Personality of Leonardo da Vinci
“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”
What made this personality a real legend?
Looking at the facts and events throughout this inventor’s life that shaped his personality, we realise that here we are in the presence of a real genius. Early on, he revealed his eagerness in sketching and designing, and in striving for observation and experimentation that accompanied him throughout his entire life. He never stopped questioning matters most of us would take for granted, such as “Why is the sky blue?”. His quest for knowledge became his way of living and being. Despite his lack of a classical education, he would always retrieve the answer to his queries through experimentation. What could have once been a point of discomfort now became his way of seeing things that through action and experiments and observation do we derive the desired results. He often showed off his knowledge gained from experience that was superior to the knowledge gained from reading.
In general, he was a very lively and appealing person with many talents. Besides his handsome looks, his outgoing and generous personality brought him many friends and followers. He was a cheerful performer with his lyre and other musical instruments, but also with his singing and talent for spontaneously constructing verses, which made him a pleasant company. He engaged in discussions, raising peculiar issues and topics in order to find answers to his queries and absorb new information from his encounters. He managed to focus all his powers on his quest for knowledge no matter its form. He was a source of information, especially as his experience increased with age. He was a good companion and teacher to his last patron, the King of France during his peaceful final years.
Leonardo was distinctly different from the society around him, and he did not attempt to hide it. Although he was accused of sodomy at a time when it was deemed a crime and when the political and social situation did not accept homosexuality, he still preserved the freedom of being himself. He took care of his appearance, wearing pink outfits shorter than what was customary and spending money on clothes for both himself and his companion, Salaì. A lover of animals, he was vegetarian and ensured that he did not wear clothes made from animal hides; this was very unusual during his time, and so was another factor that marked him as different.
Leonardo lived in an era where the arts were not a claustrophobic process of an isolated creator, but rather a meeting of many researchers from many fields, working and even living side by side while collaborating on projects. Throughout his time as a student, his nomadic lifestyle moving between different cities and royal courts, and his time accompanied by his crew, he was constantly surrounded by creative people. This encouraged a continual exchange of ideas and brainstorming on various issues, and, in turn, further emphasised his yearning for perfection. Skilled in so many different disciplines, Leonardo was the archetypal Renaissance polymath, a creative genius whose inventiveness flourished across a bewildering range of disciplines and whose work offered brilliant insights into fields including human and animal anatomy, natural history, and engineering. Many analysts – even Freud – have striven to give an insight to this great mind and have all spoiled us with intriguing theories.
However, Leonardo’s output was surprisingly small, as his tendency to become easily bored led to many of his paintings being left unfinished. He was restless, with new ideas forcefully entering his mind before he had completed the previous one, his sketches displaying different and diverse issues one next to the other. He enjoyed composing rather than executing his ideas, preferring the conception phase; this is probably why he never published any of his in-depth investigations, despite their status as a valuable donation to humanity. In any case, Leonardo was notoriously lax about finishing things, and once a work was almost ready or finished, he seemed to lose interest in it. Thus, although he left a voluminous archive of fragmentary sketches, drawings, and writings, his artistic reputation actually rests on a very small number of paintings and artwork.
“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s genealogy
Leonardo was fortunate enough to be born out of wedlock. This fact enabled him to focus on his diverse interests rather than being obliged to follow his family in their notarial tradition, which reached back several generations to Ser Michele da Vinci, Leonardo’s great-great-great-grandfather. The one exception was Antonio da Vinci, Leonardo’s grandfather, who appeared to be content to enjoy his title and the family wealth, and so did not put much effort into developing his own career. However, he regularly did business in Spain and Morocco, where genealogical research suggests the family had roots; Antonio’s contacts with Islamic and Arab culture, his tales about documents in unfamiliar writing, bright pigments, exotic spices, and fantastic landscapes all likely had a strong influence on Leonardo.
Antonio’s son Piero resumed the family tradition by excelling as a notary in the Medici’s courts and thus rebuilding the family’s reputation in this field. On a trip to Vinci, Piero met Caterina di Meo Lippi, an orphan girl from the region; Leonardo would be born to them months later on Saturday, 15 April 1452. Antonio, who was playing backgammon at the time, was summoned to draw up the notarial act of Leonardo’s birth. His baptism in Chiesa di Santa Croce – a small church which still exists today – was attended by honourable members of society and he had ten godfathers. Piero did not play a very active role in raising Leonardo; however, although Leonardo was illegitimate, he was accepted into his father’s household and reared there.
“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s Childhood
Leonardo was raised happily between two houses, with both families sharing his upbringing. His father, Piero, made arrangements for Caterina di Meo Lippi to marry a local man known by the name of Accattabriga. When not with his mother and stepfather, Leonardo spent time at the Da Vinci household. He had a very good relationship with his paternal grandparents; his uncle Francesco, fifteen years his senior, cared for him as if he were his own child.
Leonardo da Vinci’s early years in life
Leonardo was born at a time when it was not seen as dishonourable to have been born out of wedlock; indeed, many great artists of the time were likewise born outside of marriage, such as Philipo Lippi, Vocakio, and Leon Batista Alberti. Leonardo was therefore part of his family but felt at the same time as though he were alienated from wider society. This isolation triggered Leonardo’s curiosity and ultimately led to his successful journey of research.
“It is probably my fate to write about the hawk, since among the first memories of my early years is the impression that while I sat in my crib, a hawk approached, opened my mouth with its tail and struck me with it several times at the inside of my lips.” This testimony of Leonardo, where he identifies this experience as the precursor of his homosexuality, has been approached by many scholars, Freud among them. The famous psychoanalyst notes that, for the artist, his asphyxiated desires found expression in his intense creativity, but he ended up leaving many projects incomplete. Leonardo himself had pointed out that “mental passion evades sensuality.” Others simply argue that this remembrance reflects his life-long interest in flying and birds.
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s life in Florence
Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is larger than life, and Florence was the place where it all began. After the death of his first wife, Leonardo’s stepmother Albeira, in childbirth, Piero brought Leonardo to live with him in this scenic city. Although Piero never legally recognised Leonardo as his son, he cared for him and ensured that he received an education. Thus, Florence became Leonardo’s source of inspiration during his teenage and young adult life. Home to architect Filippo Brunelleschi, the inventor of perspective, and Leon Battista Alberti, author of the treatise ‘On Painting’, which recognises the creation of art as being equal to any other humanist endeavours, it provided a vibrant environment for artistic apprenticeship and exploration.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
Education of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing, and mathematics, but his father appreciated his artistic talent and sent him, at around age fourteen, to the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence.
Piero had noticed that his son would not stop painting, experimenting in sculpture, and revealing his vivid imagination at every step of the way; the notary was clearly not one of his interests. As such he took care of his education accordingly, first by finding him a teacher, and then by enrolling him in a technical high school, before ultimately apprenticing him in the studio of the well-known Verrocchio. Leonardo did not receive a classical education, nor did he learn any Latin, which undermined his status as a researcher throughout his life. Nevertheless, he was given enough skill to cope with his own curiosity and to offer the world his multifaceted discoveries. He always felt that the true way towards the conquest of knowledge is through experience and revelation. During his technical high school years, he learned some basic mathematics and geometry, which later helped him in his explorations in mechanics and his series of inventions. Leonardo was also left-handed and wrote from right to left, reversing the direction of his letters in what is sometimes referred to as mirror writing. This is why his notes appear coded; rumours abound that he wrote them this way to keep his pioneering creations as a secret, but this is not definitively proven.
“Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.”
The School of Verrocchio
Verrocchio’s studio was at the centre of the intellectual currents of Florence, assuring the young Leonardo of a solid education in the humanities. Verrocchio was a famous and multi-talented artist and engineer, and his studio was one of the most audacious in Florence. Left speechless by Leonardo’s talent in painting and drawing, Verrocchio immediately welcomed him to his studio, initially taking him on as a garzone (studio boy) before promoting him to the status of apprentice at around the age of seventeen.
