Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian genius whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, mathematics, engineering, science, music, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time, although fewer than two-dozen paintings attributed to him exist. The reason he did not paint more was that his interests were so vast and varied that he wasn’t a prolific painter. Centuries after his death, thousands of pages from his private journals with notes, drawings, observations and scientific theories have been studied and provided a greater appreciation for this remarkable “Renaissance Humanist”.
Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a wealthy notary and a peasant woman in Vinci in the region of Florence, and he was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France.
The Mona Lisa is his most famous artwork, and The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time. His drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon. About 15 of his paintings have survived plus 6,000 pages in notebooks with his musings, inspirations, plans and inventions during his lifetime. Leonardo was a technological genius; he conceptualised flying machines, armoured fighting vehicles, concentrated solar power and an adding machine. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even possible during his lifetime, as the modern metallurgy and engineering were only in their infancy during the Renaissance. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, geology, optics, and hydrodynamics. Unfortunately, he did not publish his findings, and so they had no direct influence on later science.
Francis I of France receiving the last breath of Leonardo da Vinci, by Ingres, 1818
A Tour of Leonardo da Vinci’ Masterpieces
- Mona Lisa
- The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is a portrait which he started in Florence around 1503. It is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant. Leonardo took this painting with him to France when he joined the court of the French King, and after his death, the picture entered King François I’s collection. The Mona Lisa became part of The Louvre collection in 1797 and is considered to be one of the world’s best-known paintings, the most written about and the most parodied works of art in the world. Museum: The Louvre (since 1797)
- The Last Supper
- “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci depicts the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as told in the Gospel of John. Da Vinci focused on representing the anxiety and confusion, as he imagined, would have occurred among the Twelve Disciples at the specific point, when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. This masterpiece covers one end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. The room was used for communal meals of the Convent and was commissioned as part of a plan of renovations to the church and its convent buildings by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Museum: Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan
- Ginevra de’ Benci
- Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci depicts a well-known young Florentine aristocrat. Leonardo painted the portrait in Florence in 1474 to commemorate Ginevra’s marriage at the age of 16. The juniper bush that fills much of the background was regarded as a symbol of female virtue, in Renaissance Italy, while the Italian word for juniper, echo’s Ginevra’s name. Ginevra is shown beautiful but reserved with no hint of a smile. Her gaze, although forward, seems indifferent to the viewer. Museum: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- The Virgin and Child with St. Anne
- “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci depicts St Anne, her daughter the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. Leonardo’ composition depicts the mother-daughter relationship between the two women. St Anne is looking at Mary, as Mary is sitting on her lap, and Mary is looking into her Christ’s eyes. Christ is shown grappling with a sacrificial lamb symbolising his Passion. The painting and its theme had long preoccupied Leonardo, who took many years to work on this painting. Leonardo struggled to capture their relationships and personalities. Museum: The Louvre
- Virgin of the Rocks(The National Gallery, London)
- “Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci depicts the Madonna and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which provides the painting with its unusual name. This painting is in the National Gallery London and is one of two versions of this picture which have the same name and similar composition but with several differences in the detail. The earliest version of the two paintings is in the Louvre, Paris and has been transferred to the canvas, whereas this painting is on the original wooden panel. Museum: The National Gallery, London
- Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre, Paris)
- The composition shows a grouping of four figures, the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, the infant John the Baptist and an angel arranged into a triangular formation. The setting is a background of rocks and a distant landscape of mountains and water. Mary occupies the apex of the pyramidal figure group, stretching one hand to include John and raising the other above the head of the Christ child in a blessing. John is kneeling and looking towards the Christ child with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The Christ child is supported by the angel and is raising his right hand in a sign of Benediction towards the kneeling John. Museum: Louvre, Paris
- Madonna Litta
- The “Madonna Litta” painting has traditionally been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. However, academic opinion is divided on the work’s creators. Some experts believe this is the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils. The Hermitage Museum, which owns this 1490s masterpiece considers the painting to be an autograph work by Leonardo. Madonna Litta depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ child, a devotional subject known as the Nursing Madonna. The figures are set in a dark interior with two arched openings showing an aerial view of a mountainous landscape. Of particular interest, note that in the centre of the painting, in Christ’s left hand, is a goldfinch, which is symbolic of his future Passion. Museum: Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
- Madonna of the Carnation
