Leonardo da Vinci was not only the greatest artist of his time, but may be considered also the best symbol of its scientific aspirations. No other man ever combined the artistic and scientific ideals as intimately as did Leonardo. Besides, Leonardo was not a humanist, but a craftsman.
The rare excellence of his accomplishments was due primarily to his genius, but it was due also to his innocence. He never knew much Latin, and in Verrocchio’s bottega his mind was not smothered with pseudo-knowledge and empty phrases but was left free to develop along its own bent.
Leonardo da Vinci was regarded, even by his contemporaries, as an astonishing virtuoso, and to the men of the sixteenth century he seemed to have been the last of the primitives, or the first of the generation active around 1500 which they regarded as the culmination of the whole process of the Renaissance. Frequently Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo are taken together in these terms, but it is important to remember that Leonardo was born in 1452 and was therefore at work long before the others, who are usually thought of as his contemporaries.
The only real parallel is with Bramante, who was slightly older and whose friendship with Leonardo in Milan in the 1480s and 1490s was probably decisive for many aspects of Milanese art around 1500. Leonardo has always been famous because of the fantastic range of his genius; he was not only one of the greatest artists in an age of great artists, but he was probably the best anatomist in the world and a natural scientist almost without a peer in many branches of knowledge such as botany, geology, and even the beginnings of aeronautics. Nevertheless, his thousands of notes and drawings on these and other subjects have only been rediscovered and evaluated comparatively recently, and to many of his contemporaries Leonardo must have seemed a strange man who wasted his time on extravagant projects that never came to anything. There are barely some fifteen pictures by him, and some of these are damaged beyond repair.
He began life as a perfectly traditional apprentice in the shop of the painter and sculptor Verrocchio, and the first account of his precocious genius is that he painted the left-hand angel in the Baptism by Verrocchio, and that as a result Verrocchio swore that he would give up painting. It is certainly true that Verrocchio did concentrate on sculpture from this time on, and that the picture of the Baptism is clearly executed by two very different hands, and even then not entirely finished; it is therefore reasonable to assume that Verrocchio decided to employ Leonardo as the principal painter in the firm. It is not certain when this took place, but Leonardo became a Master in the Guild of Painters in 1472 and was living in Verrocchio’s house in 1476 when an anonymous accusation of homosexuality was made against him. The accusation was almost certainly true, and may explain some of Leonardo’s characteristics such as his tendency to live as a recluse, and his proneness to abandon things half done.
There is an early Annunciation which is usually regarded as his work, painted when still in Verrocchio’s shop, and this shows, in the wings of the angel and in the drapery of the Madonna, two of the characteristics of his art. The angel’s wings have been studied in detail from those of a bird and are quite different from the conventionally feathered wings which most fifteenth-century painters gave to their angels. Similarly, there is a drawing for the Madonna’s draperies which has obviously been made from an actual piece of cloth. In the fifteenth century this was a revolutionary proceeding, for most painters painted the folds in garments from their imagination, but it soon became known that the young Leonardo was making careful drawings of the fall of actual folds and using the drawings to work from.
The result was not to send other painters to make similar studies; they simply borrowed Leonardo’s drawings; but in both cases it is evident that he was already demonstrating that passion for actuality and curiosity about the appearance of nature which was to be his principal characteristic. Not surprisingly, he soon began to use the new oil technique, or rather to experiment with it, for many of his paintings have been much damaged by the fact that he was experimenting with new technical methods. One such case is the Madonna with the Flower Vase, probably painted in the 1470s, which has a minutely painted vase of flowers with drops of condensation represented with such skill that Vasari commented on them nearly a century later. Of about the same date is a much more beautiful picture which has unfortunately been cut down; this is the portrait that almost certainly represents Ginevra de’ Benci, and was painted probably on the occasion of her marriage in 1474.
The sitter’s pale face stands out against a dark background of carefully observed juniper branches –ginepra–an obvious reference to her name. Originally there must have been hands, very probably those shown in the drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. As early as 1474, therefore, Leonardo had evolved a half-length portrait that looks forward to the Mona Lisa.The most important work of this period, however, is the Adoration of the Kings, which was commissioned in 1481 for a monastery just outside Florence.