There, besides assimilating many tools for his art, Leonardo felt welcomed by his classmates. His demanding teaching program included the study of various painting surfaces, principles of engineering, design techniques, and three-dimensional fabric imaging. He showed great ability to manage three-dimensional patterns on a two-dimensional surface, and he managed to develop his knowledge of engineering by witnessing the production of great sculptures that the studio undertook during his time there. His ability and inventiveness have also devised his own techniques, such as the well-known ‘sfumato’ technique, which enchanted the whole world through its contribution to the most mysterious smile of art history. The roots of the word come from the Italian fumo, meaning ‘smoke’, and signifies a concept of soft colour diffusion and vagueness of outlines. Leonardo himself described the sfumato technique as being “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the picture plane.”.
“Knowledge of the past and of the places of the earth is the ornament and food of the mind of man.”
Working with Verrocchio
Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine, at the age of twenty. However, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio even after his father set him up in his own studio at twenty-four, participating in the completion of paintings and other works.
One such painting, the Baptism of Christ, marked their own story as student and teacher. The Baptism of Christ was mainly done by Verrochio using tempera on wood. The painting depicts St. John the Baptist during the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ as according to the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew; two angels on the left side of the painting complete the four figures in the artwork. The scene illustrated by the painting includes God’s extended arms painted with golden rays and a dove with its wings widely spread. A halo with cruciform is painted on top of Jesus’s head, with another halo on top of St. John the Baptist. The two angels are depicted holding Jesus’s clothes; the angel on the left of the pair is the part completed by Leonardo da Vinci. He used oil, which was at that time a new medium in painting, and executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better that the figures painted by Verrocchio. According to sixteenth century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo’s work was so impressive that Verrocchio subsequently gave up painting altogether. As the background landscape is painted in oil rather than tempera, many modern critics have attributed much of this work to Leonardo as well.
“If the poet says that he can inflame men with love.. the painter has the power to do the same…in that he can place in front of the lover the true likeness of one who is beloved, often making him kiss and speak to it”
Leonardo da Vinci’s work
Works by Leonardo during his time as a student and the early years as an independent artist include the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and his two Madonnas, the Madonna of the Carnation and the Madonna and Child with Flowers (also known as the Benois Madonna). His portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci also serves as a prologue to the Mona Lisa; in it, he introduces the three-quarter posture, a revolutionary innovation in contemporary Italian painting that suggests an incipient genius.
“If the painter wishes to see beauties that charm him it lies in his power to create them, and if he wishes to see monstrosities that are frightful, buffoonish, or ridiculous, or pitiable he can be lord and god thereof; if he wants to produce inhabited regions or deserts or dark and shady retreats from the heat, or warm places in cold weather, he can do so.”
Leonardo da Vinci inventing art techniques
As previously mentioned above, Leonardo da Vinci invented a technique that helped softened colours by using a dark glaze around the edge of objects. This technique is known as sfumato, derived from the Italian word for smoke, fumo. This produces an effect that makes the outer edges of the objects of people in the painting appear to be slightly obscured by a haze or smoke. Moreover, Leonardo invented Chiaroscuro Technique, through which he shaped his objects in two dimensions by capturing the light and shadow of three dimensions. That was an innovation in a time when most paintings presented flattened views of the subject.
“Marriage is like putting your hand into a bag of snakes in the hope of pulling out an eel.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s Sexuality
Many academics believe that Leonardo was probably gay or possibly bisexual. At the age of twenty-four years, Leonardo, along with several young companions, was arrested on the charge of sodomy. However, no witnesses appeared against them and eventually the charges were dropped. It must be said that anonymous charges like this were often brought against people for ulterior motives, but even though the complaints did not pass through, they were enough to isolate him through social discrimination, as he wrote in his notebooks.
Leonardo apparently did not hide his sexual orientation. However, contemporary society in general was not very tolerant of diversity, with the Church and political leadership enacting laws against homosexuality, with penalties including confiscation of property and even capital punishment.
However, in Florence, homosexual relations were relatively well-received. Verrocchio never married; neither did Botticelli, who also faced accusations of sodomy; and both Donatello and Michelangelo were also homosexual. Contemporary poems and folk songs praised homosexual love; although Dante placed ‘sodomites’ in the seventh circle of Hell in his famous Divine Comedy, he included opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples, suggesting that it is the sin of lust that is condemned rather than sexuality. The word Florenz (‘Florentine’) was even used in contemporary German slang to mean homosexual. Several factors indicate that Leonardo was also probably gay. He never married, nor showed any interest in women; indeed, he wrote in his notebooks that male-female intercourse disgusted him. His anatomical drawings naturally include the sexual organs of both genders, but those of the male exhibit much more extensive attention.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
His own studio
In 1477, at the age of twenty-four, Leonardo flew the nest of Verrocchio’s studio and opened his own. This decision was a clear commercial failure, since, in his studio’s five years of operation, he took only three orders and left all incomplete. One of them, The Adoration of the Magi, was an early commission by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence; leaving the painting unfinished when he departed for Milan the following year resulted in Leonardo being in debt to the monastery. However, the creation of these works still left a mark on art and on history. Moreover, it was a period during which he initiated the elaborate and realistic depiction of bodies in difficult poses which he was constantly studying in his notebooks, as well as experimenting with perspective to create unforgettable impressions of people and places.
“The most praiseworthy form of painting is the one that most resembles what it imitates”
An untamed genius
Leonardo abandoned his painting works and left them incomplete for several reasons. His perfectionism often found deficiencies; sometimes, he was too bored to try to improve his designs. By studying his work and his thoughts, we also realise that he considered many difficult painterly puzzles, such as shadow and light source, balancing his reflections with the theory that the figures had an influence on each other in their lights and colours.
Imagine a composition that contains thirty figures, such as the Adoration of the Magi. The execution of the project evoked a dull, monotonous repetition which eventually bored Leonardo. This tireless genius seemed to prefer conceiving his works to executing them. Even if he completed his orders, he never delivered them such as in the case of the Mona Lisa art project. He took his work with him in all his subsequent moves and then found it difficult to separate himself from his creations. He believed that there were always new things to discover in a painting, and he did not hesitate to act on these ideas even years after the last stroke.
A need for Change
Until his thirties, Leonardo had managed to build his reputation as a genius, no matter if he had works to display to prove it or not. However, with his studio facing financial failure and feeling a persistent sense that he was alone and detached from friends and family, he felt it was time to make a move. As such, Leonardo set off for Milan. The city presented the perfect environment for him, as ruling Duke Ludovico Sforza invited men of letters and artists in his court and spent a lot of money on cultural events and fiestas. With lavish but enlightened patronage of artists and scholars, Ludovico made the court of Milan the most splendid not only within Italy but also throughout all of Europe. Furthermore, it is important to note that there were fewer artists in Milan than in Florence, which ensured less competition for Leonardo. His choice therefore turned out to be a fruitful one in practice.
Job application to Ludovico
In a long and brilliant letter to the Duke, Leonardo asked him to accept him in his court for work. Being fully aware that Duke Ludovico was looking to employ artists and military engineers, Leonardo drafted an application letter that put his seemingly endless engineering talents front and centre, by way of a ten point list of his abilities; interestingly, his artistic genius is merely hinted at towards the very end. Leonardo therefore set out his knowledge of engineering and his ability of military designing, although all of his designs up to that point pushed the boundaries of imagination and were not applicable. He hoped to spur the Duke’s attention as he had gained his power over Milan by force and political instability was rife. Part of his letter reads: ‘Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavour, without prejudice to anyone else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things..’
Indeed, in Leonardo’s many notebooks, one can find many-armed constructions of war and non-war machines, and even machines to prevent the enemy from detecting ships. He was certainly a very viable candidate for an artistic and research opportunity. The effort paid off, and he was eventually employed. A decade later, it was Duke Ludovico who commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.
“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.”
