Adoration of the Magi, with its symmetrically composed main group which differs from the traditional linear composition, is now considered one of the most progressive works in Florentine painting. It puts into practice the demands Alberti made of history paintings in a way no other work in its era does. All the figures are involved in the events in the picture. The distinguished kings display their emotions in a more dignified manner than the accompanying figures around them, and the overall number of participants is kept within moderation. The figures are grouped in a circle around Mary and are expressing, with more or less vigorous gestures, their emotion at the first demonstration of divinity of the Christ Child.
The painting also differs from the traditional way of depicting the Adoration in Florence by means of the puzzling scenes in the background, the equestrian battles and an unfinished staircase. This led to the assumption that the Augustinian convent of San Donato in Scopeto, which had commissioned the picture, wanted to use this picture composition in order to convey its own theological interpretation of the Adoration theme.
There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one (the earlier) in the Louvre, Paris and another in the National Gallery, London.
The first work that Leonardo executed in Milan is the so-called Virgin of the Rocks, which actually expresses the theme of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that affirms Mary was conceived without original sin. The name of the picture reflects an iconographical peculiarity: the religious figures are depicted in a rocky grotto, in which they are sitting on a stone floor. The figures are subjected to a strict spatial arrangement called a pyramidal composition. The painting had a considerable influence on Leonardo’s artistic colleagues in Lombardy.
This canvas was to decorate the ancona (a carved wooden altar with frames where paintings were inserted) in the chapel of the Immacolata in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. On 25 April 1483, the members of the Confraternity of the Conception assigned the work of the paintings (a Virgin and Child in the center and two Angel-Musicians for the sides), to Leonardo, for the most important part, and the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista De Predis, for the side panels. Scholars now feel that the two canvases on this same subject, one in the Louvre and the other in London’s National Gallery, are simply two versions of the same painting, with significant variants.
The Paris Virgin of the Rocks, entirely by Leonardo, is the one which first adorned the altar in San Francesco Grande. It may have been given by Leonardo himself to King Louis XII of France, in gratitude for the settlement of the suit between the painters and those who commissioned the works, in dispute over the question of payment. The later London painting replaced this one in the ancona.
For the first time Leonardo could achieve in painting that intellectual program of fusion between human forms and nature which was slowly taking shape in his view of his art. Here there are no thrones or architectural structures to afford a spatial frame for the figures; instead there are the rocks of a grotto, reflected in limpid waters, decorated by leaves of various kinds from different plants while in the distance, as if emerging from a mist composed of very fine droplets and filtered by the golden sunlight, the peaks of those mountains we now know so well reappear. This same light reveals the gentle, mild features of the Madonna, the angel’s smiling face, the plump, pink flesh of the two putti.
For this work, too, Leonardo made numerous studies, and the figurative expression is slowly adapted to the program of depiction. In fact, the drawing of the face of the angel is, in the sketch, clearly feminine, with a fascination that has nothing ambiguous about it. In the painting, the sex is not defined, and the angel could easily be either a youth or a maiden.
There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one (the earlier) in the Louvre, Paris and another in the National Gallery, London.
This version of the painting for the ancona (a carved wooden altar with frames where paintings were inserted) in the chapel of the Immacolata in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan has distinctly sixteenth-century characteristics: larger figures, made more plastic by a very decided chiaroscuro so unlike Leonardo that scholars were immediately led to consider the work a collaboration.
The canvas is generally considered the one that replaced the first version of the Virgin of the Rocks on the altar of the Immaculate Conception, after that version had been given to Louis XII. This version was then, in 1785, purchased by the English collector Gavin Hamilton. It was joined, in England, in 1898, by the two musician-angels of the De Predis brothers, and the three paintings are now displayed together in London’s National Gallery.
The picture substitutes a motif popular in Florence for the image normally required by Franciscan patrons promoting the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception: a Virgin without the Child, shown standing among prophets holding texts taken to refer to her exemption from Original Sin. In the Virgin of the Rocks the infant Baptist, sheltering under Mary’s cloak, venerates the Christ Child in a cool, watery wilderness. The artist’s Milanese clients must have worried about confusing the two infants, for a later hand has given John an identifying scroll and a cross clumsily rooted in one of Leonardo’s exquisite studies of plants.
The panel was inserted into a pre-existing frame, elaborately decorated with carving, gilding and painted shutters. (The two musical angels shown nearby, executed by an associate, probably come from the front and back of the right-hand shutter.) In the candlelit chapel the glittering frame and the painted rocks from whose shadows the figures emerge would have combined to suggest a mysterious cavern. In his notebooks Leonardo records a moment, when standing before the mouth of a cave, `Suddenly two things arose in me…fear of the menacing darkness… [and] desire to see if there was any marvelous thing within.’
