LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519)
The sky smiled and Da Vinci, Leonardo, was born. The impact and resonance of his contribution to humanity cannot be measured in merely deadly terms. Driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, his life’s work is an impressive synthesis of art, science and technology.
How is it that a figure who lived almost five centuries ago continues to fascinate and attract our interest today? With the recent discovery of a Da Vinci study that had been sealed for centuries and the ongoing debate about the true origin of the supposed Da Vinci Code, time has resurrected and revitalized interest in perhaps the greatest thinker of all time.
Born the illegitimate son of a notary, Leonardo was born in 1452 on a small farm in Anchiano. In 1457 he moved to Vinci where he remained with his father’s family although he was never legitimized. At the age of 14, Leonardo moved to Florence to begin an apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop. At that time, Andrea del Verrochio was the most famous artist in Florence. During his stay with Verrocchio, Leonardo learned color mixing and painted simple parts of paintings. In June 1472, Leonardo was included as a member of the Guild of Painters of Florence.
The Annunciation, painted in 1480-1481, is now in the Louvre. It is a small painting with a deep and misty landscape with highly detailed flowers in the foreground very typical of Leonardo’s style during his stay in Florence.
THE LAST SUPPER
By far one of the most famous paintings of all time, the Last Supper was painted between 1495 and 1498 in the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This biblical scene, commissioned by the friars of Santo Domingo, is significant for its incredible composition and the subtle emotional interaction between the apostles. With great dexterity and mastery of the human form, this compelling work is both a poignant testimony to Christianity and a marvel of DaVinci’s virtuosity and technical finesse as a painter. This painting firmly establishes Leonardo’s position as the supreme master artist of the High Renaissance. At all times, Christ is the central focus of the scene. This is accomplished by placing Christ in the center of the painting and placing all spatial lines and perspective points within the frame of the painting to draw the viewer to the very center of the painting. The apostles are, in fact, secondary characters and each and every figure is majestically formed to frame and enhance the focus on the figure of Christ. The years surrounding the period in which the Last Supper was painted were periods of intense anatomical study for Da Vinci. It is a well known fact that Leonardo dissected corpses to fully understand the complex workings of muscles and the inner workings of the human body. It is of great importance to understand that individual apostles are reacting to Christ’s announcement that there is a traitor among them. This is the heart of this eternal and enduring image. The “Pathos” of each figure is brilliantly executed through gestures and reactions that reveal the individual astonishment, disbelief and fear of each apostle. Undoubtedly one of the most copied paintings in the world, The Last Supper has deteriorated greatly over the years. This was due to Da Vinci’s experimentation with pigments and natural decomposition related to time. Initial conservation efforts date back to the early 18th century. The most recent restorations lasted twenty years and were completed in June 1999.
MONA LISA DEL GIACONDA
Begun in 1503, the Mona Lisa was a commissioned portrait of the Florentine nobleman, the third wife of Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi de Giocondo, Lisa di Antonio Maria di Noldo Gjerardini at the age of twenty-four. Painted on poplar wood, the iconic images of the Mona Lisa are so ingrained in Western culture that the mysterious woman’s enigmatic smile is almost synonymous with art in itself. As with many of da Vinci’s works, this painting has an astonishing history. The charm and myth of the work are combined with the technical and artistic virtuosity of the piece. The subtlety of the magnificent smile, the richly layered and highly detailed background are the hallmarks of a process known as sfumato. Using layers and layers of enamels, the illusion of depth is achieved. This technique, highly developed by the Dutch masters, was adopted and perfected by Leonardo to such an extent that it became a trademark of Da Vinci. Another good example of sfumato is The Virgin of The Rocks (1484) National Gallery, London.
The original Mona Lisa was actually larger than the current one 77 x 53 cm. Originally, there were two columns, one on each side of the figure, which made it much clearer that the young woman is sitting on a terrace. Leonardo worked on Mona Lisa for 4 years and kept the painting himself. Some believe that she simply could not part with him. Nine years later, when he arrived in France, the painting was in his luggage and was sold to King Francis I. Amboise, Fountainbleau, Versailles, the Louis XIV collection and the Louvre were the homes of this fascinating masterpiece. Napolean took out the painting from the Louvre and hung it in his bedroom. After his exile to Elba, the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre.
In 1911, the painting was stolen by an Italian art thief. Ironically, two years later, the Mona Lisa resurfaced in Florence, the city of its true origin! Eventually the painting returned to the Louvre. In the 1960s and 1970s, The Mona Lisa was exhibited in New York, Tokyo, and Moscow. Today, the masterpiece is in permanent residence at the Louvre and international law prohibits any foreign exhibition.
THE ARTIST AS AN OBSERVER OF NATURE
In addition to Leonardo’s extraordinary contributions to the world of art, his powers of divine intellect led him to explore many other fields of activity. The Renaissance was the period in which science and art merged in the search for the purest, most logical and analytical observation of nature. Da Vinci’s Homo – Vitruvianus is a study of proportions with the human figure inscribed in a circle and a square is a magnificent example of this philosophy and the period’s search for scientific analysis.
Leonardo once again placed himself at the forefront of this new era of reason and intellect. His commitment to observing the human body is unsurpassed and included studies of the skeletal and muscle, respiratory and digestive systems, and the evolution of the fetus within the womb. Leonardo’s collection of anatomical studies consists of approximately two hundred folios and is kept in the Royal Library at Windsor, England. In addition, daVinci’s vast study of nature includes the action of light, plant growth, and the flow of water.
THE SYNTHESIS OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY
Considering the scope and vision of Leonardo’s power of expression and the multitude of interests that inspired and intrigued him, it would be nearly impossible to list them all. His spirit of scientific inquiry coupled with a daring and inventive mind allowed him to explore and develop inventions and concepts as varied as motors, gears and pulleys, flow mills, and irrigation aqueducts. Fascinated by the flight, Leonardo carefully observed the birds and their wing structures. Applying these deceptively simple principles to mechanics and technology, he produced numerous illustrations depicting flying machines that are, in essence, the “roadmaps” for gliders, airplanes, and helicopters that exist today. This is just one of many examples of why Leonardo da Vinci is considered an enigma that lived centuries before his time.
AN INVITATION TO FRANCE
In the autumn of 1516 Leonardo arrived in Amboise at the invitation of King Francis I. He lived in the small Cloux castle and continued his hydrological studies. At the age of 67, the great teacher passed away on May 2, 1519. His health had severely deteriorated and paralysis had seized the right side of his body. The remains of Leonardo da Vinci are in the Chapel of Saint Hubert located within the complex of the castle of the king in Amboise, France.
S T. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Considered the last of Leonardo’s verifiable works, this painting is strikingly different from previous visual conceptions of the saint. It is a powerful work in its subtle simplicity and contains four recurring elements or themes consistent with other dazzlingly poetic paintings by Da Vinci: the wavy and curly hair defined with incredible precision, the enigmatic smile, peering through dense and deep shadows and perhaps it. most poignant, a finger pointing to the sky.
INFORMATION AND IMAGE SOURCES
1.) Self-portrait. 1512. Red chalk on paper. Biblioteka Reale. Turin, Italy.
2.) The Annunciation. vs. 1472-1475. Oil and Tempera on Wood. Uffizi Gallery. Florence, Italy
3.) The Last Supper. 1495-1498. Oil and Temper on Plaster. Fresh, 460 x 880 cm (15 x 29 ft)
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, (Refectory). Milano, Italy.
4.) The Last Supper (detail of Jesus) see above.
5.) Mona Lisa. (The Mona Lisa) 1503-1506. Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris, France.
6.) The Virgin of the Rocks. 1503-1506. Oil on wood, 189.5 x 120 cm (6 x 4 ft)
The National Gallery. London England
7.) The proportions of the human figure (Vitruvian Man). 1490. Pen, ink and watercolor on metal point.
Galleria dell ‘Accademia. Venice Italy.
8.) Female genitalia and fetus in the womb. 1510-1512. Windsor, Royal Library (RL 1901r: K / P 197v)
9.) Study for flying machine. C.1487-1490 (the so-called “helicopter”) Ms. B f. 83v
10.) Saint John the Baptist. c. 1573-1516. Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris, France.
WEBSITES AND WEBSITE RESOURCES:
Leonardo da Vinci
By Carlo Pedretti
Published by TAJ Books
Great ages of man
Books of life in time
Art: context and criticism
By John Kissick
Penn State University
Published by Wm.C. Brown Communications, Inc.
This article is Copyright 2005 by John Keaton. All rights reserved.