Leonardo at the court of Ludovico
Leonardo was finally admitted to the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza in Milan not as a mechanic or an architect, but as a creator of massive theatrical scenes for various artistic festivities. He had shown a keen interest in this activity when still a young student at the studio of Verrocchio. Indeed, it was an occupation that explored many of Leonardo’s skills, such as his genius in construction and his prodigious skill in bringing forth clever scenes and strange sets. The role required him to channel his imagination and inventiveness in many ways, which kept his keen interest in it alive.
Leonardo’s creation of sets and scenery included designs and mechanisms for many varieties of flying machines; he preferred to invent prominent constructions that would fly over the scene in front of the eyes of the audience. These studies were to become the forerunner for deeper scientific searches in later years. Leonardo seemed truly excited by the possibility of people soaring through the skies like birds. One of his most famous inventions, the flying machine also known as the ‘ornithopter’, ideally displays his powers of observation and imagination, as well as his enthusiasm for the potential of flight. The design for this invention is clearly inspired by the flight of winged animals, which Leonardo hoped to replicate. Academics believe that he had set the basis for the development of aviation as the notion of a human-powered mechanical flight device; according to their research, he was the first to conceive a device patterned after birds or bats, which recurred again and again over the next four centuries.
His work also highlights his skill in music, which we also encounter in his research notebooks. There appears to be some truth in the stories that Leonardo was a skilled poet, singer, and musician. He introduced his own musical instruments, by which he flattered the court of Milan; in combination with his talent for speech and singing, he managed to captivate people’s attention with improvisations that he was often invited to share with the court. There is no sound basis for the belief that Leonardo invented the violin although he certainly drew up plans for many new musical instruments, including various flutes and the viola organist, a complicated keyboard instrument with strings which were sounded by the means of a wheel, horsehair strap, and a bow; this was, however, never built. Leonardo tried to improve musical instruments by creating mechanisms that could enhance their tonal quality. His talents made him a good comedian, as interpretations and hasty narratives were a widespread form of entertainment. He was therefore highly valued due to his position and occupation, as were all the producers, and would in the meantime conquer all with his gracious and pleasant character. He soon made new friends among the company of enthusiasts in the court who shared common goals and quests and made research a collaborative and entertaining work.
“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.”
According to his first biographer, sixteenth century painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo was a person of ‘exceptional beauty and indescribable grace’. He was friendly and generous, and everyone liked his company. Contrary to the foggy landscape of Florence, he found a fertile environment for encounters and meetings. Dressed in colourful clothes shorter than the usual fashion, Leonardo was not afraid to emphasise his differences to those around him. He was interested in spiritual gain rather than in material wealth, and he did not hesitate to disapprove of those who focused on material goods.
Sensitive to the animals, Leonardo was a vegetarian and stated that “Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them. We live by the death of others. We are burial places! I have since an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men will look upon the murder of animals as they look upon the murder of man.” In a clear reference to Leonardo, one of his colleagues wrote after a trip to India that people there, as was the case for many in Florence, were not used to consuming animals.
He likewise preferred to wear linens rather than clothes made from animal products. In his notes, he mentions that a major difference between animals and plants was that, in contrast with the latter, animals could feel the pain of being killed for their skin or flesh. It is noted that his sensitivity reached such an extent that, at the bazaar, he apparently bought caged birds from vendors with the sole intention of releasing
Leonardo da Vinci and Salai, the little devil
One of Leonardo’s favourites who, despite his negative traits, collaborated with him throughout his life was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known by the nickname that Leonardo gave him: Salaì, or the little devil. It was a name that would stick with him throughout his life; he even created his paintings under the name Andrea Salaì. He was Leonardo’s assistant, companion, student, and, at some point, his lover.
Having joined Leonardo’s household at the age of ten, he quickly won the affection of the then thirty-eight-year-old Leonardo. Biographer Vasari described the boy as ‘a graceful and beautiful youth, with fine curly hair in which Leonardo greatly delighted’. Even though Leonardo rarely wrote personal notes in his notebooks, he included a remark that, having invited Salaì to accompany him to dinner, Salaì ‘ate for two and made damage for four’. He was also accused of dishonesty, of stealing money and valuables on several occasions, and of spending an enormous amount on clothes and shoes.
However, Leonardo continued to value his company, and they would eventually spend thirty years in each other’s company. Salaì often posed for Leonardo’s studies; his sketches include numerous drawings of an older man with a younger one. When Leonardo eventually died, he remembered Salaì in his will for his ‘good and kind services’
The Vitruvian Man
What is the Vitruvian Man?
During his stay in Milan, Leonardo made several great studies. One of the greatest achievements for which he is famous worldwide today is the study of the Vitruvian Man, which dates to this period.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 BC, was a Roman architect who served as an army engineer under Julius Caesar. One of his prevailing teachings was his treatise on body proportions, a thorough description of the fact that the architecture of buildings must follow the proportion of the human body. Many have tried to paint and design this work, including Jacomo Andrea and Francesco di Tzortzo, but none touched Leonardo’s excellence and perfectionism. The Vitruvian Man not only exposed the original writer’s promptings, but also proceeded to further observations by Leonardo himself. He specified that “If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle. The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.”
Leonardo drew the Vitruvian Man around 1490. Rendered in pen, ink, and metal point on paper, the piece depicts an idealized nude male standing within a square and a circle. Ingeniously, Leonardo chose to depict the man with four legs and four arms, allowing him to strike 16 poses simultaneously. Leonardo also made some corrections to the proposed descriptive design, such as that the length of the foot is not one-sixth of a man’s height, but one-seventh. The sketch is also said to be a self-portrait of the then then thirty-eight-year-old Leonardo; as he depicted in his writings:
“Every painter draws himself.”
The Unfinished Sculpture of Leonardo
Designed to reach almost eight metres in height and to weigh seventy tons, Leonardo’s Horse (also known as Gran Cavallo) became another of the artist’s unfinished works. This equestrian monument was one of the projects that he proposed to take on when he first petitioned Duke Ludovico for work; intended to be cast in bronze, the design of horse and rider was imagined as a monument to the Duke’s father Francesco Sforza and would exceed the three and a half metre height of similar existing monuments.
In order to perfect the posture of rider and mount, Leonardo had to extensively study the anatomy of the horse, an animal which he admired, and spent a lot of time translating this into the sculpture’s design, as well as deciphering the right compositions and mixtures of materials to achieve the best possible results. He also studied other similar statues and was enchanted by the sense of movement that they would display. The completed mould was itself a pioneering experiment as it was constructed as a single piece; until then, moulds would be crafted in several pieces that were dissembled afterwards.
However, the statue was never completed. Ultimately, the unfinished horse was the work that, above any other, solidified Leonardo’s reputation as an artist who never finished anything.
The … misfortune of the monument
Although Leonardo managed to complete a clay version of his statue, the ongoing contemporary tensions and the attacks by French troops in 1494 meant that the metal that was due to be used to mould the statue was instead repurposed to construct three cannons. In addition, French archers used the monument for target practice and destroyed it completely. Legend has it that Leonardo mourned the loss of his horse up until his death. On this occasion, the unfinished nature of the work cannot be blamed on the sculptor. However, luckily for the modern world, Leonardo left behind many detailed notes and images of his horse in his famous notebooks.
“He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year.”
Working for Ludovico
The Equestrian Statue would realize his dream of creating the world’s largest equine monument as he was commissioned to do so by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico, who provided him with a salary and accommodation. In time, he would give him a vineyard just outside Milan, where it would be the place where he would test his flying machines in the future. That place was a property that he would keep until the end of his life. “Leonardo da Vinci, a mechanic and a painter,” was the title he managed to accomplish as this accomplishment was what he had been seeking for a long time. His salary could cover the cost of two assistants and four students who followed him and helped him accomplish his work. As such, with his reputation, his esteem and his strong connection to the court, he would enter the world of creation and he would enchant his encounters with his brilliant thinking.