The contrast between the unfinished areas of the picture – such as the hand of the angel on Christ’s back – and the finished passages would not have been as disturbing as it is now. Leonardo’s intentions in this deeply emotional yet strangely uncommunicative work were perhaps most fully carried out in the angel’s head and diaphanous veil, where the shimmering brushstrokes are of miraculous firmness and delicacy.
The London version shows some details generally neglected by Leonardo in the other version: the haloes of the figures, the child Saint John’s cross of reeds. Other elements which differ from the Paris picture are the pose of the angel, who no longer points his finger towards the little Paraclete, and his face, whose gaze no longer seeks out the spectator, but is directed inwards. The drapery, too, which in the Paris version was heavy and concealed the body, is lighter here, revealing the anatomical structure. Also the rocks seem painted in a more plastic fashion; the light does not glide over them, creating dewy areas of semi-darkness, but leaves strong contrasts of light and dark. The flesh of the children here is less tender, and though the shadows are insistent, the children’s faces seem flatter and less sweet than those of the two sublime creatures in Paris. The intervention of followers on the painting already sketched by Leonardo has made the portrayal less vibrant, more banal, though it retains a compositional authority and an originality in its variants that make this work not a copy but an autonomous version, of high quality, of the unequalled masterpiece in the Louvre.
Late paintings (1501-20)
Between 1500, when he returned for a time to Florence, and 1516, when he left Italy for France, Leonardo’s life was unsettled. In 1502-03 and in 1506-13 he was based in Milan, in 1513 he moved to Rome, but the artistic activity of his later years was chiefly centered in Florence in the years 1500-06.
From this time dates his portrait of Mona Lisa, his most famous work, which is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. In Florence also Leonardo worked out variations on a theme that fascinated him at this time and presented a great challenge to his skill in composing closely knit groups of figures. This was the Virgin and Child with St Anne, known today mainly through a painting in the Louvre, Paris and the incomparably beautiful cartoon in the National Gallery, London.
Leonardo did little artistic work in the last decade of his life, the last paintings from his hand generally being accepted are two pictures of St John (one later converted into a Bacchus), both in the Louvre.
According to Vasari, this picture is a portrait of Mona or Monna (short for Madonna) Lisa, who was born in Florence in 1479 and in 1495 married the Marquese del Giocondo, a Florentine of some standing – hence the painting’s other name, `La Gioconda’. This identification, however, has sometimes been questioned.
Leonardo took the picture with him from Florence to Milan, and later to France. It must have been this portrait which was seen at Cloux, near Amboise, on 10 October 1517 by the Cardinal of Aragon and his secretary, Antonio de Beatis. There is a slight difficulty here, however, because Beatis says that the portrait had been painted at the wish of Giuliano de Medici. Historians have attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that Monna del Giocondo had been Giuliano’s mistress.
The painting was probably acquired by François I from Leonardo himself, or after his death from his executor Melzi. It is recorded as being at Fontainebleau by Vasari (1550), Lomazzo (1590), Peiresc, and Cassiano del Pozzo (1625). The latter relates that when the Duke of Buckingham came to the French court to seek the hand of Henrietta of France for Charles I, he made it known that the King was most anxious to own this painting; but the courtiers of Louis XIII prevented him from parting with the picture. It was put on exhibition in the Musée Napoléon in I8o4; before that, in 1800, Bonaparte had it in his room in the Tuileries.
From the beginning it was greatly admired and much copied, and it came to be considered the prototype of the Renaissance portrait. It became even more famous in 1911, when it was stolen from the Salle Carrée on 21 August 1911 by Vicenzo Perrugia, an Italian workman. In 1913 it was found in Florence, exhibited at the Uffizi, then in Rome and Milan, and brought back to Paris on 31 December in the same year.
This figure of a woman, dressed in the Florentine fashion of her day and seated in a visionary, mountainous landscape, is a remarkable instance of Leonardo’s sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame.
Reams have been written about this small masterpiece by Leonardo, and the gentle woman who is its subject has been adapted in turn as an aesthetic, philosophical and advertising symbol, entering eventually into the irreverent parodies of the Dada and Surrealist artists.
Vasari relates that Leonardo worked on it for four years without being able to finish it; yet the picture gives the impression of being completely realized. The dates suggested for it vary between 1503 and 1513, the most widely accepted being 1503-05.
