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Leonardo Da Vinci
Painter, scientist, engineer, botanist and anatomist, just to name a few of his areas of study, Leonardo and his many talents still amaze the world today. Born in Anchiano, in the countryside around Vinci, on the night of 15 April 1452, his innate curiosity and intellect consecrated him as the symbol of Renaissance genius.
A Beloved Illegitimate Child: Early Childhood and Training
The very first years of Leonardo’s life must not have been very easy. His mother, Caterina di Meo Lippi, was of very humble origins and was just 16 when, together with Piero di Vinci, she gave birth out of wedlock. For the two parents there is no possibility of a restorative union as the father is already promised to another woman, Albiera di Giovanni Amadori. Caterina then marries another man, a ceramist from the area named Antonino di Piero Buti. Fortunately, despite his status as an illegitimate child, the father and stepmother show great affection towards the child and take loving care of him.
Around the early 1460s, all three moved to Florence following Piero’s notarial work. Unfortunately Albiera died shortly thereafter, in 1464, at the age of only 28. It is assumed that in these years Leonardo was sent to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist appreciated by the Medici for whom Ser Piero kept accounts. The father had in fact discovered that his son loved to fill entire notebooks with sketches and notes, which allows us to guess his precocious inclination to study and drawing. The young artist actively contributed to the works of the master, so much so that we can identify traces of his style in works from the 1970s such as Tobiolo and the angel, completed by Verrocchio around 1475 and now kept in the National Gallery in London, but above all we find him in the Baptism of Christ, a masterpiece created between 1475 and 1478, now in the Uffizi collection. Although it is definitely a work by Verrocchio, we know that the little blond angel on the left is the work of the young Leonardo. Legend has it that the master, given the wonderful work of the young man, realized that he had now been surpassed by the pupil and that since then he has no longer wanted to paint anything, concentrating only on his bronze statues and goldsmith’s works.
An early onset
While working at Verrocchio, Leonardo begins to lay the foundations of his career as an independent artist. His father Piero, as a very prominent notary, often worked for the Medici court. The paternal acquaintances help to get the young man the first commissions we know of. Already at the age of 20, in 1472, Leonardo created the splendid Annunciation, now in the Uffizi. The original location of the work is not known, nor who requested it, but the search for harmony and the optical studies of the very young genius can already be seen in this painting on panel. The setting is that of a Renaissance garden while, in the background, we can already notice the great care that Leonardo will devote to his landscapes throughout his life. Maria’s arm is excessively long but, rather than the result of an error of inexperience, many experts agree that it is her first experiment on optics, hypothesizing that the work should have been observed, in its original location, from the side and from Bass.
We are now in the following decade, Leonardo is almost thirty years old when the monks of San Donato a Scopeto commission him the Adoration of the Magi, also preserved in the Uffizi Gallery. The clerics had expressly requested, in the agreement signed in 1481, that the artist deliver the work within and no later than two years. As we know, however, the panel remained unfinished. From what can be observed, the direction in which the artist was taking his work is clearly classical, perhaps influenced by his stay in the San Marco Gardens where the doctors kept their vast collection of ancient marbles. In the Adoration of the Magi we see the study of Donatello’s techniques, above all in the perspective rendering given by the superimposition of different planes that the sculptor used in his bas-reliefs and which Leonardo translates into painting.
He is now an established artist, with several successful works behind him such as the Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, or the Benois Madonna from the Hermitage. But his fame had already begun to change for some time: no longer seen only as an excellent painter, his innumerable passions and his research in the most disparate fields began to be appreciated by the powerful of the time, first of all Lorenzo de’ Medici . On behalf of the Magnifico he began to try his hand at military and engineering studies which would serve him, together with a letter from the lord of Florence, as a business card to present himself at the Sforza court.
Vezzi at the Sforza court: Leonardo between art, entertainment and military studies
It was 1482 when Leonardo left for Milan. Lorenzo’s recommendation in fact allows him to propose his military engineering studies to Duke Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his regent Ludovico il Moro who finally officially invite him to court. The transfer could perhaps also conceal political reasons: Il Magnifico was in the habit of “lending” artists and intellectuals from his city to the other Italian lords, within a broad cultural project that aimed to make Florence the cultural capital of the peninsula. In the Lombard city he continues his artistic activity and many of his famous works see the light in Milan. Here he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, a panel now known as the Virgin of the Rocks and exhibited in the Louvre. This extraordinary work shows Mary presiding over the first meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist as children. The scenic layout is almost architectural, with large and improbable rock structures that create arches and spiers in the background. The biblical encounter is represented here on the shore of a pond, immersed in a fantastic landscape where the artist shows his passion for botany in the meticulous representation of the flowery meadow and aquatic plants.
Leonardo’s curious nature and keen intellect soon lead him to immerse himself in the circles of intellectuals of the Milanese court where he was able to show off thanks to his sociable personality, his vast knowledge and even his musical talent by playing a peculiar silver lyre built by himself. In the meantime, he continued his studies in hydraulics and both civil and military engineering, so much so that the Duke involved him in the expansion works of the Navigli network and the new neighborhoods that would arise around them. At court he soon became famous for his machines, so much so that Ludovico il Moro commissioned him to organize the wedding of Gian Galeazzo with Isabella of Aragon. For this grandiose event, Leonardo invents and creates entire sets, activated by sophisticated mechanisms, capable of moving and projecting light effects on the spectators.
