Art and accomplishment

Painting and drawing

Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works—the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed—have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.

The many testimonials to Leonardo, ranging from Vasari to Peter Paul Rubens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Eugène Delacroix, praise in particular the artist’s gift for expression—his ability to move beyond technique and narrative to convey an underlying sense of emotion. The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472–75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it an enigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed. In Leonardo’s landscape segment in the same picture, he also found a new expression for what he called “nature experienced”: he reproduced the background forms in a hazy fashion as if through a veil of mist.

In the Benois Madonna (1475–78) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In his Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1480) Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; begun 1480) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.

9662-004-23C39622Leonardo da Vinci: The Adoration of the MagiAlinari/Art Resource, New YorkThe interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture—“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words—is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481). Never finished, the painting nonetheless affords rich insight into the master’s subtle methods. The various aspects of the scene are built up from the base with very delicate, paper-thin layers of paint in sfumato (the smooth transition from light to shadow) relief. The main treatment of the Virgin and Child group and the secondary treatment of the surrounding groups are clearly set apart with a masterful sense of composition—the pyramid of the Virgin Mary and Magi is demarcated from the arc of the adoring followers. Yet thematically they are closely interconnected: the bearing and expression of the figures—most striking in the group of praying shepherds—depict many levels of profound amazement.

26319-004-1D28A47CLeonardo da Vinci: The Virgin of the RocksGiraudon/Art Resource, New YorkThe Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483–86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt. The secret of the picture’s effect lies in Leonardo’s use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity—all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.

Last years (1513–19)

In 1513 political events—the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan—caused the now 60-year-old Leonardo to move again. At the end of the year, he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican. He also gave Leonardo a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions followed. For three years Leonardo remained in Rome at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, and many younger artists, such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma, were also active. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master, who kept a low profile while he worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city. Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.


Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young King Francis I to enter his service in France. At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.

Leonardo did little painting while in France, spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World, or Deluge, series (c. 1514–15), he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.

Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.

Second Milanese period (1508–13)

Second Milanese period (1508–13)

In May 1506 Charles d’Amboise, the French governor in Milan, asked the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo could travel to Milan. The Signoria let Leonardo go, and the monumental Battle of Anghiari remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural; one cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work. In the winter of 1507–08 Leonardo went to Florence, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan.

Honoured and admired by his generous patrons in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, Leonardo enjoyed his duties, which were limited largely to advice in architectural matters. Tangible evidence of such work exists in plans for a palace-villa for Charles, and it is believed that he made some sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.

During this second period in Milan, Leonardo created very little as a painter. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new students came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most faithful friend and companion until the artist’s death.

An important commission came Leonardo’s way during this time. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and as a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore. After years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one. This was the second aborted project Leonardo faced as a sculptor.

Leonardo’s scientific activity flourished during this period. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia. Leonardo outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even planned to finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510–11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies. These investigations became increasingly driven by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape. Furthermore, he believed that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.


Beyond The Da Vinci Code

Beyond The Da Vinci Code

As a film, Beyond the Da Vinci Code covers the novel and its topics well. If you have not read the book, this film will serve as a good introduction to the theories in The Da Vinci Code. Most points related to historical elements used in the book are covered in detail, and the film wisely ignores the dramatic elements of the novel. The film uses various authors, researchers, and religious scholars to support or refute claims made in The Da Vinci Code. A mix of talking heads, historical re-creations, and real-life location shoots present the various claims in an easy-to-understand way that is engaging for even the uninformed viewer.

Second Florentine period (1500–08)

Second Florentine period (1500–08)

In December 1499 or, at the latest, January 1500—shortly after the victorious entry of the French into Milan—Leonardo left that city in the company of mathematician Lucas Pacioli. After visiting Mantua in February 1500, in March he proceeded to Venice, where the Signoria (governing council) sought his advice on how to ward off a threatened Turkish incursion in Friuli. Leonardo recommended that they prepare to flood the menaced region. From Venice he returned to Florence, where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. In that same year he was appointed an architectural expert on a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of San Francesco al Monte. A guest of the Servite order in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, Leonardo seems to have been concentrating more on mathematical studies than painting, or so Isabella d’Este, who sought in vain to obtain a painting done by him, was informed by Fra Pietro Nuvolaria, her representative in Florence.