- Madonna of the Carnation depicts the young Virgin Mary seated with Baby Jesus on her lap. Mary is shown wearing precious clothes and jewellery, and in her left hand, Mary holds a red carnation. The Baby Jesus is reaching for the red carnation symbolising blood and the Passion. Their faces and hands are in the light while all other objects are darker, a shadow covers even the carnation. The child is looking up, and the mother is looking down with little eye contact. The setting of the portrait is a room with two windows on each side of the figures, with Da Vinci’s usual vastness of the mountain scenery on the far horizon. Museum: Alte Pinakothek
- Lady with an Ermine
- “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the Duke’s service. Gallerani is turned at a three-quarter angle toward her right, but with her face turned toward her left. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of Da Vinci’s many innovations. Her gaze is directed toward a “third party” beyond the picture’s frame. Gallerani holds a small white-coated short-tailed weasel, known as an ermine. Her dress is comparatively simple, indicating that she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of it bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads and a black band. Museum: National Museum and Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland
- La belle ferronnière
- “La belle ferronnière” by Leonardo da Vinci is the portrait of an unknown woman, and her identity is shrouded in mystery. “La belle ferronnière” was known as “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” as early as the seventeenth century and it was believed that the sitter was the wife or daughter of an ironmonger or “a ferronnier”. Thus one possible story to explain the title of the portrait. However, it was also popularly claimed that the title alluded to a reputed mistress of Francis I of France, married to a certain Le Ferron. The tale is a legend of revenge in which the aggrieved husband intentionally infects himself with syphilis, which he passes to the King by infecting his wife. Museum: Musée du Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci
- Name: Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
- Born: 1452 – Vinci, Republic of Florence (present-day Italy)
- Died: 1519 (aged 67) – Amboise, Kingdom of France
- Movement: High Renaissance
Facts about Leonardo da Vinci
- Da Vinci was born illegitimate. Born out-of-wedlock, the son of the wealthy Florentine legal notary, and a peasant mother. Da Vinci’s parents never married each other. The young da Vinci lived with his mother until he was about five years old and later moved into the home of his father, who had married another woman.
- Florentine court records of 1476 show that Leonardo and three other young men were charged with sodomy but acquitted; homosexual acts were illegal in Renaissance Florence.
- Da Vinci spent 12 years working on a 16-foot statue of the Duke of Milan’s father on horseback. Unfortunately, before he completed it, French forces invaded Milan in 1499 and shot the clay sculpture, shattering it into pieces.
- Da Vinci under the patronage of the Duke of Milan designed numerous “war devices”, included in da Vinci’s sketchbooks there were plans for cannons, smoke machines, portable bridges, armoured vehicles and flying machines. However, there is no evidence that any of these war machines were ever constructed.
- da Vinci was fascinated by human anatomy, in the 1480s, he performed numerous dissections of both humans and animals. His depictions of the heart, vascular system, genitals, and other human and animal anatomy are some of the first accurate and detailed illustrations on record.
- Da Vinci was ambidextrous; he could draw forward and backwards with opposing hands simultaneously. Some historians claim that the many backwards-written texts in da Vinci’s papers as the artist’s effort to encode his ideas against theft. However, others speculate that when writing with his left hand, da Vinci reversed direction as a means of avoiding the smears of the wet ink, charcoal or chalk he was using.
- Leonardo’s depiction of the Last Supper was nearly destroyed on several occasions. When France invaded Milan in 1499, King Louis discussed options for cutting it down from the wall so that he could bring it home to France with him. In 1796, French soldiers hurling rocks at it. And in 1943, when Allied forces bombed the area, the church was destroyed, but The Last Supper survived behind reinforced protection barriers.
- Leonardo’s 72-page notebooks collection, titled The Codex Hammer, were compiled from 1506 to 1510 while Leonardo was in both Florence and Milan and contain thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects from art theory to why the sky appears blue. Microsoft founder Bill Gates purchased the Codex for $30.8 million in 1994.
- Da Vinci produced more than 6,000 pages of musings, inspirations and invention plans during his lifetime. His inventions include an underwater breathing apparatus, a life preserver, a diving bell, submarine, a pile driver, the armoured car, a revolving crane, a parachute, a pulley, water-powered mills and engines.
- Da Vinci and Michelangelo were artistic rivals. Michelangelo taunted Leonardo on his complete works. Leonardo was needling Michelangelo for the exaggerated musculature in his sculptures.
- Leonardo was prolific, but left many works abandoned or incomplete, including the Mona Lisa. When Leonardo died in 1519, the Mona Lisa was unfinished.
- Leonardo’s remains were originally interred in the chapel of Saint-Florentin at the Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. However, after the chapel’s destruction in 1802, the whereabouts of Leonardo’s remains became subject to dispute.
- Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, and Pablo Picasso was initially arrested as a suspect.
A Tour of Artists and their Art
- Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510)
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
- Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
- Raphael (1483 – 1520)
- Titian (1488 – 1576)
- Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
- J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851)
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867)
- Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
- Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
- John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
- Rupert Bunny (1864 – 1947)
- Artists and their Art
- What do you find the most interesting about Leonardo da Vinci?
- Artists and their Art
- Popular Paintings
- Mythological Art
- Christian Art
- Buddhist Art
- Ancient Egyptian Art
Quotes by Leonardo da Vinci
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.”
“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. It is the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”
“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions”
“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit 1)Francesco Melzi [Public domain] 2) Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons