Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, (Italian: “Leonardo from Vinci”) (born April 15, 1452, Anchiano, near Vinci, Republic of Florence [Italy]—died May 2, 1519, Cloux [now Clos-Lucé], France), Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose skill and intelligence, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.
An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became the great theme of his studies. He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish.
Life and works
Early period: Florence
Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted into the painters’ guild of Florence, but he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years, after which time he worked independently in Florence until 1481.
First Milanese period (1482–99)
In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to work in the service of the city’s duke—a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the unfinished panel painting Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never begun. That he gave up both projects seems to indicate that he had deeper reasons for leaving Florence.
From about 1483 to 1486, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks, a project that led to 10 years of litigation between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which commissioned it, and Leonardo; for uncertain purposes, this legal dispute led Leonardo to create another version of the work in about 1508. During this first Milanese period he also made one of his most famous works, the monumental wall painting Last Supper (1495–98) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie (for more analysis of this work, see below Last Supper). Also of note is the decorative ceiling painting (1498) he made for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco.
During this period Leonardo worked on a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason he was invited to Milan: a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty
Second Florentine period (1500–08)
In 1500 he was appointed an architectural expert on a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of San Francesco al Monte.
Also in 1503 Leonardo received a prized commission to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions (at 23 × 56 feet [7 × 17 metres], it would have been twice as large as the Last Supper). For three years he worked on this Battle of Anghiari; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, it remained unfinished. During these same years Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19). (For more analysis of the work, see below The Mona Lisa and other works.)
Second Milanese period (1508–13)
In the winter of 1507–08 Leonardo went to Florence, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan.
In 1512, Leonardo was working on plans for an equestrian monument for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, but this was prevented by an invasion of a confederation of Swiss, Spanish and Venetian forces, which drove the French from Milan. Leonardo stayed in the city, spending several months in 1513 at the Medici's Vaprio d'Adda villa.
Rome and France (1513–1519)
In 1513 political events—the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan—caused the now 60-year-old Leonardo to move again. At the end of the year, he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican
Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.
Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young King Francis I to enter his service in France. At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.
Leonardo did little painting while in France, spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World series (c. 1517–18), which includes the drawings A Deluge, he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.
Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.
Art and accomplishment
Painting and drawing
Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works—the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed—have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.
The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472–75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it an enigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed
In the The Benois Madonna (1478–80) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In the portrait Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474/78), Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; c. 1482) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.
The interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture—“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words—is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1482).
The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483–86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt
Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–98) is among the most famous paintings in the world. In its monumental simplicity, the composition of the scene is masterful; the power of its effect comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the 12 disciples as counterposed to Christ
The Mona Lisa and other works
In the Florence years between 1500 and 1506, Leonardo began three great works that confirmed and heightened his fame: The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1503–19), Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19), and Battle of Anghiari (unfinished; begun 1503). Even before it was completed, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne won the critical acclaim of the Florentines; the monumental three-dimensional quality of the group and the calculated effects of dynamism and tension in the composition made it a model that inspired Classicists and Mannerists in equal measure.
Later painting and drawing
After 1507—in Milan, Rome, and France—Leonardo did very little painting. During his years in Milan he returned to the Leda theme—which had been occupying him for a decade—and probably finished a standing version of Leda about 1513 (the work survives only through copies). This painting became a model of the figura serpentinata (“sinuous figure”)—that is, a figure built up from several intertwining views. It influenced classical artists such as Raphael, who drew it, but it had an equally strong effect on Mannerists such as Jacopo da Pontormo. The drawings he prepared—revealing examples of his late style—have a curious, enigmatic sensuality. Perhaps in Rome he began the painting St. John the Baptist, which he completed in France. Leonardo radically used light and shade to achieve sculptural volume and atmosphere; John emerges from darkness into light and seems to emanate light and goodness. Moreover, in painting the saint’s enigmatic smile, he presented Christ’s forerunner as the herald of a mystic oracle. Leonardo’s was an art of expression that seemed to strive consciously to bring out the hidden ambiguity of the theme. Consummate drawings from this period, such as the Pointing Lady (c. 1516), also are testaments to his undiminished genius.
