LEONARDO DA VINCI

July 30, 2008 afruj
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Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

was a Tuscan polymath; a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. Born at Vinci in the region of Florence, the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant girl, Caterina, Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter, Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan where several of his major works were created. He also worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, spending his final years in France at the home given him by King François I.

Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the “Renaissance man” or universal genius, a man whose seemingly infinite curiosity was equalled only by his powers of invention.[1] He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.[2]

It is primarily as a painter that Leonardo was and is renowned. Two of his works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper occupy unique positions as the most famous, most reproduced and most parodied portrait and religious painting of all time, their fame approached only by Michelangelo‘s Creation of Adam.[1] Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also iconic. Perhaps fifteen paintings survive, the small number due to his constant, and frequently disastrous, experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination.[b] Nevertheless these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, comprise a contribution to later generations of artists only rivalled by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo.

As an engineer, Leonardo conceived ideas vastly ahead of his own time, conceptualising a helicopter, a tank, concentrated solar power, a calculator, and the double hull, and outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible during his lifetime,[c] but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded.[d] As a scientist, he greatly advanced the state of knowledge in the fields of anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics.

Biography

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, “at the third hour of the night”[al] in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of Florence, and lived for his first five years in the nearby hamlet of Anchiano.[3] He was the illegitimate son of Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant.[4][5] There is some evidence that Caterina may have been a slave from the Middle East,[e] but many experts question this evidence.[6] Leonardo had no surname in the modern sense, “da Vinci” simply meaning “of Vinci“: his full birth name was “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci“, meaning “Leonardo, son of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci.” Little is known about his early life, which has been the subject of historical conjecture by Vasari and others.[7][3] At the age of five, he went to live in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle, Francesco, in the small town of Vinci, where his father had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but unfortunately died youngLeonardo was later to record only two incidents of his childhood. One, which he regarded as an omen, was when a kite dropped from the sky and hovered over his cradle, its tail feathers brushing his face.[8] The second incident occurred while he was exploring in the mountains. He discovered a cave and recorded his emotions at being, on one hand, terrified that some great monster might lurk there and on the other, driven by curiosity to find out what was inside.[8]

Vasari, the 16th century biographer of Renaissance painters, tells the story of how a local peasant requested that Ser Piero ask his talented son to paint a picture on a round plaque. Leonardo responded with a painting of snakes spitting fire which was so terrifying that Ser Piero sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who sold it to the Duke of Milan. Meanwhile, having made a profit, Ser Piero bought a plaque decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow which he gave to the peasant.

Professional life, 1476–1513

It is assumed that Leonardo had his own workshop in Florence between 1476 and 1481. Court records of 1476 show that, with three other young men, he was charged with sodomy,[i] of which charges all were acquitted.[15] From this date there is no record of his work or even his whereabouts until 1478.[16]

In 1478 he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St Bernard and in 1481 by the Monks at Scopeto for The Adoration of the Magi. In 1482 Leonardo, who Vasari tells us was a most talented musician, created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head. Lorenzo de’ Medici was so impressed with this that he decided to send both the lyre and its maker to Milan, in order to secure peace with Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan.[17] At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter to Ludovico, describing the many marvellous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing the Lord that he could also paint.[18][10]

Between 1482 and 1499, when Louis XII of France occupied Milan, much of Leonardo’s work was in that city. It was here that he was commissioned to paint two of his most famous works, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.[8] While living in Milan between 1493 and 1495 Leonardo listed a woman called Caterina as among his dependants in his taxation documents. When she died in 1495, the detailed list of expenditure on her funeral suggests that she was his mother rather than a servant girl.[

For Ludovico, he worked on many different projects which included the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s predecessor. Leonardo modelled a huge horse in clay, which became known as the “Gran Cavallo”. It surpassed in size the only two large equestrian statues of the Renaissance, Donatello’s statue of Gattemelata in Padua and Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice.[10][j] Seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. The monument remained unfinished for several years, which was not in the least unusual for Leonardo. In 1492 the clay model of the horse was completed, and Leonardo was making detailed plans for its casting.[10] Michelangelo rudely implied that he was unable to cast it.[8] In November 1494 Ludovico gave the bronze to be used for cannons to defend the city from invasion under Charles VIII.[10]

The French returned to invade Milan in 1499 under Louis XII and the invading French used the life-size clay model for the “Gran Cavallo” for target practice. With Ludovico Sforza overthrown, Leonardo, with his assistant Salai and friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice. In Venice he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack.[8][4]

