Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2430
Article abstract: Leonardo da Vinci was the most outstanding painter of the Italian Renaissance; some authorities consider him the best painter and draftsman of all time. In addition, he made a number of discoveries in botany, anatomy, mechanical engineering, and medicine which were unprecedented and unparalleled until the twentieth century.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci, descendant of a long line of Florentine minor officials, and a local woman known only as Caterina. Nevertheless, he was reared as a member of his father’s household, first in Vinci and then in Florence; a notarized attestation of his birth by his grandfather signifies his family’s recognition of him and of its responsibilities toward him. Still, there are few documented facts about his early life. Further, since the first biography of him—by the historian Giorgio Vasari—appeared only some thirty years after his death, conjectural reconstructions have flourished.
Leonardo himself recorded only one event from his childhood, recalled years later, when he was compiling notes on the flight of birds in his notebooks. He simply comments that he was probably fated to write about the flight of kites “because in the earliest memory of my childhood it seemed to me that as I lay in my cradle a kite came down to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me with its tail many times between the lips.” As open to Freudian reconstruction as this seems to be, it may only document Leonardo’s memory of the closeness of the physical environment natural to an upbringing in a Tuscan hill village. This is more likely, since his fascination with horses also seems to date from this period. Both interests continued throughout his life.
There is no evidence earlier than Vasari’s biography that Leonardo served an apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrocchio, but legend, as well as some internal evidence, seems to make this likely. Under Verrocchio, Leonardo would have worked with fellow apprentices Perugino, later the teacher of Raphael, and Lorenzo di Credi, both to become masters in their own right.
Of Leonardo’s work at this early period little survives, other than some sketches in his notebooks. One page of these, consisting of a series of portraits of the same head—a head which also appears in some of his earlier paintings—seems to record various impressions of himself. If they are self-portraits, they correspond to early reminiscences on the part of his contemporaries of his remarkable beauty and grace; the delicacy of his profile coincides with memories of fluid, dancer-like movement, of a luminous presence and carriage, of an unusually sweet singing voice, of considerable ability as a lutanist, together with quite unexpected physical strength. One early account credits him with contributing the head of an angel to Verrocchio’s painting The Baptism of Christ (c. 1474-1475), and one head is clearly by a hand subtler and more delicate than Verrocchio’s; Vasari reports improbably that Verrochio was so dismayed by the contrast that he refused to paint thereafter, confining himself to sculpture.
A final event from this period deserves mention. While staying at the house of Verrocchio—long after his apprenticeship had come to an end—Leonardo was twice accused of having visited the house of a notorious boy prostitute, which was tantamount to being accused of sodomy, a crime punishable at best by exile, at worst by being burned at the stake. In neither case was the evidence necessary for conviction brought forth, but the incident suggests something about Leonardo’s sexual orientation and foreshadows his failure to develop a deep relationship with a woman.
Leonardo remains best known for his painting, even though it is now nearly impossible to restore his works to their original splendor. Yet his qualities announce themselves almost immediately in his first Florentine period (1472-1482). In The Baptism of Christ of Verrocchio, for example, his hand can be seen not only in the angel’s head long attributed to him but also in the delicate treatment of the watercourse in the foreground and in the fantastic mountain landscape to the rear. Two similar paintings, both called The Annunciation—one in the Louvre, one in the Uffizi, both c. 1475—display advances in structure, delicacy of detail, and a personal iconography unlike that of any previous painter.
Among other masterpieces from this period are a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474), Head of a Woman (c. 1475), and the Madonna Benois (c. 1478). Here the distinctive element is sensitivity of character, so that the figures rendered seem to take on a life of their own, almost as if establishing eye contact through the pictorial plane. Great as these are, the Adoration of the Magi (1481) completely transcends them. This unfinished painting occupied Leonardo’s attention for the remainder of his stay in Florence, yet he completed only the preliminary underdrawing. Nevertheless, it displays an absolutely unprecedented sense of fantasy and imagination, all accomplished within the norms of accurate Albertian perspective. With this painting, Leonardo broke free from the confines of traditional Nativity iconography, relegating the ruined stable to the background and replacing it with the powerful symbol of the broken arch. He also regrouped the figures of the traditional scene so that they could appear both as individuals with distinct motives and as participants in a communal activity. Leonardo gives a theological doctrine a real psychological dimension.
Following this stay in Florence, Leonardo resided in Milan for nearly twenty years. Although he apparently hoped to be taken into the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza as military engineer, his principal activities were artistic. His first major work was the Madonna of the Rocks, two versions of which survive, one in the Louvre and one in the National Gallery in London, both c. 1485. This work was commissioned by the Convent of the Conception in Milan, and, although the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had not yet been officially adopted, Leonardo chose to depict it in his painting.
The Last Supper (1495-1497), a fresco, is a true masterwork and a ruin. To get the effects he wanted, Leonardo invented new methods of applying color to wet plaster. At first he seemed to have succeeded, but by 1517 the work had already begun to deteriorate, and by 1566 Vasari pronounced it a jumble of blots. Only in the late twentieth century has restoration recovered the core of the original. What is there is astonishing in itself, but what is lost is irreplaceable. The work at first seems firmly rooted in tradition; the framing derives directly from previous treatments of the subject by Andrea del Castagno and Ghirlandajo. Where they focused on the moment when Christ confronted Judas, Leonardo chose to treat the instant when He revealed the presence of a traitor in the midst of the faithful. Leonardo thus transfixed the immediate response as with a candid lens; all the apostles save one act out their unique forms of the question, “Is it I, Lord?” In this way he reveals their responses both as individuals and as members of a communion. To get the expressions he wanted, he walked the streets for hours, sketching memorable faces on his portable pad, then fitting expression to individual character and working at the combinations until he got the exact effect he wanted. The unveiling of this fresco must have been explosive, for the moment catches the apostles’ regrouping after the shock wave has passed. Few spectators would have noted that Leonardo had here also transcended the laws of Albertian perspective.
