Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance man
1452 - 1519
Leonardo da Vinci. The name is all that needs to be said to indicate the term coined by his genius, the Renaissance man. His artistic works brought in the High Renaissance period in Italy and he is considered the greatest painter of all times and the most diversely talented person who has ever lived.
da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. His more than four thousand pages of personal manuscripts and notebooks, unknown to his contemporaries, prove that his genius was the epitome of the Renaissance humanist idea.
His drawings portraying the human body and his medical dissections led to our knowledge of the human anatomy as we know it today. His breadth of knowledge during his lifetime in nearly all of academia has never been surpassed by anyone.
da Vinci was so far ahead of his time that few of his inventions and designs were even feasible during his lifetime. He is revered, even today, for his technological ingenuity and genius for his drawings and writings of: flying machines, tanks, concentrated solar power, adding machines and even plate tectonics. He understood during his lifetime geologically why earthquakes occurred.
da Vinci was and is the universal man. He began life inauspiciously as Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named, Catarina, in the village of Vinci in the region of Tuscany in Italy. The 'ser' in his name indicates his father was a wealthy gentleman, a Florentine legal notary.
At the age of sixteen his father had him apprenticed to the artist Andrea di Cione known publicly as Verrocchio, who ran the finest artist workshop in all of Florence. Here the young da Vinci learned drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plastic casting, leather working, mechanics and carpentry, as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and modeling.
According to Vasari, da Vincie collaborated with Verrocchio on his painting, The Baptism of Christ, painting the young angel holding Jesus' robe to the left of the painting. da Vinci painted his part of the painting so far superior to Verrocchio that Verrocchio ceased to ever paint again, recognizing da Vinci's painting genius.
By the age of twenty, da Vinci qualified as a master in the Guild of St. Luke, a guild of artists and doctors of medicine, and so his father started him in his own artist's workshop. Because of having his own workshop, da Vinci is best-known primarily as a painter.
Surprisingly, only around fifteen of da Vinci's paintings survive today because of his constant experimentation with new painting techniques and his chronic procrastination which caused his paintings to be constant 'works in progress.'
His famed portrait, Mona Lisa, was never given to her husband, who commissioned him to paint it, as da Vinci was constantly working on it to bring it to bring it to perfection. In fact, da Vinci had it with him at the time of his death in France. Today, the diminutive Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris. France, protected behind bullet proof glass.
da Vinci's other greatest painting, The Last Supper, painted in Milan at the convent at Santa Maria della Grazie, still hangs there today, but has been recently restored. It is considered the greatest religious painting of all time.
The last three years of his life, da Vinci spent in France living in a manor house given to him by Francis I. He died here and is buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Chateau d'Amboise in France.
da Vinci never married and had no close relationships with women thought he painted many of them. Beyond mere friendships with three women, da Vinci kept his private life secret. His most intimate relationships were with two of his workshop pupils, Salai and Melzi.
da Vinci's sexuality has always been a mystery an over the ages under much speculation. At the age of twenty-two, he was arrested for sodomy of a male prostitute, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Following this, da Vinci disappeared off the radar for two years and today historians have no idea what he did or where he went.
da Vinci always described his feelings for Salai and Melzi as both loving and passionate and it has been claimed since the 16th century that these relationships were sexual or erotic in nature.
Melzi was with da Vinci when he died in France and he inherited all his scientific works, manuscripts, and collections and was named executor of da Vinci's estate.
It is his paintings on which da Vinci's fame rests and all of his paintings are considered masterpieces. It is the following paintings that best represent his genius,
The Virgin of the Rocks 1483
This is da Vinci's first great painting commissioned by Lodovico Sforza il Moro de Milan (Duke of Milan) while da Vinci was working for him in Milan as a military engineer, architect and sculptor.
da Vinci's paintings are highly refined and novel as this one portrays. He was constantly on a search for complex and perfect balance in his compositions. His paintings show the qualities of grace, balance and restraint of High Renaissance art. He used the pyramidal grouping of figures and tondo, or circular form in his paintings. da Vinci conveyed great skill with which tones and color are merged into volume that his mysterious individuals evoked and are considered remarkable and unparalleled.