Leonardo left it unfinished, and no payments are recorded after 1481, but the careful, brownish lay-in is one of the most important works painted in Florence in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The picture (which is about eight feet square) is a solution to the problem of representing a large number of figures crowded round a central group of Madonna and Child, yet so arranged that the most important figures are not swamped. This he did by using a pyramidal form of composition, which creates an effective depth, but at the same time gives major linear patterns on the surface of the picture so that the spectator’s eye is led to the most important parts. The Adoration is full of closely observed gestures and facial expressions, and it has a haunting, romantic quality in the shadowy press of figures around the serene central group, in the medley of old men, youths, horses, riders, which surge up from among the ghostly figures that inhabit the ruined architecture in the background.
It is no exaggeration to recognize in this picture the watershed of Renaissance art, for as much as Masaccio Pisa Madonna or Tribute Money it breaks with all that had gone before it, and determines the eventual course of Florentine, and therefore of Italian, painting. Unfinished though it may have been, and possibly largely because no considerations of extraneous detail blurred the concentration on the purely formal solutions it proposed, it was an event after which the forms of Florentine art as they had till then been pursued might still linger on in a Botticelli or a Ghirlandaio, but linger only as survivals of an older, relegated order.Among Leonardo’s notebooks is a draft of a letter to Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in which he claimed at some length to be able to do almost everything, but principally to be a military engineer, and only at the end, almost as an afterthought, did he say that he could act as an architect, a sculptor, and ‘in painting I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be’. It is not known whether this letter was ever sent, but Leonardo was certainly in Milan in 1483 when he was commissioned to paint the picture now usually known as the Virgin of the Rocks.
This painting has long been asource of controversy since there are two versions, one in the Louvre and one in the National Gallery in London. With almost any other fifteenth-century painter the existence of two closely similar pictures would not present any problem at all, but Leonardo completed so few pictures that it seems almost inconceivable that he should have painted two so nearly the same. The documents begin in 1483 and go on until 1506 and all of them seem to refer to one picture which, it is now generally agreed, can only be the London version. On the other hand, the Paris version not only is clearly by Leonardo, but is obviously rather earlier in style and retains sufficient likeness to the pictures of the Florentine period to make it convincingly datable in 1483.
Once more the basic form of the composition is pyramidal and the interrelationship of the figures is such that a triangular pattern is formed on the picture plane, the apex of which is the head of the Madonna. Once more, the relationship of the figures to their mysterious setting has the same quality of dream-like fantasy as in the Adoration, with overtones here of the purely intellectual approach to the problem presented by the disposition in a convincing internal space of four figures in the closest and most meaningful psychological union. Leonardo ‘s interest in botany and geology can be seen in the curious setting in a cave as well as in the flowers which carpet the ground. Many drawings of this period exist for similar flowers, and there is a very beautiful drawing in Turin for the head of the angel.
At the same time, he was making scores of drawings in his notebooks on a variety of other subjects , principally on architecture, human anatomy, and the anatomy of the horse. The many drawings of horses and riders are probably connected with a projected book on the anatomy of the horse, while others were made for the monument to Lodovico Sforza’s father on which he spent sixteen years, but which never got beyond the clay model of the horse. This was destroyed early in the sixteenth century and the figure of Sforza himself was never even begun.The other great work of this period is, of course, the Last Supper in the refectory of the monastery of Sta Maria delle Grazie –one of the most famous pictures in the world, though now hardly more than a noble ruin.
Leonardo is known to have been working on it in 1497, and it is the picture, which, perhaps more than any other, can be said to be the first painting of the High Renaissance. It is probably no coincidence that the monastery church was being completed at this very moment by Bramante in a style which was to evolve within a few years into the classical architecture of the High Renaissance. What is so important in the Last Supper is the way in which Leonardo went far beyond his predecessors in the attempt to render the inner drama of the precise moment at which Christ announced that one of His disciples would betray Him. If one looks at an earlier example, such as Castagno’s, or even an almost contemporary one such as Ghirlandaio’s, it is clear that the artist has simply disposed the Apostles on either side of the central figure, eleven of them with pious expressions and the twelfth, Judas, clearly singled out by the fact that he is on the opposite side of the table from all the others, and has a different expression.
In Leonardo’s picture there is, for the first time, a grouping of the Apostles not merely symmetrically, but in small groups of three contrasted types that balance each other as they turn questioningly one to the other, and yet interlock through the whole composition as the meaning of Christ’s words and the emotions they evoke run through them. Judas is singled out not by being made villainous-looking but by the way that he starts back at his own guilty knowledge, and has his head so placed that, alone among all the figures, his face is in shadow.There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the Prior, in a vain effort to spur Leonardo on to further effort, complained that he used to come in the morning, stand looking at the picture for half an hour, put on a dozen brush-strokes and go away for the day. Leonardo explained that he was having great difficulty in visualizing the face of anyone as wicked as Judas, but suggested that if there was really a great hurry he would put in the Prior’s portrait.