Returning to Florence in 1500, he and his household were guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop where, according to Vasari, Leonardo created the cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, a work that won such admiration that “men and women, young and old” flocked to see it “as if they were attending a great festival”.[9][k] In 1502 Leonardo entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer and travelling throughout Italy with his patron.[4] He returned to Florence where he rejoined the Guild of St Luke on 18th October 1503 and spent two years involved in designing and painting a great mural of The Battle of Anghiari for the Signoria,[4] with Michelangelo designing its companion piece, The Battle of Cascina.[l] In Florence in 1504, he was part of a committee formed to relocate, against the artist’s will, Michelangelo’s statue of David.[20]

In 1506 he returned to Milan, which was in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries had driven out the French. Many of Leonardo’s most prominent pupils or followers in painting either knew or worked with him in Milan,[8] including Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco D’Oggione.[m] However, he did not stay in Milan for long, as his father died in 1504, and in 1507 he was back in Florence trying to sort out problems with his brothers over his father’s estate. By 1508 he was living in his own house in Milan, in Porta Orientale in the parish of Santa Babila

Old age

From September 1513 to 1516, Leonardo spent much of his time living in the Belvedere in the Vatican in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time.[4] In October 1515, François I of France recaptured Milan.[21] On 19th December, Leonardo was present at the meeting of Francois I and Pope Leo X, which took place in Bologna.[8][22][23] It was for Francois that Leonardo was commissioned to make a mechanical lion which could walk forward, then open its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies.[9][n]In 1516, he entered François’ service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé[o] next to the king’s residence at the royal Chateau Amboise. It was here that he spent the last three years of his life, accompanied by his friend and apprentice, Count Francesco Melzi, supported by a pension totalling 10,000 scudi.[4]

Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, France, on May 2, 1519. François I had become a close friend. Vasari records that the King held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he died, although this story, beloved by the French and portrayed in romantic paintings by Ingres, Ménageot and other French artists, has been shown to be legend rather than fact.[p][24] Vasari also tells us that in his last days, Leonardo sent for a priest to make his confession and to receive the Holy Sacrament.[9] In accordance to his will, sixty beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving as well as money, Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salai and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo’s vineyards, his brothers who received land, and his serving woman who received a black cloak of good stuff with a fur edge.[25]

Some twenty years after Leonardo’s death, François was reported by the goldsmith and sculptor Benevenuto Cellini as saying: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.”

The Last Supper (1498)—Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.

Leonardo’s most famous painting of the 1490s is The Last Supper, also painted in Milan. The painting represents the last meal shared by Jesus with his disciples before his capture and death. It shows specifically the moment when Jesus has said “one of you will betray me.” Leonardo tells the story of the consternation that this statement caused to the twelve followers of Jesus.

Paintings of the 1500s

Among the works created by Leonardo in the 1500s is the small portrait known as the Mona Lisa or “la Gioconda”, the laughing one. The painting is famous, in particular, for the elusive smile on the woman’s face, its mysterious quality brought about perhaps by the fact that the artist has subtly shadowed the corners of the mouth and eyes so that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined. The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called “sfumato” or Leonardo’s smoke. Vasari, who is generally thought to have known the painting only by repute, said that “the smile was so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original”.[9][s]

Other characteristics found in this work are the unadorned dress, in which the eyes and hands have no competition from other details, the dramatic landscape background in which the world seems to be in a state of flux, the subdued colouring and the extremely smooth nature of the painterly technique, employing oils, but laid on much like tempera and blended on the surface so that the brushstrokes are indistinguishable.[t] Vasari expressed the opinion that the manner of painting would make even “the most confident master…despair and lose heart.”[9] The perfect state of preservation and the fact that there is no sign of repair or overpainting is extremely rare in a panel painting of this date.[4]

In the Virgin and Child with St. Anne (see below [StAnne]) the composition again picks up the theme of figures in a landscape which Wasserman describes as “breathtakingly beautiful”[21] and harks back to the St Jerome picture with the figure set at an oblique angle. What makes this painting unusual is that there are two obliquely-set figures superimposed. Mary is seated on the knee of her mother, St Anne. She leans forward to restrain the Christ Child as he plays roughly with a lamb, the sign of his own impending sacrifice.[10] This painting, which was copied many times, was to influence Michelangelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto,[4] and through them Pontormo and Correggio. The trends in composition were adopted in particular by the Venetian painters Tintoretto and Veronese.


Mona Lisa

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1510)—Louvre, Paris, is a masterly figure composition.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1510)—Louvre, Paris, is a masterly figure composition.

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