Leonardo da Vinci as a scientist
The commission of Leonardo’s Horse would have realised his dream of creating the world’s largest equine monument. Although this did not come the fruition, Duke Ludovico continued to provide Leonardo with accommodation and a salary, and, in time, would also give him a vineyard just outside of Milan. This property, which he would keep until the end of his life, would become the place where he would test his flying machines. Leonardo’s salary covered the cost of two assistants and four students to follow him and help him accomplish his work. ‘Leonardo da Vinci, a mechanic and a painter’ was a title that he had sought for a long time and now managed to accomplish; highly esteemed by his connections in the court, he would enchant those he encountered in this creative world with his brilliant thinking.
“The artist infuses his work with scientific data…”
With his studies of biology and civil engineering, astronomy and human anatomy, Leonardo is the archetypal polymath we think of when describing a Renaissance man. His insatiable curiosity made him strive to improve his knowledge of the two-dimensional representation of figures and machines, anatomy and geometry, and he engaged in research on the composition of muscles and bones comparing the body of humans and that of the animals. The Vitruvian Man exists as an example of one of his studies of human anatomy; he also had a skull that had been sliced so that the inside could be observed, which he often sketched in an attempt to better understand the functioning of the human body.
Flying machines were an important puzzle to him. He conceived and drew several designs that were not intended for actual flight, but that were replicated for use in his theatrical productions. The possibility of a human flying drove him to investigate such machines, which he based on the observation of birds on flight and their anatomy. He noted: “Study the anatomy of a bird’s wings along with the muscles of the chest moving them. Do the same for man, so that you can see that it is possible to keep himself in the air with the movement of wings.” He also tried post-testing their construction by wearing a life jacket over water.
His tireless work in physics, mathematics, and engineering led him to construct various other types of machines as well, such as needle making machines, hair milling machines, paper mills, watermills, water-powered engines, and many more. His fruitful research into mathematics and geometry also yielded the production of a series of studies on the area of shapes and on the challenge of squaring the circle.
As we study his efforts in science, we ask ourselves: how could a painter excel in such varied fields of knowledge? Perhaps the answer is because such learning improved both his art and the artist’s standing more generally. He viewed this research into various fields as being, first and foremost, a means to gaining knowledge of the visible world, such as he would need for his art.
“All knowledge which ends in words will die as quickly as it came to life, with the exception of the written word: which is its mechanical part.”
What was Da Vinci’s Scientific Method?
As mentioned above, Leonardo immediately comes to mind when one thinks of the image of a Renaissance polymath; that is, a person who pursues knowledge in all different areas. Leonardo’s scientific research complimented and supported his studies in art, languages, and theology. His scientific method therefore consisted of a mix of observation of the world around him and physical experimentation and experience. Leonardo’s scientific endeavours were so ahead of his time that he anticipated many devices that we would consider to be ‘modern’.
Leonardo would cover some of his weaknesses in mathematics with the help of his friend and colleague Luca Pacioli, a pedagogue and Franciscan friar. Pacioli had written a mathematical manual in Italian rather than the customary Latin, which meant that his knowledge could be more widely communication. Pacioli was invited to join Duke Ludovico’s court in Milan to teach mathematics, possibly at the prompting of Leonardo himself.
In Milan, Pacioli and Leonardo quickly became close friends. They shared an interest in puzzles and games such as attempting to make a coin drift up and down in a glass, as well as more standard mathematical and intellectual games. They discussed mathematics and art at great length, both learning greatly from each other. At this time Pacioli began work on his next famous works, Divina proportione; the figures for the text were drawn by Leonardo. At Pacioli’s side, Leonardo learnt about Euclid’s theorems, Euclidean geometry, the manipulation of square roots, and probably also the principle of the golden ratio that is found so often in Leonardo’s works.
“Common Sense is that which judges the things given to it by other senses.”
Leonardo da Vinci considered as the Father of Sign Language
In his never-ending study of the human body, Leonardo claimed that in order to study human gestures and expressions, he must bear in mind the communication of deaf people as well. The movements used to express thoughts had an inspirational input to his research on this.
The Virgin of the Rocks
With his study of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one in the Louvre and the other in the National Gallery in London, the artist managed to express his insight in geology and botany, as well as demonstrating the deep study of expression through posture, shade, and light. The original picture was undertaken by Leonardo not long after entering the service of Duke Ludovico. The first version was painted by him; the second, however, was produced only with his contribution – after all, co-operation in art was commonplace at the time. The only difference in the two compositions is the angel’s hand, which is something the painter added afterwards, interposed between the hand of the Virgin Mary, which is protectively extended over the head of the Divine Infant. The London version seems more correct, as the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery contains some details generally overlooked by the artist in the Louvre version, including the haloes of the figures and the child St. John’s cross of reeds. This order, due to a price discrepancy – the costs being disproportionate to the agreed price– was never delivered. The piece of art was probably sold to another customer before eventually ending up in the Louvre. The second work of painting was never delivered as well. People are still enchanted by the androgynous angel figure in one of his drafts on the painting.
The Portrait of a Musician
Many parts of this work’s history are unclear: it is unknown for sure who is portrayed, whether it was an order, and if it was even delivered. It is unsurprisingly unfinished, although the reason for this is unknown.
It is even uncertain whether Leonardo painted it himself. Firstly, if Leonardo were indeed the painter, Portrait of a Musician would be the only portrait he did of a man. Secondly, the shadows of the portrait are very intense, whereas Leonardo was known to prefer softer shadows. Thirdly, the subject’s gaze is in the same direction as his body faces, a composition that Leonardo preferred not to use. Academics assume that the person posing for the portrait was the musician Atalante Miglioroti, who had accompanied him on his journey to Milan a few years prior and who taught him how to play the lyre.Since Leonardo did not work with or maintain lists of his works, it is difficult to know with certainty and confidence which belonged to him. So, what makes Portrait of a Musician a possible Leonardo da Vinci? The answer probably lies in the common characteristics which exist in each of his portraiture works, such as:
- The backgrounds being left in shadow.
- The figures being shown at half-length or slightly more.
- The subject being carefully positioned at a three-quarter turn to improve viewer identification of the sitter.
- The artist’s apparently perfect understanding of the bone structure beneath the flesh.
- The pose being reinforced with the details of the exquisitely curling hair and the elegant fingers.
All these elements are very common to Leonardo’s work. This work was left unfinished, though at quite an advanced stage, which was typical of Leonardo. However, the face and hair appear well worked and the remaining elements were left in the state of an advanced draft.
“Nature never breaks her own laws.”
The Lady with An Ermine
Sparkling even now in its skilful capturing of the moment, Lady with an Ermine portrays Cecilia Gallerani, the then-mistress of Duke Ludovico and later mother of his illegitimate son Cesare. The painting pre-dates his marriage to Beatrice d’Este, which prompted him to send her away from court; nevertheless, he arranged a marriage for her to a count, and she became absorbed by her reading and literary arts.
The order for Lady with an Ermine came seven years into Leonardo’s stay in Milan, and he executed it in a masterful way. It has been heavily overpainted: the entire background was darkened, the subject’s dress below the ermine was retouched, and the transparent veil she wore was repainted to match the colour of her hair, giving the appearance that her hair reaches underneath her chin. Dark shadows between the fingers of her right hand were also added. A secondary light also seems to come from the ermine to illuminate her face. There is no doubt that the Lady with an Ermine is a captivating image of exquisite elegance and reveals the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci’s incomparable creative mind.
La Belle Feroniniere of Leonardo da Vinci
The second order that Leonard received from Duke Ludovico is the portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli, who, like Cecilia Gallerani, was his mistress and also gave birth to his son. The excessively bright jaw and the dull appearance of the hair makes some researchers doubt whether Leonardo actually contributed to the painting or whether it was due to the interference of others, perhaps an apprentice. Another possible answer is that this was a joint project carried out by several artists at the School of Leonardo and was based on a design by him. As such, academics remain unsure whether this is Leonardo’s work or not. The fact remains that the pose is stiff, which would be unusual for Leonardo, and the woman’s features are thicker and heavier than those normally found in his portraits.
