Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in the village of Vinci, about 19 miles (30 km) west of Florence. His father was a lawyer; his mother, a peasant. Leonardo was their illegitimate son. That meant he wouldn’t be able to work as a lawyer like his father. That also meant he could study what he wanted which, in Leonardo’s case, was best. Because of his limitless curiosity and great skill in many areas, Leonardo became widely regarded in his time and since as the quintessential Renaissance Man.

In 1466 Leonardo started work as an apprentice for a skilled painter, sculptor, and goldsmith named Andrea del Verrocchio. Earlier Verrocchio had studied under Donatello. Within six years Leonardo qualified as a master artist. Although he then set up his own workshop, he had great respect and affection for Verrocchio and continued to work with him until 1476. In 1481, while still in Florence, Leonardo began to paint The Adoration of the Magi in a bold new style. Although never finished, it hangs today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Somehow dissatisfied with Renaissance Florence, Leonardo moved to Milan in 1482 and lived there until 1499. Soon after his arrival he received a commission to paint the Virgin Mary. He finished the Virgin of the Rocks around 1486. The rocky setting is an unusual one for such a subject and demonstrates Leonardo’s interest in nature and skill in portraying it. His use of light and shadow were also new and set a new standard in painting.

Always curious about everything, Leonardo started studying anatomy and making extremely accurate drawings of what he saw. Later he would also study light, water, cartography (drawing of maps), flight, geology, astronomy, and mathematics. 

During Leonardo’s years in Milan, Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, generously supported him. One project he worked on for years was the creation of a huge equestrian statue of his patron’s father. It was to be the largest statue of its kind in Olympian history, standing over 20 feet (6 m) in height and requiring a staggering 200,000 pounds (90,000 kg) of bronze to cast. After years of toying with different ideas, Leonardo finally completed a huge clay model. The final bronze statue was never cast. The clay model itself was intentionally destroyed by conquering French archers who used it for target practice.

Around 20 BC a man named Vitruvius, one of Julius Caesar’s many military engineers, wrote the outstanding Ten Books on Architecture (De Architectura). His book was rediscovered in 1414 and became widely known around 1450. Leonardo made a careful study of this book and drew his “Vitruvian Man” (c. 1490) to illustrate the perfect proportions of the human body identified by Vitruvius. Leonardo drew a human figure within both a circle and a square, the two fundamental geometric figures, to link the structure of the human body with the structures of buildings and, by extension, with that of nature.

From 1495-1498 Ludovico paid Leonardo to paint The Last Supper (15 x almost 30 feet [460 x 880 cm]) on a wall of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie (“Holy Mary of Grace”) in Milan. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells his twelve apostles that one of them will betray him. Leonardo paints their first responses to this shocking statement. To our left of Jesus, we see Peter holding a knife. In the gospel story, he later he uses a sword in violent response to Jesus’ arrest. Next to him is Judas, the betrayer, whose head is lower than all others on the canvas, whose elbow alone rests on the table, and who holds a small bag containing the money he got paid to hand Jesus over to his enemies. Leonardo used linear perspective to make the room in which Jesus is dining appear to be an extension of the room at the monastery in which it was painted. Tragically, Leonardo's paint did not stick well to the wall and started flaking off almost immediately.

While Leonardo was working on the Last Supper, a monk named Luca Pacioli came to live in Milan. Luca was a skilled mathematician and soon became the enthusiastic teacher of Leonardo and found him to be a brilliant student. When a French army seized control of Milan in 1499, Luca and Leonardo left the city together for Venice.

After a year, Leonardo returned to Florence. There he received a commission to paint the Virgin Mary with her mother Anne and the baby Jesus. Leonardo started the painting but it hangs, unfinished, in the Louvre.

In 1502 Leonardo travelled through northern Latinia working as chief military engineer for Cesare Borgia. With Cesare he met fellow Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli. Back in Florence by the end of 1503, he started to paint the Mona Lisa. He worked on the painting, occasionally, for four years before putting it aside to work on other projects.

Florentine leaders paid Leonardo to paint one wall of the main meeting room in the city hall of Florence. They paid Michelangelo to paint the opposite wall. They took pride in the skill and fame of these two Florentine artists and eagerly anticipated the competition between them. They were disappointed: neither artist did much of the work.

Leonardo left for Milan in 1506 and lived there until 1513 when he moved to Rome to live in the Belvedere, a villa inside the walls of the Vatican, in Rome. The pope at the time, Leo 10th, was the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Michelangelo (23 years younger than Leonardo) and Raphael (31 years younger) were also working in Rome at that time. Leonardo drew a self-portrait in red chalk around 1515. He also busied himself studying water and drew pictures in his notebooks of floods.

In 1516 Leonardo accepted the gift of a large house and generous pension from Francis, King of France, and lived near the king’s palace in Amboise on the Loire River. During this time he actually finished his Mona Lisa. He died at his home in Amboise on May 2, 1519, at the age of 67 cradled, according to tradition, in the arms of the king.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.