Leonardo da Vinci
The High Renaissance
``The first object of the painter is to make a flat plane appear as a body
in relief and projecting from that plane.''
-- Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo DA VINCI (b. 1452, Vinci, Republic of Florence [now in
Italy]--d. May 2, 1519, Cloux, Fr.), Italian painter, draftsman,
sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that
of any other figure, epitomized the
Renaissance humanist ideal. His
Last Supper (1495-97) and
Mona Lisa (1503-06) are among the most
widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His
notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical
inventiveness that were centuries ahead of his time.
[Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1994]
Photographs by Mark
The Adoration of the Magi
1481-82 (200 Kb);
Yellow ochre and brown ink on panel, 246 x 243 cm (8 x 8 ft);
Lady with an Ermine
1483-90 (150 Kb); Oil on wood, 53.4 x 39.3 cm (21 x 15 1/2 in);
Czartoryski Museum, Cracow
c. 1490-91 (150 Kb);
Tempera on canvas, transferred from panel, 42 x 33 cm (16 1/2 x 13 in);
Hermitage, St. Petersburg
By a happy chance, a common theme links the lives of four of the famous
masters of the High Renaissance -- Leonardo,
Each began his artistic career with an apprenticeship to a painter
who was already of good standing, and each took the same path of first
accepting, then transcending, the influence of his first master.
The first of these, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), was the elder of the
two Florentine masters. He was taught by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88),
an engaging painter whose great achievement was his sculpture.
Verrochio also had considerable influence on the early work of
Michelangelo. Verrocchio's best-known painting is the famous
Baptism of Christ,
famous because the youthful Leonardo is said to have painted the dreamy
and romantic angel on the far left, who compares more than favorably
with the stubby lack of distinction in the master's owm angel
immediately beside him.
Leonardo: Renaissance polymath
There has never been an artist who was more fittingly, and without
qualification, described as a genius. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo came
from an insignificant background and rose to universal acclaim. Leonardo
was the illegitimate son of a local lawyer in the small town of Vinci
in the Tuscan region. His father acknowledged him and paid for his
training, but we may wonder whether the strangely self-sufficient tone
of Leonardo's mind was not perhaps affected by his early ambiguity of
status. The definitive polymath, he had almost too many gifts, including
superlative male beauty, a splendid singing voice, magnificent physique,
mathematical excellence, scientific daring... the list is endless.
This overabundance of talents caused him to treat his artistry lightly,
seldom finishing a picture, and sometimes making rash technical
The Last Supper,
in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, for example, has
almost vanished, so inadequate were his innovations in fresco preparation.
The Last Supper
1498 (180 Kb); Fresco, 460 x 880 cm (15 x 29 ft);
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Refectory), Milan
Yet the works what we have salvaged remain the most dazzingly poetic
pictures ever created. The
has the innocent disavantage of being too famous. It can only be seen
behind thick glass in a heaving crowd of awe-stuck sightseers. It has
been reproduced in every conceivable medium: it remains intact in its
magic, for ever defying the human insistence on comprehending. It is
a work that we can only gaze at in silence.
A copy made by an apprentice of a da Vinci painting which never dried
Da vinci made numerous
experiments using different colours and when painting this particular
church he failed.
(thanks to Erik H Lindhagen)
Leonardo's three great portraits of women all have a secret wistfulness.
This quality is at its most appealing in
at its most enigmatic in the Mona Lisa,
and at is most confrontational in
Ginevra de' Benci.
It is hard to gaze at the Mona Lisa, because
we have so many expectations of it. Perhaps we can look more truly at
a less famous portrait, Ginevra de' Benci.
It has that haunting, almost unearthly beauty peculiar to Leonardo.
A withheld identity
The subject of Ginevra de' Benci
has nothing of the Mona Lisa's inward amusement, and also nothing of
Cecilia's gentle submissiveness. The young woman looks past us with
a wonderful luminous sulkiness. Her mouth is set in an unforgiving line
of sensitive disgruntlement, her proud and perfect head is taut above
the unyielding column of her neck, and her eyes seem to narrow as she
endures the painter and his art. Her ringlets, infinitely subtle,
cascade down from the breadth of her gleaming forehead (the forehead,
incidentally, of one of the most gifted intellectuals of her time).
These delicate ripples are repeated in the spikes of the juniper bush.
Ginevra de' Benci
c. 1474 (150 Kb); Oil on wood, 38.2 x 36.7 cm (15 1/8 x 14 1/2 in);
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The desolate waters, the mists, the dark treess, the reflected gleams
of still waves, all these surround and illuminate the sitter. She is
totally fleshly and totally impermeable to the artist. He observes,
rapt by her perfection of form, and shows us the thin veil of her upper
bodice and the delicate flushing of her throat. What she is truly like
she conceals; what Leonardo reveals to us is precisely this concealment,
a self-absorption that spares no outward glance.
We can always tell a Leonardo work by his treatment of hair, angelic in
its fineness, and by the lack of any rigidity of contour. One form glides
imperceptibly into another (the Italian term is sfumato),
a wonder of glazes creating the most subtle of transitions between tones
and shapes. The angel's face in the painting known as the
Virgin of the Rocks
in the National Gallery, London, or the Virgin's face in the Paris version
of the same picture, have an interior wisdom, an artistic wisdom that has
no pictorial rival.
The Virgin of the Rocks
1503-06 (140 Kb); Oil on wood, 189.5 x 120 cm (6 x 4 ft);
National Gallery, London
This unrivalled quality meant that few artists actually show Leonardo's
influence: it is as if he seemed to be in a world apart from them. Indeed he
did move apart, accepting the French King François I's summons to live
in France. Those who did imitate him, like Bernardini Luini of Milan
(c.1485-1532) caught only the outer manner, the half-smile, the mistiness.
The shadow of a great genius is a peculiar thing. Under
shadow, painters flourished to the extent that we can no longer
distinguish their work from his own. But Leonardo's was a chilling shadow,
too deep, too dark, too overpowering.
© 20 May 1996,
Nicolas Pioch -
Thanks to the
BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum
and contributors for their support.