The unique qualities of da Vinci's works are:
- innovative techniques he used in laying the paint on the canvas
- detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany, mathematics and geology that he included in his paintings
- his interest in physiognomy, a way in which humans register emotion in expression and gesture
- innovative use of the human form in figurative composition
- use of subtle gradation of tone and color
When viewing The Virgin of the Rocks, the viewer can see the pyramidal group of figures with the eyes centered on the Madonna. It is set in a fantastic landscape, dark and mysterious, and only illuminated by a mysterious soft twilight. This painting became the source of inspiration for the painter, Rafael's The Madonna della Sedia.
There are no hard lines or contours in the painting because of the Italian technique called sfumato (smoke) in which there are only seamless transitions between light and dark.
All these techniques were the genius of da Vinci's paintings and became the hallmarks of all paintings during the High Renaissance. His techniques also came down the line in art history.
The Last Supper 1492-1498
This painting, also one of the most famous in the world, was commissioned by Sforzo (Duke of Milan) and painted in Milan. The Last Supper is one of the most influential paintings of the Renaissance. It conveys the psychological drama of a moment in crisis, something that had never before been expressed in a painting.
da Vinci captures the exact moment just as Christ tells his apostles that one of them will betray him at the institution of the Eucharist. The viewer sees from the expressions and gestures of the apostles the effect the statement causes and the visible reaction and response of the apostles. They are highly agitated at what they have just heard Christ say.
Each apostle's reaction expresses what da Vinci called the "motions of the mind." He imposes a sense of order on the scene by placing Christ at the center of the painting framed by a halo-like architectural opening.
Christ's head becomes the vanishing point toward which all lines of this perspective setting converge. da Vinci arranges the apostles around Christ in four groups of three and they are united by posture and gesture. He painted Judas set apart from the others and the viewer knows this by his shadowed face.
It was da Vinci and during the High Renaissance period in Italy that these techniques were first used in painting. This is one of the reasons da Vinci's paintings are considered examples of his genius.
The song, "Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole
Did da Vinci paint an earlier "Mona Lisa"?
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Mona Lisa 1503 - 06
The most famous portrait painting in the world even today is the Mona Lisa. Songs have been written about her because of her mysterious, enigmatic half-smile and roving eyes that never leave the viewer.
Today, Mona Lisa is known as Lisa Gioconda, the wife of Francesco del Gioconda, a wealthy Florentine merchant who commissioned da Vinci to paint her. However, Francesco never received his finished portrait because it was forever a 'work in progress' by da Vinci. He kept the painting all his life in his attempt at perfection and it was found among his things in France where da Vinci died.
da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in a soft light and he creates and atmosphere of enchantment that lends to the mystery of the painting. He uses the sfumato technique here, too, as there are no hard lines or contours, only soft seamless transitions between light and dark.
Her ambiguous half-smile is the most important feature of the paintings and she looks directly at the viewer, but her arms, torso, and head each twist subtly in a different directions. She conveys a sense of arrested movement.
His portrait is painted in oil paint evident in the soft folds of drapery, her texture of skin and the contrasting light and dark of the paintings known as chiaroscuro.
He painted the background as deeply receding with winding rivers and rock formations similar to The Virgin of the Rocks. This is da Vinci's personal view of the natural world and a world filled with movement and energy.
It is through all his paintings that da Vinci established that the artist was no longer just an artisan but an independent creator just as important as the poet and humanist was during the Renaissance. He influenced all the painters of his time and those who have come after him.
Because of Leonardo da Vinci, the concept of the artist as genius was born.
Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. 2004. Octopus Publishing Group: UK
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© 2014 Suzette Walker