Leonardo’s stay in Milan lasted almost twenty years, until 1499 when he was forced to leave due to the arrival of French troops intending to invade the city. The crowning glory of this period is undoubtedly the Last Supper, known as the Last Supper, an iconic fresco that adorns one of the walls of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo creates the work shortly before leaving the city. The artist did not like painting on the wall, radically different from that on canvas or wood. To create a fresco you need to be quick, there is no room for second thoughts and changes of course. The paint must be applied before the plaster dries completely or the color risks being lost. Leonardo hates working in a hurry, his works are usually reasoned in several phases, modified, reimagined until the optimal result is obtained. Obstinate, he decides to face the wall as if it were a panel, using the same mixtures of colors and the white lead of his “mobile” works. Although at its completion the fresco was wonderful and with brilliant colors, the technique he used, combined with the high humidity of the refectory rooms prevented its correct conservation and today it appears to be irreparably compromised.
Engineer and artist: Leonardo between the Borgia wars and the Florentine Republic
Escaped from Milan, he begins to wander around Italy and arrives at the service of Cesare Borgia. Son of Pope Alexander VI, he is an avid warmonger intent on the conquest of Romagna on behalf of his father. Valentino, as Borgia is also known, uses Leonardo mainly as a military engineer. For him, he creates a new gunpowder mixture and creates new projects for the fortresses and ports in the area. In 1503 he finally returned to Tuscany. In Florence, a huge fresco begins to celebrate the Battle of Anghiari in the hall of the sixteenth century at the same time as Michelangelo who was creating the opposite wall. Also in this case, as for the Last Supper, Leonardo seeks a shortcut to the hated wall painting so, drawing on the classical writings of which he is a great connoisseur, he tries to put into practice the pictorial technique of encaustic mentioned by Pliny the Elder. The procedure consisted in drying the paint using torches so as to allow it to grip better. Unfortunately, even in this case, Leonardo’s experiments are a failure. The wall is too large for the heat of the torches to reach all the desired points and the painter, disappointed, gives up on the undertaking. Also in these years he threw himself into a huge hydraulic engineering project for the Florentine Republic: modifying the course of the Arno river to create a waterway that would connect Florence, Prato and Pistoia directly with the sea so as to free the north of the region from dependence from Pisa for maritime trade. In fact, in the early 1500s a ferocious war had broken out between the two cities and Leonardo hoped that his project would be able to economically weaken the enemy city. This is why he invents powerful digging machines and carries out extremely ambitious hydraulic projects. Work began in 1504 but was never completed.
In the same year, however, another enterprise begins, apparently smaller and more modest than the previous ones but which still stirs the hearts of anyone who observes it: the Mona Lisa. Leonardo begins this small portrait and completes it, in its first version, around 1506. The subject of the painting is probably the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy merchant from Florence, Lisa Gherardini. It is no coincidence that the painting is also known as Mona Lisa, where the word monna is a distortion of Madonna which at the time meant Lady and was a typical appellation of the ladies of the city. However, the artist will never deliver the painting to his model. The Mona Lisa will accompany Leonardo throughout his life and will undergo numerous retouches before being handed over to the King of France Francis I, with whom Leonardo will work in the last years of his life. Thanks to X-ray analyzes we know in fact that under the most superficial layer of the painting there are at least three other previous versions of the work, a true testimony of the perfectionism and continuous search for innovation of the master from Vinci. The mysterious portrait of the lady with a hypnotic gaze and an ineffable smile is now kept in the Louvre.
The legacy of a revolutionary genius
Although he left us few works, Leonardo was undoubtedly an extraordinary artist. His figures are characterized by an extreme sweetness and evanescence, their contours are almost blurred. With him, chiaroscuro is no longer simply a technique used to render the solid reality of bodies, but is used to create penumbra and luminous reflections, to give the works a vaporous and ethereal aspect. Even the landscapes in his paintings show the artist’s innovative spirit: usually considered of little importance by the Italian artists of the time, those of Leonardo show a careful study of Flemish models to which is added his personal perspective technique called de’ perdimenti. Curious student of nature, he had guessed the optical principle behind the loss of sharpness suffered by large objects in the distance, such as happens when observing mountains on the horizon. The air, although invisible up close, accumulates over great distances and prevents vision. Aware of this phenomenon, he manages, with a slight blue tint, to render this effect also in his works.
Characteristic of Leonardo da Vinci is also the enormous amount of manuscripts he left us. As already mentioned, from an early age he had the habit of observing and annotating his own considerations, his own ideas, compiling entire volumes of thoughts and inventions. Famous are his treatises on military, civil and hydraulic engineering, research in botany and geology, as well as the iconic projects of his machines. Perhaps, however, his most fascinating writings concern studies on the flight of birds and on the possibility, one day, of giving wings to human beings as well. All this draws the portrait of a complex and multifaceted character, loved by his contemporaries for his intelligence but also for his natural sympathy.
Leonardo died in Amboise, France, in 1519 at the age of 67, after having lived an intense life full of extraordinary feats.
Cover photo: Self-portrait, circa 1515, Royal Library, Turin
The Renaissance genius
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