Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519)
   Leonardo da Vinci is the artist who inaugurated the High Renaissance. He was among the great luminaries of the period not only in art but in a number of fields. His inquisitive nature led him to experiments in optics, astronomy, aviation, anatomy, botany, and hydraulics. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, mathematician, and scientist, to name a few of the fields in which he involved himself. Leonardo was also instrumental in elevating the artist's status from artisan to genius. In his Trattato della Pittura Treatise on Painting he expressed his view that the creative powers of the artist are like those of God. The artist is not a mere manual laborer but also a thinker and theorist. Therefore, painting should be considered a liberal art, higher still than music or poetry, as these two depend on the ear, while painting depends on the eye, a more noble organ.
   Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a Tuscan notary from the town of Vinci, near Florence. He was taken away from his mother at a very young age to be raised by his father and his father's wife. The trauma this event caused, as well as the fact that he had diminished rights from those of legitimate children and that he was stigmatized for being left-handed, resulted in his detachment from humans and complete immersion in the arts and scientific experimentation. He is known to have dissected more than 30 corpses, scrupulously recording his findings in his notebooks and drawings. He invented a number of military weapons, tanks, flying machines, a grinder to create concave mirrors that resulted in the production of a telescope in 1509, and many other such objects.
   Leonardo received his training as artist in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio from whom he acquired his interest in anatomy and physiognomy. In 1472-1475, he assisted his master with the Baptism of Christ (Florence, Uffizi) where the kneeling angel on the left and the background landscape have been attributed to him, as they exhibit the same softness and lush brushwork of his autographed works. His earliest solo commission was the Annunciation (late 1470s; Florence, Uffizi), a unique composition he painted for the Monastery of Monte Oliveto outside of Florence. Here the scene takes place outdoors, in front of the Virgin's home, instead of the usual domestic setting. Her book of devotions is set on an elaborately carved Roman funerary urn, perhaps to denote the future death of her son. The wind created by the archangel Gabriel as he alights causes the flowers in the garden to bend. These are botanically accurate, as are the lilies held by the angel, symbols of the Virgin's purity. Leonardo's palette, with emphasis on earth tones, olives, blues, and deep reds, is common in his art, as are the varied drapery folds placed close together in animated arrangements. Leonardo's Benois Madonna (St. Petersburg, Hermitage) also falls in this period. The Virgin here is a youthful figure, and the pudgy child looks and behaves the way an infant would. Leonardo's close study of the human form and physiognomy are what led to his life-like rendition of the figures and their facial expressions. In this work, he began experimenting with sfumato, a shading technique he devised that grants the figures a smoky, mysterious quality.
   In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Uffizi) for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, just outside of Florence, a work he left unfinished when he moved to Milan. He only managed to create the underdrawing, leaving us with some understanding of his painting method. He first used ocher tones to sketch the overall composition, and then added his other colors in layers over the underpainting. This means that for Leonardo, dark tones took preeminence. In spite of its unfinished state, the work divulges Leonardo's intention to capture the frenzied excitement of those who have come to adore the Christ Child.
   Leonardo went to Milan in 1481 or 1482 to work for the Sforza as artist and military and civil engineer. While in Milan, he painted the Madonna of the Rocks (1483-1486; Paris, Louvre) for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the Church of San Francesco Grande, his famed Last Supper (1497-1498) in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the Portrait of a Woman with an Ermine (c. 1485; Cracow; Czartoryski Museum). In 1499, Milan was invaded by the French, forcing Leonardo to leave the city. In 1500 he is recorded in Venice and then in Florence where he painted the Madonna and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508-1513; Paris, Louvre) for the high altar of the Church of Santisima Annunziata and the Mona Lisa (1503), now in the Paris Louvre.
   In 1503, the Florentine Republic asked Leonardo to render the Battle of Anghiari (1503-1506) in the Council Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio at the same time as Michelangelo created the Battle of Cascina (1504-1506). In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan where he remained until 1513 when he was invited by Pope Leo X to Rome. At the Vatican he engaged in scientific research until 1517 when he was called by Francis I to the French court. Francis provided the queen's manor house (the Château de Cloux) for Leonardo to use as his home, and engaged him in the staging of pageants, allowing him to also continue his scientific investigations. Leonardo died in France in 1519.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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