The last manifestation of Leonardo’s art of expression was in his series of pictorial sketches Visions of the End of the World (c. 1517–18)
Sculpture of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo worked as a sculptor from his youth on, as shown in his own statements and those of other sources. A small group of generals’ heads in marble and plaster, works of Verrocchio’s followers, are sometimes linked with Leonardo, because a lovely drawing attributed to him that is on the same theme suggests such a connection. But the inferior quality of this group of sculpture rules out an attribution to the master. No trace has remained of the heads of women and children that, according to Vasari, Leonardo modeled in clay in his youth.
The two great sculptural projects to which Leonardo devoted himself wholeheartedly were not realized; neither the huge, bronze equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, on which he worked from about 1489 to 1494, nor the monument for Marshal Trivulzio, on which he was busy in the years 1506–11, were brought to completion. Many sketches of the work exist, but the most impressive were found in 1965 when two of Leonardo’s notebooks—the so-called Madrid Codices—were discovered in the National Library of Madrid. These notebooks reveal the sublimity but also the almost unreal boldness of his conception. Text and drawings both show Leonardo’s wide experience in the technique of bronze casting, but at the same time they reveal the almost utopian nature of the project. He wanted to cast the horse in a single piece, but the gigantic dimensions of the steed presented insurmountable technical problems. Indeed, Leonardo remained uncertain of the problem’s solution to the very end.
The drawings for these two monuments reveal the greatness of Leonardo’s vision of sculpture. Exact studies of the anatomy, movement, and proportions of a live horse preceded the sketches for the monuments; Leonardo even seems to have thought of writing a treatise on the horse. He pondered the merits of two positions for the horse—galloping or trotting—and in both commissions decided in favour of the latter. These sketches, superior in the suppressed tension of horse and rider to the achievements of Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata and Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni, are among the most beautiful and significant examples of Leonardo’s art. Unquestionably—as ideas—they exerted a very strong influence on the development of equestrian statues in the 16th century.
A small bronze statue of a galloping horseman in Budapest is so close to Leonardo’s style that, if not from his own hand, it must have been done under his immediate influence (perhaps by Giovanni Francesco Rustici). Rustici, according to Vasari, was Leonardo’s zealous student and enjoyed his master’s help in sculpting his large group in bronze, St. John the Baptist Teaching, over the north door of the Baptistery in Florence. There are, indeed, discernible traces of Leonardo’s influence in John’s stance, with the unusual gesture of his upward pointing hand, and in the figure of the bald-headed Levite. While there are few extant examples to study of Leonardo’s sculptural work, the elements of motion and volume he explored in the medium no doubt influenced his drawing and painting, and vice versa.
Applying for service in a letter to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo described himself as an experienced architect, military engineer, and hydraulic engineer; indeed, he was concerned with architectural matters all his life. But his effectiveness was essentially limited to the role of an adviser. Only once—in the competition for the cupola of the Milan cathedral (1487–90)—did he actually consider personal participation, but he gave up this idea when the model he had submitted was returned to him. In other instances, his claim to being a practicing architect was based on sketches for representative secular buildings: for the palace of a Milanese nobleman (about 1490), for the villa of the French governor in Milan (1507–08), and for the Medici residence in Florence (1515). Finally, there was his big project for the palace and garden of Romorantin in France (1517–19). Especially in this last project, Leonardo’s pencil sketches clearly reveal his mastery of technical as well as artistic architectural problems; the view in perspective gives an idea of the magnificence of the site.
But what really characterizes and immortalized Leonardo’s architectural studies is their comprehensiveness; they range far afield and embrace every type of building problem of his time and even involve urban planning. Furthermore, there frequently appears evidence of Leonardo’s impulse to teach: he wanted to collect his writings on this theme in a theory of architecture. This treatise on architecture—the initial lines of which are in Codex B in the Institut de France in Paris, a model book of the types of sacred and profane buildings—was to deal with the entire field of architecture as well as with the theories of forms and construction and was to include such items as urbanism, sacred and profane buildings, and a compendium of important individual elements (for example, domes, steps, portals, and windows).
In the fullness and richness of their ideas, Leonardo’s architectural studies offer an unusually wide-ranging insight into the architectural achievements of his epoch. Like a seismograph, his observations sensitively register all themes and problems. For almost 20 years he was associated with Bramante at the court of Milan and again met him in Rome in 1513–14; he was closely associated with other distinguished architects, such as Francesco di Giorgio, Giuliano da Sangallo, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, and Luca Fancelli. Thus, he was brought in closest touch with all of the most-significant building undertakings of the time. Since Leonardo’s architectural drawings extend over his whole life, they span precisely that developmentally crucial period—from the 1480s to the second decade of the 16th century—in which the principles of the High Renaissance style were formulated and came to maturity. That this genetic process can be followed in the ideas of one of the greatest men of the period lends Leonardo’s studies their distinctive artistic value and their outstanding historical significance.
Science of painting
Leonardo’s advocacy of a science of painting is best displayed in his notebook writings under the general heading “On Painting.” The notebooks provide evidence that, among many projects he planned, he intended to write a treatise discussing painting. After inheriting Leonardo’s vast manuscript legacy in 1519, it is believed that, sometime before 1542, Melzi extracted passages from them and organized them into the Trattato della pittura (“Treatise on Painting”) that is attributed to Leonardo. Only about a quarter of the sources for Melzi’s manuscript—known as the Codex Urbinas, in the Vatican Library—have been identified and located in the extant notebooks, and it is impossible to assess how closely Melzi’s presentation of the material reflected Leonardo’s specific intentions.
Abridged copies of Melzi’s manuscript appeared in Italy during the late 16th century, and in 1651 the first printed editions were published in French and Italian in Paris by Raffaelo du Fresne, with illustrations after drawings by Nicolas Poussin. The first complete edition of Melzi’s text did not appear until 1817, published in Rome. The two standard modern editions are those of Emil Ludwig (1882; in 3 vol. with German translation) and A. Philip McMahon (1956; in 2 vol., a facsimile of the Codex Urbinas with English translation).
Despite the uncertainties surrounding Melzi’s presentation of Leonardo’s ideas, the passages in Leonardo’s extant notebooks identified with the heading “On Painting” offer an indication of the treatise Leonardo had in mind. As was customary in treatises of the time, Leonardo planned to combine theoretical exposition with practical information, in this case offering practical career advice to other artists. But his primary concern in the treatise was to argue that painting is a science, raising its status as a discipline from the mechanical arts to the liberal arts. By defining painting as “the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature,” Leonardo gave essential significance to the authority of the eye, believing firmly in the importance of saper vedere. This was the informing idea behind his defense of painting as a science.
In his notebooks Leonardo pursues this defense through the form of the paragone (“comparison”), a disputation that advances the supremacy of painting over the other arts. He roots his case in the function of the senses, asserting that “the eye deludes itself less than any of the other senses,” and thereby suggests that the direct observation inherent in creating a painting has a truthful, scientific quality. After asserting that the useful results of science are “communicable,” he states that painting is similarly clear: unlike poetry, he argues, painting presents its results as a “matter for the visual faculty,” giving “immediate satisfaction to human beings in no other way than the things produced by nature herself.” Leonardo also distinguishes between painting and sculpture, claiming that the manual labour involved in sculpting detracts from its intellectual aspects, and that the illusionistic challenge of painting (working in two rather than three dimensions) requires that the painter possess a better grasp of mathematical and optical principles than the sculptor.
In defining painting as a science, Leonardo also emphasizes its mathematical basis. In the notebooks he explains that the 10 optical functions of the eye (“darkness, light, body and colour, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest”) are all essential components of painting. He addresses these functions through detailed discourses on perspective that include explanations of perspectival systems based on geometry, proportion, and the modulation of light and shade. He differentiates between types of perspective, including the conventional form based on a single vanishing point, the use of multiple vanishing points, and aerial perspective. In addition to these orthodox systems, he explores—via words and geometric and analytic drawings—the concepts of wide-angle vision, lateral recession, and atmospheric perspective, through which the blurring of clarity and progressive lightening of tone is used to create the illusion of deep spatial recession. He further offers practical advice—again through words and sketches—about how to paint optical effects such as light, shadow, distance, atmosphere, smoke, and water, as well as how to portray aspects of human anatomy, such as human proportion and facial expressions.