In 1500, Leonardo left Milan. Thereafter, except for a return lasting from 1508 to 1513, he was a transient. At first this did not keep him from painting. In Florence in 1501, he displayed a preliminary drawing for a Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John, though he did not complete the painting. The cartoon itself is marvelous in the integrity of the grouping, the revelation of movement in a fixed moment, and the combination of the casual with the intense. An equally celebrated and similar contemporary cartoon for the painting of Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1508-1513) reveals how much has been lost, for this work again shows Leonardo’s carrying his ideas one step further. In this painting, he places his subjects against a barren and forbidding backdrop and concentrates on the physical and theological fecundity of the Virgin, who is shown rocking in the lap of her mother while trying to contain her Child, who is evading her to clasp the lamb—the emblem of his sacrifice. Their expressions are joyful, serene, and supernally oblivious to the implications: Leonardo presents a quiet portrait of a family doomed to be ripped asunder to bring life to the world.
This painting, along with a late Saint John the Baptist, was among the three works taken by Leonardo when he moved to France in 1515. The third was the Mona Lisa (1503), easily the most celebrated and most identifiable painting in the world as well as one of the most controversial. Historians cannot even agree on the subject of the work, so that its proper title is still questioned; critics argue about whether the painting was finished, about the meaning of the famous smile, and about the significance of the background. Yet several points are indisputable. One is that Leonardo created a pose that would dominate portrait painting for the next three centuries. Another is that he made the depiction of arms and hands an indispensable element in the disclosure of character. A third is that the effect of the painting has much to do with the contrast between the savage, uninhabitable background of crag and moor and the ineffable tranquillity of the woman’s face. This woman is ascendant over the barren land. That apparently meant everything to the artist as he aged.
For the last ten years of his life Leonardo did little painting, though he was much sought after; instead, he occupied himself with problems in mathematics, botany, optics, anatomy, and mechanics. He left unfinished his last commission, a battle piece for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, in which he was in direct competition with Michelangelo. At sixty-three, out of touch with the monumental achievements of his successors Michelangelo and Raphael, he accepted an appointment with the King of France to settle at the château of Cloux, near Amboise, where his only duty was to converse with the king. There he died, still pursuing his research, on May 2, 1519.
Leonardo da Vinci’s achievement was nothing less than the foundation of the High Renaissance in painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture, in theory or practice or both. His equally significant accomplishments in establishing the groundwork for the scientific study of botany, anatomy, physiology, and medicine fall short only because he did not publish his theories and observations and because his secretive manner of recording kept them from discovery until long after most of them had been superseded. His career presents a unique paradox. He is unique in having accomplished so much during his lifetime—he seems to be a compendium of several men, all of them geniuses. Yet he is also unique in having left so little behind and in having disguised or obscured much of that; some of his legacy was still being rediscovered in the middle of the twentieth century, and much of it will never be restored.
Leonardo’s discoveries ranged across the boundaries of art and science, because for him there were no boundaries to the inquiring intellect. The key to opening up these realms of inquiry was the eye, for Leonardo the principal instrument of observation, with which discovery began. In both art and science, Leonardo held that observation had to take precedence over both established authority and established method. What was true to the eye was the supreme truth; the eye alone opened the window to the intellect and to the soul.
Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967. One of the best overall treatments of the technical and compositional qualities of Leonardo’s work. Contains excellent plates and good illustrations. Makes fine connections between Leonardo’s innovations in optics and anatomy and their effects on his painting techniques.
Goldscheider, Ludwig. Leonardo da Vinci. 6th ed. London: Phaidon Press, 1959. Presents a thorough survey of the life and accomplishments of Leonardo, with outstanding plates. Also presents a clear account of Leonardo’s relations with other artists and with his patrons.
Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 3d ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. Certainly the best-written overall account of its subject, with clear technical exposition, sumptuous illustrations, and finely tuned tracing of the cultural complex. Written by an expert in the iconography of the period.
Heydenreich, Ludwig H. Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1954. This standard scholarly biography abounds in illuminating detail about Leonardo’s life, accomplishments, and environment.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Kemp concentrates on the revelations in the published notebooks and in other writings of Leonardo, reproducing the illustrations brilliantly and bringing them to bear on Leonardo’s paintings. Kemp also pieces together Leonardo’s detached observations into a coherent philosophical system, focusing on the priority of the eye.
Leonardo da Vinci. Selections from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Edited by Irma Richter. London: Oxford University Press, 1952. The best succinct introduction to the wealth of material contained in Leonardo’s notebooks, deciphered and fully published only in the twentieth century. Richter selects the material intelligently and provides the right amount of explanation.
Payne, Robert. Leonardo. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Payne provides an extremely readable and nicely detailed discussion of Leonardo’s life and work, avoiding technical jargon and guiding clearly through obscure and confusing material. Some of his judgments are idiosyncratic, but he defends them bravely.
Pedretti, Carlo. Leonardo: A Study in Chronology and Style. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. The most accessible book of the many on Leonardo by the foremost modern authority. Pedretti is full of insights and useful knowledge, particularly on the relation between the artist’s writings and his work.
Wasserman, Jack. Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975. A solid art historian’s approach to the life, reflections, and art of Leonardo, this book is more readable than most and provides solid background material as well as illuminating discussion of the paintings. Particularly good on the relationship between written material and art.