Taking a living model as his point of departure, Leonardo has expressed in an ideal form the concept of balanced and integrated humanity. The smile stands for the movement of life, and the mystery of the soul. The misty blue mountains, towering above the plain and its river, symbolize the universe.
The theme of the Christ Child on the knee of the Virgin, who is herself seated on St Anne’s lap, is fairly rare, but examples of it can be found from the Middle Ages onwards – the stream of life flowing through three generations. (Anna metterza: St Anne with the Virgin and Child.) Leonardo must have chosen this unusual theme for symbolic reasons, which have been variously interpreted. Sigmund Freud made out the shape of a vulture in the Virgin’s garment, and suggested a psychoanalytical explanation: since as a child Leonardo dreamed that he had been attacked in his cradle by a vulture.
There is a cartoon in the National Gallery in London by Leonardo of the same subject but differing in important respects from the Louvre painting. We know from a letter that Leonardo made another cartoon, now lost. The painting was commissioned by the Servites in Florence. It is unfinished; perhaps it was abandoned because of the artist’s sudden interest in mathematics, and his engagement as engineer in the service of Cesare Borgia. Another hand seems to have finished the lamb which he had perhaps only sketched in; the landscape, St Anne, the Virgin and the Child Christ are the work of Leonardo himself. The paint is applied thinly, it is limpid and transparent, so that in some places the underlying sketch is visible. This has become apparent since the very dark varnish was lightened and some overpainting removed in 1953.
The painting was executed by the workshop, however, Leonardo is thought to have taken part in producing this version of the Madonna with the Yarnwinder, a fact suggested primarily by the rock in the foreground and the boys face. This panel is considered to be a version produced immediately after the commission of 1501.
The painting shows a later version of the 1501 Madonna with the Yarnwinder. Because of its background it is dated to 1516, for the landscape suggests that the Mona Lisa was painted beforehand. The high quality suggests that it was produced in Leonardo’s workshop. The history of the panel can be traced back to 1756, when it was sold in France.
The Battle of Anghiari
The Republic of Florence, which came into being in 1494, decided to create an assembly hall for their most important political committee, the “High Council”, which was suited to the requirements and pretensions of the new republic. The majority of the construction work on the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Florentine Palazzo Vecchio had been completed shortly before 1500.
The pictorial program was to include two large wall paintings intended to express the self confidence of the new republic. It was planned that two important victories from recent Florentine history should be depicted: the Battle of Anghiari and the Battle of Cascina. The choice of artist had to measure up to the importance of the commission, and the decision was made in favour of two of the most highly esteemed Florentine artists of the age, Leonardo da Vinci and the young Michelangelo.
Neither of the two artists completed his works and I only know of their projects indirectly by their being mentioned in documents, or in the form of copies or sketches that have been associated with the project.
The rearing horse was produced in the context of the first designs for the main scene in the Battle of Anghiari in the two Venice sheets. It is an individual study that unites various nature studies of a rearing horse in order to achieve an expressive posture. The impression of movement is created by means of the sequence of forms that are composed of a mixture of roughly sketched head postures and the barest indication of the presence of a rider.
This sketch may be for the vast mural Leonardo painted in the Florentine Grand Council Chamber, but it also resembles a figure in the background of the Adoration of the Magi – it was not unusual for artists to recycle ideas.
The upper small sketch shows the turmoil of battle in a scene the dynamism and harmony of which is an intimation of the final composition of the Battle of Anghiari, the fight for the standard. Here, however, a furious battle on horseback is still shown. The later solution condenses the events to a close combat fight. Beneath this, in several sketches of figures, Leonardo tested fighting movements that can be regarded as studies for foot soldiers.
Next week, Art Wednesday featuring Part 2 of Leonardo da Vinci.
On the Web:
Da Vinci Decoded Article from The Guardian
References for the Art Wednesday 4-part series:
My personal notes and papers when I was working at the Louvre, Paris completing my Master of Arts and my international art master’s degree.
Frank Zollner (2003). Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Taschen.
Martin Kemp (2004). Leonardo. Oxford University Press.
Theophilus (1963). On Divers Arts. U.S.: University of Chicago Press.
Angela Ottino della Chiesa (1967). The Complete Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Penguin Classics of World Art series.
Fritjof Capra (2007). The Science of Leonardo. U.S.: Doubleday.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 2. London: William Heinemann.
Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1983.
Fred Bérence (1965). Léonard de Vinci, L’homme et son oeuvre. Somogy. Dépot légal 4° trimestre 1965.