Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Life and works

Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His "Last Supper" (1495-97) and "Mona Lisa" (1503-06) 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.

The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered and purified by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day is based on the equally unique universality of his spirit. Leonardo's universality is more than many-sidedness. True, at the time of the Renaissance and the period of humanism, many-sidedness was a highly esteemed quality; but it was by no means rare. Many other good artists possessed it. Leonardo's universality, on the other hand, was a spiritual force, peculiarly his own, that generated in him an unlimited desire for knowledge and guided his thinking and behaviour. An artist by disposition and endowment, he found that his eyes were his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man's highest sense organ because sight alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty.

Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge. Saper vedere ("knowing how to see") became the great theme of his studies of man's works and nature's creations. His creativity reached out into every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. His superb intellect, his unusual powers of observation, and his mastery of the art of drawing led him to the study of nature itself, which he pursued with method and penetrating logic - and in which his art and his science were equally revealed.

Early period: Florence

The illegitimate son of Ser Piero, a Florentine notary and landlord, Leonardo was born on his father's family estate. His mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married an artisan from that region. Not until his third and fourth marriages did Ser Piero's wives have children, the first one in 1476, when Leonardo was already an adult. Thus, Leonardo grew up in his father's house, where he was treated as a legitimate son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. As for Latin, the key language of traditional learning, Leonardo did not seriously study it until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. Not until he was 30 years old did he apply himself to higher mathematics - advanced geometry and arithmetic - which he studied with diligent tenacity; but here, too, he did not get much beyond the beginning stages.

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 Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio's renowned workshop Leonardo received a many-sided training that included not only painting and sculpture but the technical-mechanical arts as well. He also worked in the next-door workshop of Antonio Pollaiuolo, where he was probably first drawn to the study of anatomy. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted in the painters' guild of Florence but remained five years more in his teacher's workshop. Then he worked independently in Florence until 1481. In the few extant works of this early period one may clearly trace the development of the artist's remarkable talent. Keenness of observation and creative imagination stand out.

His early mastery is revealed in an angel and a segment of landscape executed by him in Verrocchio's painting the "Baptism of Christ" (Uffizi, Florence) and in two Annunciations (Uffizi, as well as the Louvre, Paris), both of them done in Verrocchio's workshop, as were the "Madonna with the Carnation," the "Madonna Benois," and the "Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci." This mastery reached its peak in two paintings that remained unfinished: "St. Jerome" and a large panel painting of "The Adoration of the Magi." In addition to these few paintings there are a great many superb pen and pencil drawings, in which Leonardo's mastery blazed new trails for this graphic art. Among the drawings are many technical sketches - for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus - evidence of Leonardo's interest in and knowledge of technical matters at the outset of his career.

Unfolding of Leonardo's genius: first Milanese period (1482 - 1499)

In 1482 Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan - 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 above-mentioned unfinished panel painting of "The Adoration of the Magi" for the monastery of S. Donato a Scopeto (1481) and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never fulfilled. That he gave up both projects despite the commitments he had undertaken - not even starting on the second named - seems to indicate deeper reasons for his leaving Florence. It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of his experience-oriented mind and that the more realistic academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, there was the fascination of Ludovico Sforza's brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan, until Ludovico's fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis ("painter and engineer of the duke"). Highly esteemed, Leonardo was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer.

In this phase of his life Leonardo's genius unfolded to the full, in all its versatility and creatively powerful artistic and scientific thought, achieving that quality of uniqueness that called forth the awe and astonished admiration of his contemporaries. At the same time, in the boundlessness of the goals he set himself, Leonardo's genius bore the mark of the unattainable so that, if one traces the outlines of his lifework as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose "unfinished symphony".

Painting and sculpture

As a painter Leonardo completed only six works in the 17 years in Milan: portraits of Cecilia Gallerani ("Lady with an Ermine") and a musician, an altar painting of "The Virgin of the Rocks" (two versions), a monumental wall painting of the "Last Supper" in the refectory of the monastery of Sta. Maria delle Grazie (1495-97), and the decorative ceiling painting of the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco (1498). Three other pictures that, according to old sources, Leonardo was commissioned to do have disappeared or were never done: a "Nativity" said to have belonged to Emperor Maximilian; a "Madonna" that Ludovico Sforza announced as a gift to the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus; and the portrait of one of Ludovico's mistresses, Lucrezia Crivelli.