Perhaps because of his omnivorous appetite for life, Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1502 to enter the service of Cesare Borgia as “senior military architect and general engineer.” Borgia, the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, had, as commander in chief of the papal army, sought with unexampled ruthlessness to gain control of the Papal States of Romagna and the Marches. When he enlisted the services of Leonardo, he was at the peak of his power and, at age 27, was undoubtedly the most compelling and most feared person of his time. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his personality. For 10 months Leonardo traveled across the condottiere’s territories and surveyed them. In the course of his activity he sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps, creating early examples of aspects of modern cartography. At the court of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo also met Niccolò Machiavelli, who was temporarily stationed there as a political observer for the city of Florence.

In the spring of 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence to make an expert survey of a project that attempted to divert the Arno River behind Pisa, so that the city, then under siege by the Florentines, would be deprived of access to the sea. The plan proved unworkable, but Leonardo’s activity led him to consider a plan, first advanced in the 13th century, to build a large canal that would bypass the unnavigable stretch of the Arno and connect Florence by water with the sea. Leonardo developed his ideas in a series of studies; using his own panoramic views of the riverbank, which can be seen as landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and using exact measurements of the terrain, he produced a map in which the route of the canal (with its transit through the mountain pass of Serravalle) was shown. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

Also in 1503 Leonardo received a prized commission to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions (at 23 × 56 feet [7 × 17 metres], it would have been twice as large as The Last Supper). For three years he worked on this Battle of Anghiari; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, it remained unfinished. During these same years Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06). (For more analysis of the work,see below The Mona Lisa and other works.)

The second Florentine period was also a time of intensive scientific study. Leonardo did dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. He made systematic observations of the flight of birds, about which he planned a treatise. Even his hydrological studies, “on the nature and movement of water,” broadened into research on the physical properties of water, especially the laws of currents, which he compared with those pertaining to air. These were also set down in his own collection of data, contained in the so-called Codex Hammer (formerly known as the Leicester Codex, now in the property of software entrepreneur Bill Gates in Seattle, Washington, U.S.).


First Milanese period (1482–99)


First Milanese period (1482–99)

In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to work in the service of the city’s duke—a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the unfinished panel painting The Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never begun. That he gave up both projects seems to indicate that he had deeper reasons for leaving Florence. It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo’s experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza’s brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan, until Ludovico’s fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”). Leonardo’s gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing were well-received in court circles. Highly esteemed, he was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer. As he would throughout his life, Leonardo set boundless goals for himself; if one traces the outlines of his work for this period, or for his life as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose “unfinished symphony.”

As a painter, Leonardo completed six works in the 17 years in Milan. (According to contemporary sources, Leonardo was commissioned to create three more pictures, but these works have since disappeared or were never done.) From about 1483–86, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks, a project that led to 10 years of litigation between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned it, and Leonardo; for uncertain purposes, this legal dispute led Leonardo to create another version of the work in about 1508. During this first Milanese period he also made one of his most famous works, the monumental wall painting The Last Supper (1495–98) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie (for more analysis of this work, see below The Last Supper). Also of note is the decorative ceiling painting (1498) he made for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco.

During this period Leonardo worked on a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason he was invited to Milan: a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo devoted 12 years—with interruptions—to this task. In 1493 the clay model of the horse was put on public display on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, and preparations were made to cast the colossal figure, which was to be 16 feet (5 metres) high. But, because of the imminent danger of war, the metal, ready to be poured, was used to make cannons instead, causing the project to come to a halt. Ludovico’s fall in 1499 sealed the fate of this abortive undertaking, which was perhaps the grandest concept of a monument in the 15th century. The ensuing war left the clay model a heap of ruins.

As a master artist, Leonardo maintained an extensive workshop in Milan, employing apprentices and students. Among Leonardo’s pupils at this time were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d’Oggiono, and Salai. The role of most of these associates is unclear, leading to the question of Leonardo’s so-called apocryphal works, on which the master collaborated with his assistants. Scholars have been unable to agree in their attributions of these works.

Life And Works

Leonardo da Vinci

Early period: Florence

Leonardo’s parents were unmarried at the time of his birth. His father, Ser Piero, was a Florentine notary and landlord, and his mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married an artisan. Leonardo grew up on his father’s family’s estate, where he was treated as a “legitimate” son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Leonardo did not seriously study Latin, the key language of traditional learning, until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. He also did not apply himself to higher mathematics—advanced geometry and arithmetic—until he was 30 years old, when he began to study it with diligent tenacity.

Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio’s renowned workshop Leonardo received a multifaceted training that included painting and sculpture as well as the technical-mechanical arts. He also worked in the next-door workshop of artist Antonio Pollaiuolo. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted into the painters’ guild of Florence, but he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years, after which time he worked independently in Florence until 1481. There are a great many superb extant pen and pencil drawings from this period, including many technical sketches—for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus—that offer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in and knowledge of technical matters even at the outset of his career.