The offer was presumably not accepted; but the idea of the artist as a meditative philosopher and not simply as a highly skilled workman who covered so many square feet of wall each day must have seemed very strange to the Prior, and indeed to most of his contemporaries. The sixteenth-century conception of the artist as a creative genius, like the poet and unlike ordinary craftsmen, can certainly be traced back to Leonardo.At the end of 1499 the French invaded Milan and the Sforza dynasty fell. Both Bramante and Leonardo left the city and went south, Bramante to Rome where he was to evolve those architectural forms that in their lucidity and harmony are the very essence of the High Renaissance, and to preside over the birth of the designs for the new St Peter’s; and Leonardo through Mantua and Venice to Florence, where he arrived in 1500, and where, with longish intervals away, he was to spend the next six years.
During his second Florentine period his position was markedly different from what it had been before he went to Milan. He had gone as a promising young man; he returned preceded by the fame of his Last Supper. Much of his time and energy he spent in continuing the studies in anatomy that had occupied him in Milan, where he had begun a book on it; it was he who invented the system of so representing a muscle that its function was clear, while eliminating its bulk which only obscured what lay underneath it. It is also clear that Leonardo ‘s anatomical drawings were made from actual dissection on bodies, from a medical standpoint–nothing else would explain the pathetic drawing of a foetus within the womb–and not merely from the observed surface for experiment and assistance in his painting.
He put the lessons to good use, though, for in 1503 he was commissioned by the Signoria in Florence to paint on one of the walls of the Great Council Chamber a picture of the Florentine victory of the Battle of Anghiari, as a pendant to Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina. Michelangelo’s choice of subject was not the battle itself but nude studies of the warriors preparing to fight: it was a hymn to the perfection of male beauty and virility. Leonardo chose to represent the white heat of the battle itself; a furious medley of men and horses in a struggling mass, the horses fighting as ferociously as the men, in an attempt to render what he himself called the bestial madness of war. But he also chose to use a novel technique–he had neither knowledge nor experience of fresco painting, as had been proved in Milan–and the wax medium that he used proved not only useless but destructive, for it melted and ran.
In 1505 work stopped, and all that survived were a few drawings. All that is known of the painting is derived from these and from some free copies made before its eventual disintegration.The other works of this period are the cartoons for the Madonna and Child with St Anne, and the Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was not a famous beauty, nor a grand person, but merely the wife of a Florentine official.
Leonardo had painted several portraits in Milan–Ludovico’s mistress, and a musician, and there are probably two others that owe much to him, even if he did not entirely execute them himself. The execution is in an oil-technique of infinite delicacy and softness; the tones of the modelling are as if breathed rather than painted on to the panel, and only the major forms survive–her flickering half-smile, her long nose, her eyes as heavily lidded below as above and eyebrowless so that the smooth expanse of her forehead has no interruptions. How much real woman, how much tutelary Muse, will always remain an enigma, and perhaps intentionally, since she is the embodiment of an idea as much as an essay in portraiture.Leonardo spent nearly the whole of 1502 away from Florence, serving as military engineer to the ruffianly Cesare Borgia in his campaign of terrorism; in 1506 he came to terms with the French invaders and returned to Milan.
He was appointed Painter to Francis I of France in 1507, and began, in his usual dilatory way, to design an equestrian monument to the city’s governor, Trivulzio. He also resumed his anatomical drawings, and filled books with his study of muscles and embryology. When French control of Milan ended in 1512, he turned towards the new centre of patronage in Rome, and in 1513 he went there at the instance of Giulio de’ Medici, the Pope’s cousin, and was lodged in the Vatican. Nothing came of the four years he stayed there but increasing frustrations born of his unproductiveness, and this at a moment when Raphael and Michelangelo were executing their greatest works.
In 1517, with perhapssomething of desperation, he went to France, accepting the offers of Francis I, who was seeking to build up a team of Italian artists for prestige purposes. But he was an old man by now with only two more years to live, and it seems not unreasonable to suggest that he was tired, disillusioned, and overburdened, not only by the weight of his immense and almost unusable knowledge, but also by consciousness of the little he had to show for it all, and by the way in which in the end his fame had left him isolated while the victories lay with younger men who had learned from him, but who now divided Rome between them, and whose brilliant language of synthesis and generalization was entirely alien to his patient questioning of each individual form and his refusal to elaborate general theories.
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