Also unfinished was a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason Leonardo was invited to Milan: a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo devoted 12 years - with interruptions - to this task. Many sketches of it exist, the most impressive ones discovered only in the mid-20th century, when two of Leonardo's notebooks came to light again in Madrid. They reveal the sublimity but also the almost unreal boldness of his conception. In 1493 the clay model of the horse was put on open display on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Maximilian with Bianca Maria Sforza, and preparations were made to cast the colossal figure, which was to be 16 feet (five metres) high - double the size of Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni! But, because of the imminent danger of war, the metal, ready to be poured, was used for cannon instead, and so the project came to a halt. Ludovico's fall in 1499 sealed the fate of this abortive undertaking, which was perhaps the grandest concept of a monument in the 15th century. The ravages of war left the clay model a heap of ruins.

As a master artist Leonardo maintained an extensive workshop in Milan, employing apprentices and students. The role of most of these associates is unclear. Their activity involves the question of Leonardo's so-called apocryphal works, in which the master collaborated with his assistants. Scholars have been unable to agree in their attributions of these works, which include such paintings as "La Belle Ferronniere" in the Louvre, the so-called "Lucrezia Crivelli" in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, and the "Madonna Litta" in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Among Leonardo's pupils at this time were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de' Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d'Oggiono, and Salai.

Art and science

The Milan years also saw Leonardo's decided turn toward scientific studies. He began to pursue these systematically and with such intensity that they demanded more and more of his time and energy and developed into an independent realm of creative productivity. Within him there arose now a growing need to note and write down in literary form every one of his perceptions and experiences. It is a unique phenomenon in the history of art. Undoubtedly, the several treatises on art that appeared or were made available during those decades provided an external stimulus. Leon Battista Alberti's De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture) was first printed in 1485; Francesco di Giorgio's treatise on architecture was available in its first manuscript versions, and Leonardo had received a copy from the author as a gift. Moreover, Piero della Francesca in his De prospectiva pingendi ("On Perspective in Painting") had provided for his contemporaries a model text on the theory of perspective. Finally, there was the mathematician Lucas Pacioli, who had become an acquaintance of Leonardo's. In 1494 Pacioli published his Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportional ita, followed by his Divina proportione ("On Divine Proportion"), for which Leonardo drew figures of symmetrical bodies.

Thus, during Leonardo's years in Milan the two "action fields" - the artistic and the scientific - developed and shaped his future creativity. It was a kind of creative dualism, with mutual encouragement but also mutual pressure from each field.

Second Florentine period (1500 - 1506)

In December 1499 or at the latest January 1500 - three months after the victorious entry of the French into Milan - Leonardo left that city in the company of Lucas Pacioli. He stopped first at Mantua, where, in February 1500, he drew a portrait of his hostess, Marchioness Isabella d'Este, and then proceeded to Venice (in March), where the Signoria (governing council) sought his advice on how to ward off a threatened Turkish incursion in Friuli. Leonardo recommended that they prepare to flood the menaced region. From Venice he returned to Florence, where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. In that same year he was appointed an architectural expert to a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of S. Francesco al Monte. A guest of the Servite order in the cloister of SS. Annunziata, Leonardo began there a cartoon for a painting of the "Virgin and Child with St. Anne," the composition of which won admiration from artists and art lovers of the city. He also painted (1501) a "Madonna with the Yarn-Winder," which has survived only in copies and which he probably never finished. Mathematical studies seem to have kept him away from his painting activity much of the time, or so Isabella d'Este, who sought in vain to obtain a painting done by him, was informed by Fra Pietro Nuvolaria, her representative in Florence.

Only his omnivorous "appetite for life" can explain Leonardo's decision, in the summer of the following year (1502), to leave Florence and enter the service of Cesare Borgia as "senior military architect and general engineer." Borgia, the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, had, as commander in chief of the papal army, sought with unexampled ruthlessness to gain control of the Papal States of Romagna and the Marches. Now he was at the peak of his power and, at 27, was undoubtedly the most compelling and at the same time most feared person of his time. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his personality. For 10 months he travelled across the condottiere's territories and surveyed them. In the course of his activity Leonardo sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps that laid the groundwork for modern cartography. At the court of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo also met Niccolo Machiavelli, temporarily stationed there as a political observer for the city of Florence.

In the spring of 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence to make an expert survey of a project for diverting the Arno River behind Pisa so that the city, then under siege by the Florentines, would be deprived of access to the sea. The plan proved unworkable, but Leonardo's activity led him to a much more significant theme, one that served peace rather than war; the project, first advanced in the 13th century and now again under consideration, was to build a large canal that would bypass the unnavigable stretch of the Arno and connect Florence by water with the sea. Leonardo developed his ideas in a series of studies; with panoramic views of the river bank, which are also landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and with exact measurements of the terrain, he produced a map in which the route of the canal (with its transit through the mountain pass of Serravalle) was shown. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

That same year (1503), however, Leonardo also received a prized commission: to paint a mural for the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions . For three years he worked on this "Battle of Anghiari"; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo's "Battle of Cascina," it remained unfinished. But the cartoon and the copies showing the main scene of the battle, the fight for the standard, were for a long time, to quote the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, "the school of the world." These same years saw the portrait of "Mona Lisa" and a painting of a standing "Leda," which was not completed and has survived only in copies.

The Florentine period was also, however, a time of intensive scientific study; Leonardo did dissections in the hospital of Sta. Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. He made systematic observations of the flight of birds, concerning which he planned a treatise. Even his hydrological studies, "on the nature and movement of water," broadened into research on the physical properties of water, especially the laws of currents, which he compared with those pertaining to air. These were also set down in his own collection of data, contained in the so-called Leicester Codex in Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England.

Second Milanese period (1506 - 1513)

Thus, during these years in Florence, Leonardo's productivity was also marked by his "creative dualism." Only sporadically did he work at his paintings. When, in May 1506, Charles d'Amboise, governor of the King of France in Milan, asked and was granted permission by the Signoria in Florence for Leonardo to go for a time to Milan, the artist had no hesitation about accepting the invitation. But what was originally a limited period of time became a permanent move under the stress of political circumstances. Florence let Leonardo go, and the monumental "Battle of Anghiari" remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural. One cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work - great both in conception and in realization.

Leonardo spent six years in Milan, interrupted only by a six-month stay in Florence in the winter of 1507-08, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery but did not resume work on the "Battle of Anghiari." Honoured and admired by his patrons Charles d'Amboise and King Louis XII, who gave him a yearly stipend of 400 ducats, Leonardo never found his duties onerous. They were limited to advice in architectural matters, tangible evidence of which are plans for a palace-villa for Charles d'Amboise and perhaps also sketches for an oratory for the church of Sta. Maria alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.

In Milan he did very little as a painter: two Madonnas, which he promised the King of France, were never painted. He continued to work on the paintings of the "Virgin and Child with St. Anne" and "Leda," which he had brought with him from Florence, as copies from the Lombard school of that period attest. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. With Ambrogio de Predis he completed a second version of "The Virgin of the Rocks" (1508), in the course of which protracted litigation between the purchasers and the artists had a happy ending. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de' Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new pupils came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo's most faithful friend and companion until his death.

An important commission in sculpture came his way. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of S. Nazaro Maggiore. But after years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the Marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one; so this undertaking, too, remained unfinished. Leonardo must have felt keenly this second disappointment in his work as a sculptor.

Compared with his almost cursory work in art, Leonardo's scientific activity flourished. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with a famous anatomist from Pavia, Marcantonio della Torre. He outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even thought he would finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510-11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies that must be understood as data for his "perceptual cosmology." This became increasingly actuated by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape and, furthermore, the recognition that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.

Last years (1513 - 1519)

In 1513 political events - the temporary ouster 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. He also gave him a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions came to him. For three years Leonardo remained in the Eternal City, off to one side, while Donato Bramante was building St. Peter's, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the Pope's new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius, and many younger artists such as Peruzzi, Timoteo Viti, and Sodoma were active there. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master who worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or, strolling through the city, surveyed ancient monuments. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes (Royal Library, Windsor Castle; 12684) suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de' Medici ordered in 1514. On the other hand, there were sketches for a spacious residence for the Medici in Florence, who had returned to power there in 1512. But this did not go beyond the stage of preliminary sketches and never came to pass. Leonardo seems to have resumed his friendship with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514. And there is no record of Leonardo's relations with any other artists in Rome.

In a life of such loneliness, it is easy to understand why Leonardo, despite his 65 years, decided to accept 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 his most devoted pupil, Francesco Melzi. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Luco), near the King's summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. Premier peintre, architecte et mochanicien du Roi ("first painter, architect, and mechanic of the King") was the proud title he bore; yet the admiring King left him complete freedom of action. He did no more painting or at most completed the painting of the enigmatic, mystical "St. John the Baptist," which the Cardinal of Aragon, when he visited Amboise, saw in Leonardo's studio along with the "Mona Lisa" and the "Virgin and Child with St. Anne."

For the King he drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, 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 still made sketches for court festivals, but the King treated him in every respect as an honoured guest. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. Leonardo spent most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies. The final drafts for his treatise on painting and a few pages of the anatomy appeared. Consummate drawings such as the "Floating Figure" (Royal Library, Windsor Castle; 12581) are the final testimonials to his undiminished genius. In the so-called "Visions of the End of the World," or "Deluge" (Royal Library, Windsor Castle), he depicts with overpowering pictorial imagination the primal forces that rule nature.

Leonardo died at Cloux. He was laid to rest in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. But the church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century. Hence, his grave can no longer be located. Francesco Melzi fell heir to his artistic and scientific estate.


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