La Bella Principessa of Leonardo da Vinci
This painting was discovered by Peter Silverman at an auction of nineteenth century art. It is a portrait in coloured chalks and ink on vellum of a young lady in fashionable costume and hairstyle of a Milanese noblewoman of the 1490s. It is assumed by some to be the work of a German artist imitating the Italian Renaissance, but could it be a Leonardo da Vinci? Unfortunately, it is another work that is unclear in its attribution and there are elements that strengthen the contradicting views. On the one hand, the origin of the style of hairdressing and clothing, presumes influences from firstly Florence and secondly Milan, the areas where the artist lived. It is also known that the sketch was part of a set that contributed to a book piece. The story goes a long way with the assumption that Leonardo’s fingerprint was found, as he would use his fingers to practice the technique that dictated the sfumato. Infrared rays also showed the artist’s left-handed touch. However, the shadows depicting this princess are perhaps too strict to be crafted by Leonardo. Critics remain divided.
The Trend of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo reportedly worked on his portfolio ‘About Painting and Human Movement’ for years; as with his paintings, this is another work he never published or completed before his death. This manuscript reveals that the science of art turned into an art of science and provides a delightful insight into his research. He explored light and his reflections on the moulding of the models. The gradation of tones in order to create shadows was genius and he studied perspective to create real masterpieces.
“Beyond a doubt truth bears the same relation to falsehood as light to darkness”.
The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci
In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began what would become one of history’s most influential works of art: The Last Supper. Having been commissioned by Duke Ludovico for the north wall of a hall in the Convent of the Santa Maria de la Gracie, The Last Supper was completed in 1498. Contemporary testimonies say that Leonardo ‘came here in the early hours and climbed to the scaffolding and then stayed there with the brush in hand from sunrise to sunset forgetting to eat or drink, drawing non-stop’. Other times, he appeared in the middle of the day, and “he climbed on the scaffolding, he grabbed a brush, put a brush stroke on one or two of the figures and then left suddenly.”. In response to the Duke’s concerns about a potential delay to its completion, Leonardo explained in a letter that one should proceed slowly, stopping and postponing to allow thoughts to ripen; as he noted, ‘the clever people achieve more while they work less’.
The Last Supper is Leonardo’s visual interpretation of an event chronicled in all four of the Gospels (books in the Christian New Testament). It depicts the next few seconds in this story after Christ’s revelation that one disciple would betray him before sunrise, showing how all twelve disciples have reacted to the news with different degrees of horror, anger, and shock. Leonardo masterfully depicts a drama where all the actors converge in their theatricality with their own movements and expressions. He manages to capture the movement of the soul – moti dell ‘ anima – by reflecting on the intentions they have in mind. The Twelve Disciples, also referred to as the Apostles of Christ, are divided into groups of three, orchestrating an interesting rhythm in his subject. Judas is shaded more sharply, testifying his guilt, and the feminine appearance of St. John is said to symbolise Mary Magdalene. Despite the intensity of the scene, Christ sits patient and serene in the middle of the composition, attracting the viewer’s gaze. The project is a genius composition that excels in the laws of perspective and the rules of physics. The painting was made using experimental pigments directly onto the dry plaster wall; unlike frescoes, where the pigments are mixed with the wet plaster, it has not stood the test of time well. Even before it was finished there were problems with the paint flaking from the wall, which required Leonardo to repair it. Just twenty years after the project’s delivery, Leonardo’s experimental design and testing of materials was deemed to have failed. Today we can only see fragments of the wall painting thanks to the addition of missing pieces via extensive and repeated restoration efforts; the restored sections can be seen in a lighter colour than that of the original.
The Death of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother
In 1497, three years after her husband’s death and the death of her son by the arrow of a crossbow, Katerina moved to Milan to live with Leonardo. Three months later she died of malaria, before attempting to shake the waters of the artist’s life. Leonardo, in his notes, had a detailed list of the expenses for her funeral and interment, a decent ceremony with many candles and four priests; however he spent less compared to the amount he spent for a sari for Salai, as we will see later on his balance sheets.
Time for change… again…
Due to the professional difficulties that he was facing in the court of the Duke, who refused to compensate him for his work, and due to the fact that his horse statue was transformed into a firing target for the French troops, Leonardo was deeply dissatisfied. Political upheaval resulted in Louis XII of France conquering Milan and the Duke to leaving the city. Leonardo had smooth relationships with the French conquerors, and he opened some discussions about cooperation. Indeed, upon seeing The Last Supper, Louis XII expressed the desire to move the work to France, but the engineer responded that it was technically impossible. Eventually, Leonardo decided to return home to Florence. The year was around 1500 and would become one of his most productive seasons.
Leonardo da Vinci…Travel to Florence
After the fall of Duke Ludovico Sforza, his patron in Milan, Leonardo returned to Florence, the city of his youth. Florence had undergone some political and social changes during the time that Leonardo was pursuing his art career in Milan. Girolamo Savonarola, Dominican friar who headed a Puritanical religious movement, had briefly seized power of the city; amongst other strict regulations, homosexuality and sodomy had been made punishable by stoning or burning to death. Eventually, the Church and civil authorities condemned him to hanging and burning. The city’s spirits, which had lost vitality and self-confidence, were thus liberated. During this period of change, Leonardo returned to his hometown as if to embody the message of diversity and artistic creativity. Within a year of his return, Leonardo was commissioned to paint a huge mural, the Battle of Anghiari, in the Palazzo della Signoria. He worked on that painting for the next three years, while he was also making maps for the Florentine government and was beginning the Mona Lisa, as well as a painting of Leda and the Swan. He tried to re-establish himself as a painter but was reported to be preoccupied with geometry and ‘very impatient with the brush’. It is worth mentioning that, in 1506, the French occupiers of Milan requested that Leonardo return to Milan; as such, he travelled frequently between Florence and Milan over the next two years.
A Stop at Mantua while he was going back to Florence
During his initial return to Florence, he stopped at Mantua, where Marchioness Isabella d’Este asked him to paint her portrait. This resulted in the famous sketch for a portrait that was never painted. However, Isabella later asked Leonardo to make another portrait of the chalk drawing. After a total rejection of all other artists, Leonardo was believed to be the most appropriate person to make her portrait. It would have the side stance that was widespread for the depiction of rulers, although it was a posture that did not interest Leonardo; in contrast, he used to set his models in in a three-quarter position that allowed them to express their feelings and their minds, their psychologies. Despite years of perseverance on the part of the Marchioness, the prosperous artist had conquered a position in society which allowed him to politely reject orders from nobility if the subject did not interest him; as such, he never even initiated Isabella’s portrait. It is, in any case, one of Leonardo’s finest head-and-shoulders portraits, here with the head in profile. It is also his only known drawing that is highlighted with several coloured pigments. Although the sketch is unfinished, critics have commended it for its proportions and for the reduction in scale of the bust. Many also remark on the striking effect created by the pose’s ambiguity, as the turn of the body stands in stark contrast to the perfectly linear profile of the sketch’s subject.
Da Vinci’s life around 50
In Florence, Leonardo has his own status and fame and so did his family. He was wealthy and he could support the followers and his students. He could choose his work, and deal with things that interest him like the flight of birds, resulting in lurking in the fields and studying. He did not hide his diversity, and he was used to take care of his clothes with lacy and velvet mantles in pink colors for himself and for Salai. As much as he spent on his appearance, he was looking forward to spending for his spiritual growth, hence his books reached 116 volumes, focusing on perspective, Euclidean geometry, medicine and architecture.
Madonna of the Yarnwinder or The Virgin Mary with the Spindle
This version of the Virgin Mary with Jesus allowed Leonardo to shape his masterpiece like an inspiration to Raphael and all the painters all over Europe. In this picture, the Infant Jesus holds a spinning wheel in the form of a cross, symbolising his acceptance of his destiny. The Virgin Mary, according to the concept of the painting, cannot yet accept the destiny of her divine son, and therefore the hand of the Virgin Mary is raised in a protective gesture. Both figures are painted with wit, their hands imparting the emotion and historiography of the story. A close look shows this work was based around the geometric figures of triangles and ellipses. However, it is uncertain whether this piece was made by Leonardo; researchers believe that he may have only started the painting and that it was finished the pupils of his studio, since production in his studio was vigorous and the copies made in the studio he opened in Florence numbered forty. However, a beam study showed that the work was painted on the wood directly without a blueprint; only Leonardo could have decided on this. Furthermore, some corrections were made to the drawing, thereby testifying that it was not a copy, but an original painting drawn by the artist himself.
“The spirit desires to remain with its body, because, without the organic instruments of that body, it can neither act, nor feel anything.”
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
This study resulted in two homonymous works: an incomplete oil painting in the Louvre in Paris, and a sketch in charcoal and black and white chalk that can be found in London’s National Gallery. Both works are examples of Leonardo’s ability to dramatically and mechanically direct his figures, the use of the sfumato technique, the perspective of the distance of the objects, his delicate shadowing, and his knowledge of geology.
The famous painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne offers a glimpse into the subconscious of Leonardo da Vinci. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary guarding baby Jesus while peacefully sitting on the lap of her mother, St. Anne. Christ is petting a small lamb, used as a symbol of his suffering and sacrifice for the benefit of mankind; the Holy Infant embraces the lamb and will not let anyone part him from it. The positions of biblical figures in historical paintings are never random; they are always allusions to the lives of the figures and of various Christian metaphors. The painting, as expected, was never delivered, and was instead left in Leonardo’s possession for him to amend and improve for years.
In his study of Leonardo, Freud examines the fact that Christ has two mother figures in the work, just as Leonardo had two mothers in Caterina and his stepmother, hypothesising that this reflected his own experiences. Moreover, in his psychoanalytic examination of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, entitled ‘Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood, Freud revealed hypothetical details of Leonardo’s childhood and repressed sexual desire. He discovered that if the painting is turned sideways, the shaped made by one of the Virgin Mary’s garments depicts a bird, most likely a vulture. Freud claimed that the symbol of the vulture is Leonardo’s representation of his repressed homosexual desire from his childhood, which was triggered by a faint memory of suckling his mother’s nipple as an infant. Freud supported his theory with the fact that the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs depicted the term ‘mother’ with the symbol of a vulture.
Leda and the Swan of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo was very absorbed with the theme of Leda. His painting of Leda and the Swan is a depiction of the Greek myth of Leda, a daughter of the King of Aetolia, and Zeus, the king of the gods. It shows the moment when Zeus saw Leda and, smitten by her beauty, changed into a swan, and coupled with her. As a result, Leda gave birth to two eggs, each of which hatched twin babies. In the image, Leda looks down tenderly upon her babies, while the curves of her body stand in counterpoint to the sinuous lines of the swan, its head resting upon her shoulder. The flowers that Leda holds in her hand are a symbol of purity. It is a lost work by Leonardo, the only one depicting erotic content. However, by examining the painting more carefully, we realise that the issue for the artist was reproduction and fertility. The representation and the copy of the painting are preserved by , a student of Leonardo who went on to become his heir. The multiple copies found in his studio and other records of the time are attributed to him being able to create the work himself. The story says that Madame de Maintenon, the mournful and hidden Second Lady of the Ludwig XII, destroyed the painting because it was scandalously erotic. However, this assertion is not confirmed.
The Savior of the World of Leonardo da Vinci
On 15 November 2017, Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, Salvator Mundi, (in English, The Saviour of the World) smashed artwork auction records when it was sold for US$450.3 million. With careful investigations and cleaning from deep varnish wipers, elements were revealed that appeared to confirm the work to be a true achievement of Leonardo, supporting testimonies of the time that the artist had made such a work. However, although art historians agree that it was painted around 1500, they disagree on whether or not it was painted by Leonardo himself. The painting depicts Christ in Renaissance dress, making the sign of the cross with his right hand, while holding a transparent, non-refracting crystal orb in his left, signalling his role as ‘Saviour of the World’ and representing the ‘celestial sphere’ of the heavens. The foggy appearance of Jesus, along with the use of the chromatic perspective, give the impression that Jesus’s hands reach towards to us. Scholars debate why, after his profound study in the optics, Leonardo did not portray the transformation and diffusion of the image through a crystal or a prism; rather, he seemed to assume that this would distract the viewer’s eye and preferred to capture it without the reflection.
On Cesare’s services
Twenty years after he had presented himself as a war engineer before Duke Ludovico, he finally took this position for an eight-month period under the tyrant Cesare Borgia. Between 1502 and 1503, Leonardo served as his chief military architect and engineer. In the service of an unscrupulous conqueror who had wiped out villages and ordered the execution of potential rivals publicly, Leonardo would have carried out numerous inquiries that would reveal avid enthusiasm and inventiveness. Borgia had need of an engineer to ford rivers with bridges, as well as to build siege engines to punish towns that opposed him and to fortify the settlements once they had been captured and subdued. Although Leonardo initially leapt at the opportunity, his work for the rapacious Cesare Borgia did not last long: the incessant massacres perpetrated by Borgia soon persuaded Leonardo to resign his commission and return to Florence. Freud, in his analysis on the character of Leonardo, points out that the artist was attracted by strong and leading figures that represented a substitute for his dynamic father, who ruled Leonardo with his absence.
During the time he spent in Florence, Leonardo was invited to investigate and undertake projects on the irrigation and diversion of Arno River as well as the drying of the Piombino swamps. Neither project was carried out, but they testify to Leonardo’s insight. His sketches, all of which have now been tested, touched the borders of contemporary imagination; there were also experiments in flying machines, diving suits and more. He also envisioned the realisation of a floating passage from Florence to the Mediterranean. His studies on plumbing are based on the collaboration of engineer and nature. As he remarks: “The river that one is going to divert and change its course he must embrace it and not to handle it with harshly or with violence.” By studying the modern systems of water supply in Milan, he aimed to improve the system in Florence, but since the public funds had been drained at the time, he did not manage to realise his exuberant plans.
Michelangelo, two geniuses in the same city
In the absence of Leonardo in Milan, a young painter named Michelangelo evolved into an artistic genius and would later on leave his own mark on history too. He was more arrogant and peculiar than Leonardo and did not share Leonardo’s beauty, and was not appreciated by those around him, coming into rivalry with many colleagues and artists of his time, even with Leonardo himself. Michelangelo and Leonardo felt ‘an intense dislike for each other’ according to their biographer Vasari. When Leonardo invited Michelangelo to comment on the findings of a conversation about a passage of Dante, Michelangelo thought he was mocking him and trying to entrap him; he immediately reproached Leonardo and offensively accused him for the unsuccessful completion of his giant horse: “…explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame”. Then, he turned his back on Leonardo and left. Leonardo remained silent and blushed at these words.
Both were homosexual, but, unlike Leonardo, Michelangelo did not show his sexual orientation and love preferences and was possibly celibate through choice. He was an ascetic painter, noting later that melancholy appeared to be his only companion. Leonardo often referred to Michelangelo’s sculptural representations as ‘sacks of walnuts’ because of the elaborate and muscular representation of his designs. Although Leonardo was not accustomed to criticise other painters, he openly underestimated Michelangelo’s work, stating “You do not have to make all the muscles of a body distinct … as you will create a sack of walnuts instead of a human form.” The two men -Leonardo, a charming, handsome fifty-year-old at the peak of his career, and Michelangelo, a temperamental artist in his mid-twenties who was desperate to make a name for himself – would stay under the same roof for the completion of two historic giant frescoes that neither would ever complete.
The Colossal Fresco
The Battle of Anghiari was an assignment that would mark the magnificence of Leonardo’ painting skill and research for the Sala del Gran Consiglio, the recently rebuilt Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, during the first years of the city’s republican government. It is known today only through some drawings he crafted while studying it. It would have taken up a space of 16.7 metres by 6 metres, a gigantic work that would pay tribute to Florence’s glorious victory in the fight with Milan. The battle scene that Leonardo planned was a layout of horses with twisted grimaces and fierce riders that stepped on losing fighters. He wrote: “There must be no point that does not reveal torture and that it is not drenched with blood.” The furious sketches he created depicted the odour and terror of war, pointing to his deepening study of anatomy, in particular where the expressions of the mouth effect the positioning of the nose and the eyebrows. The difficulties he faced during the process were ultimately in vain following the termination of his involvement with the work. Following this, Leonardo would not accept any other public order.
“Our life is made by the death of others.”
The death of his father
His father’s death took place when he was trying to perform the painting of The Battle of Anghiari. Piero never recognized Leonardo as his legitimate son, although he helped him establish his career as an artist and achieve at least three orders. However, these came with tight contracts and the condition to complete the paintings, which Leonardo often did not; this surely created tensions between them. Piero ultimately married four times and, with his two youngest brides, both of whom were younger than Leonardo, he had nine more sons and two daughters. He had many of these legitimate children when he was over seventy years old. Later, Leonardo would have inheritance issues with his half-brothers and half-sisters about an estate just outside Vinci, which would remain in Leonardo’s possession but after his death would pass on to their children. By not legitimising him as his son, Piero seemed to renounce him. He might have done this because he considered him successful, although he did not have the financial power to support the team that followed him. However, it was an occurrence that was surely not pleasing to Leonardo.
Return to Milan
In 1506, two years after his father’s death, he returned to Milan and remained there for the next seven years, enjoying the patronage of Charles d’Amboise, the French Governor of Milan, and King Louis XII. He initially sought to do the work of a mechanic and a researcher along with that of a painter as he had been recruited years before by Duke Ludovico. It must not be forgotten that, in Milan, Leonardo was extremely dear to and held in high esteem by the circles he moved in. Ludovico himself would have liked to release him from his contract of The Battle of Anghiari by his Florentine contenders who insisted that the artist should return to the city. Leonardo, for the second time, left a great work in the middle while leaving for Milan, as he had done twenty-four years ago with The Proclamation of the Magi.
However, this was a period in which Leonardo delved heavily into scientific activities, which included anatomical, mathematics, mechanical, and botanical studies, as well as the creation of his famous flying machine. Moreover, notable commissions during this period included work on building a bridge, and a project to create a waterway to link Milan with Lake Como. He also devised efficient military weapons, such as an early example of the machine gun, and his famous large crossbow.
Review of Florence
For him, Florence was an image of bohemian life, a life full of artists, a place where he did not seek to become only a painter but also an inventor and to test all of his many talents. At the same time, being away in Milan, he avoided competitors like Michelangelo, his half-brothers who were young enough to be his children as well as the ‘ghost’ of his father. However, his researches, during his stay in Florence, were very creative: he dissected the body of a dead man, tried one of his flying machines and his diving inventions, and his notebooks were full of geology studies, notes referring to the perspective, the anatomy and the architecture.
Leonardo and Francesco Melzi
Around 1507, Leonardo, then aged fifty-five, adopted Francesco Melzi, a fourteen-year-old boy who he treated as though he were his own son. Although drawn to the arts, he never became a great painter since he had a timider nature, certainly less daring than Salaì. Melzi became his student, his secretary, and his heir. Together with Salaì, Melzi would stay by Leonardo’s side until the end of his life, and it would be Melzi who inherited the artistic and scientific works, manuscripts, and collections that Leonardo left behind. The mature Leonardo had had the need of an heir, a son, to be an apprentice for him and follow him.
“Our body is dependant on Heaven and Heaven on spirit”
Leonardo performed autopsies on at least thirty bodies throughout his entire life, and he wrote thousands of words on the anatomy of the human body as well as on those of animals. He made his first experiments on an elderly man who was claimed to be over a hundred years old as well as on a two-month-old baby, and he compared both sets of results. He pointed out: “The network of veins behaves in man as in oranges, in which the skin hardens and the flesh decreases as time passes.” He filled his sketchbooks with bones and muscles in different positions and drawn from different angles; he also drew a manual that would have been very helpful in science if it had been published. He studied various topics such as the spine’s curvature, the heart that looked like a vegetable whose roots resemble our venous system, the aortic valve, and the foetus. Even though dissection of a body was considered a heretical act at the time, Leonardo claimed that it was a way of appreciating the miraculous creation of God. He did not hesitate to symbolise the human body in his mechanical studies and admired the way the human body could work. He wrote: “Besides human ingenuity being able to lead to various inventions, it will never devise anything that is more beautiful, more simple and more complete to what Nature has created, where nothing is missing and nothing is in excess.”
In his anatomical studies, Leonardo was particularly preoccupied by the muscles that are responsible for the human smile and expression, and taught that the numbers of the muscles that move the lips is higher in humans than in any other animal. This study, as well as the essence of his knowledge, contributed greatly to the unique smile of Mona Lisa. He is the only artist in history to have dissected faces of both humans and horses to see if the muscles that move the face are the same or not.
Other areas of research
During the period that he was in Milan for the second time, we may find in his textbooks a vivid curiosity about a variety of topics. He reviewed opinions, deepened others, defended older thoughts, and the result was a series of vigorous notes on engineering, on waterways and whirlpools, on fossils, on astrology, and on why the sky is blue. He did not hesitate to compare the human body with the earth and its functions and he claimed that emotions as the sound and the light transmitted through waves.
In the Medici House
He undertook some anatomic studies with the surgeon Marcantonio della Torre, although these were paused due to a swine fever that the doctor contracted. This was unpleasant for him since his studies had been underway and he would possibly help him to publish the findings of his research. Waiting for the epidemic to pass through, he settled in the provincial estate of Medici, where he spent his sixtieth birthday together Salaì was thirty-two years old. In this quiet resort, he would have attempted some dissections on animals and continued his studies on geology with the possibility of publishing them, although he ultimately never did.
A stop in Rome
In 1512, the French began to lose control of Milan. Leonardo decided to avoid this political turmoil by finding shelter in Rome under the protection of his new patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, a lover of art and science, who had set up a circle of scholars and artists that Leonardo would become a member of. He would have a permanent salary that would free him from seeking orders, and he would stay in rooms provided for him. It was a delightful period in the artist’s life where he could share his knowledge with other scholars, explore the rare botany findings of the area, and study prismatic surfaces; his interest in them was profound as they could also serve as war machines.
St. John the Baptist
St. John the Baptist was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1513 and 1516. This is an oil painting on walnut wood and is another painting that he would keep in his possession until the end of his life, fixing it and adding touches until his death. The pointing gesture of St. John toward the heavens suggests the importance of salvation through the baptism that John the Baptist represents.
This posture marked Leonardo and it is the posture in which Raphael painted him, suggesting Plato pointing his finger to the sky. This work, as elsewhere, indicates Leonardo’s explicit eroticism as he took delight in the flesh and androgyny even on the holy figures. Many people are critical of this work since this Biblical figure lived in a desert, surviving on a diet of locusts and honey. In Leonardo’s painting, St. John the Baptist seems androgynous, a more feminine arm bent across his breast, his finger raised towards heaven, and that same enigmatic smile so admired on the face of Mona Lisa. The finger pointed towards heaven could denote the coming of Christ or could be the sign of esoteric significance.
“Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Colour, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest.”</strong
Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits
The most famous portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself is the Turin Portrait. As in all portraits of the artist, he appears sceptical and rather melancholic, an exhausted grimace on his lips. These depictions indicate that he is some years older than his actual age, but this was in fact accurate: Leonardo appeared older than he really was, embracing an image of wisdom with his long beard and hair.
Leonardo started painting Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, in 1503 while still in the service of Cesare Borgia, and he would eventually take it with him on all his journeys until his last residence in France. Mona Lisa is a painting that Leonardo spent many years developing and improving, as he could not feel entirely satisfied with his work but saw enough qualities to motivate him to persevere over a long period. Vasari, in a bold description of the work, notes that “it really seemed not to be of colours but of flesh. At the bottom of the neck, if you look at it very closely, you could see the beat of her pulse. ”
An enthusiastic portrait, in which Leonardo rendered the complexity of human emotion and the gentle beauty of the most mysterious smile in the history of art, this painting was created with oil on wood. It is a remarkable instance of Leonardo’s sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modelling. The Mona Lisa‘s enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof at the same time, has given the portrait universal fame.
It is likely that Piero recommended Leonardo for this order, as he had close relations with the Giocondo family. Francesco del Giocondo, a silk merchant who supplied the Medici court, was wealthy enough but not an aristocrat, so he had no absurd demands for the portrait. Being in love with his wife, he asked Leonardo to paint her portrait and Leonardo accepted despite the fact that he had to take over many orders at the time, including the one of Isabella d’Este. The freedom to do as he liked in the production of the painting, as well as the challenge of depicting her smile, drew him to the work. This was another order that would never reach its original destination.
“There are four Powers: memory and intellect, desire and covetousness. The two first are mental and the others sensual. The three senses: sight, hearing and smell cannot well be prevented; touch and taste not at all.”
The Table paint of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo imputed all his mastery and condensed knowledge in this painting from his studies of light and anatomy and the result justified him. Even the preparation is made of lead that leaves the colour and light more comfortable on the surface. He has applied the rules of optics and perspective, with her hands seeming very close to the observer, and the outlines appear blurred with the supreme application of his sfumato technique, while the background lengthens behind the subject. He has succeeded in lighting his model and applies his principle of making a portrait in dull light when the weather is rainy or when the light falls in the evening. His insight to the rules of seeing is spectacular as the pupils of the eyes are uneven, a minute observation that certainly could not escape Leonardo. Stylish techniques are also noted in the imitation of the creases of the woman’s dress. We should not forget that the portrait was meant to be delivered to a silk dealer first and that he was a distinguished Verrocchio pupil who had already demonstrated his skills in depicting folds of fabrics. Moreover, the discrete veil that the woman wears on her head covering her hair makes gentle fluctuations without tainting the background. The scenery enfolds the figure and looks like it is drawn to it, a union with the nature and landscape that only Leonardo could accomplish after his far-reaching studies. It is a landscape that holds within it the depths of science and fantasy. The earth seems to be spinning along with Lisa’s trunk and seems to have a light posture.
The Mona Lisa is famed for two things: her enigmatic smile and her steady gaze, widely believed to follow her viewers around the room. Indeed, this world-renowned painting inspired the name of a scientific phenomenon: the Mona Lisa effect, or the impression that the eyes of the person in an image follow the viewer as they move in front of the picture; ironically, this does not actually work for Leonardo’s portrait. As regards the Mona Lisa smile, no matter how long you look at it, it looks very intense and deeply dim, which when we stop looking at it, it is deeply engraved in our memory. Extremely thin lashes of Mona Lisa’s mouth are lightly pushed downwards, but if we notice this smile with our peripheral vision it is illuminating the whole face, forming this detached smile. A fusion of in-depth knowledge and persistence in years of study contributes to this work in brush strokes that are so thin they are hardly visible. A project with, at some points, more than thirty layers of paint, the Mona Lisa is now admired in the museum of the Louvre.
Leonardo da Vinci in France – The Final Journey
In autumn of 1516, Leonardo started his final trip to France on invitation of King Francis I of France, who admired his work and would be his most consistent patron. They had originally met in 1515 during a trip to Bologna. The King invited Leonardo to the royal summer home, Château du Clos Lucé, near Amboise. Throughout his life, Leonardo constantly moved to find a patron and he had not always been lucky to do so: he was not supported by the Medici family in Florence, and sent him to Milan with a lyre as a diplomatic gift, and similarly he did not succeed in getting orders in Milan until very late. His reputation and his inscriptions helped him to accomplish this goal and so he managed to spend the last years of his life in comfort and safety, although he maintained a vigorous insistence on his work to the end.
In his sixties, Leonardo therefore travelled across the mountains from northern Italy to central France, carrying with him his sketchbooks and unfinished artwork. The young King had hired the Renaissance master as ‘The King’s First Painter, Engineer and Architect’. Leonardo lived in the rehabilitated Medieval fortress from 1516 until his death in 1519. His companions that came with him to France were not so much followers: Salaì stayed in Milan, but Leonardo had another new servant, Batista de Vilanis, much younger than Salaì, and was accompanied also by Francesco Melzi. He took all three of his works found in his possession at his death, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist, and Mona Lisa.
Francis was generous and devoted, charismatic and gentle, educated and a scholar. Leonardo was a good companion to him, and vice versa. He loved the arts and science, aspired to and succeeding in bringing Renaissance art to France. He was extroverted and delighted in the theatrical performances staged for him. Leonardo was the best candidate for his court, as he was an enthusiastic of him. An ideal patron, he gave him a salary and a whole castle to stay, did not insist on him finishing his paintings, and needed engineering and architectural knowledge as well as organisation of theatrical performances, all of which satisfied Leonardo. Above all, Leonardo was a source of inexhaustible scholarly knowledge for Francis and could teach him a lot. They spent hours together discussing astronomy, mechanics, architecture, poetry, and music, although unfortunately prevented Leonardo from advancing his studies. Francis put Château du Clos Lucé, a beautiful castle five hundred meters from the royal palace at Leonardo’s disposal as this castle was very spacious and could majestically accommodate all of Leonardo’s team.
Antonio de Beattis
The visit of Priest de Beattis proved beneficial to the following generations because it provides us with information that we draw from information about the elder Leonardo from Beattis’s diary. In particular, he underlined that he was ‘the most prominent painter of the time’. Leonardo, though he had not completed his Florentine orders, had managed to form an image of his personality as an artist and painter. The account tells us that he looks older than he is and that he had suffered a stroke, leaving his right hand paralysed. Luckily, left-handed Leonardo would not suffer too greatly from it and he would still be creative. He also presents the information that Leonardo was proudly displaying the three masterpieces he had in his possession, as well as some of his notes in anatomy.
The French King Francis I commissioned a great work to Leonardo: to design and build the city of Romorantin from scratch and make this rather small city the new capital of a blossoming French kingdom. In 1517, on a visit to the city, they designed the palace, and Leonardo began to work on their exceptional architectural ideas. He designed a three-store palace with spacious rooms large enough to welcome the whole court and host large theatre performances. His obsession with water found a passage and enriched his imagination, leading to designs watering systems as well as the diversion of the river flowing to Romorantin, lakes, fountains, and more. Leonardo’s design of the city is based on a dynamic concept of managing flows of water, air, energy, and human cognition. He designed an ideal city that was centuries ahead of its time.
This plan was something nature did not allow Leonardo to fulfil due to his death, and the King would build his new castle in Château de Cloux instead. Nonetheless, through this project, Leonardo may have changed the shape of modern cities: he wanted a comfortable and spacious city, with well-ordered streets and architecture and recommended ‘high, strong walls’ and places taking full advantage of both interior and exterior spaces.
The last note
The last page that Leonardo left us is filled with geometry and mathematical experiments. He attempts to change the area of an right-angled triangle by changing its sides, presenting some variations; next to his thoughts, he closes his notes by saying that he is stopping his writing because ‘the soup is cold.’. This is an indication of Leonardo’s personality, as he would trouble himself with great puzzles and complex topics while still noting things that happened parallel in his life, giving us a notion of how clever, witty, and humorous he was.
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“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
The end of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo died in Amboise on 2 May 1519, only nine days before he drafted his will. He had been quite sick and knew he would die, so wanted to protect his followers and his property. Melzi was also the executor of Leonardo’s will, as he was his main heir. Leonardo left half of his vineyard in Milan to Salaì, although they had been estranged for some time, and the other half to his young servant and companion Batista de Vilanis, as well as some other possessions and his furniture. His half-brothers received his estate at Vinci, as had been previously agreed.”As a well-spent day brings a pleasant sleep, so a well-spent life brings a pleasant death”, he had said thirty years earlier, and as he was so full of life and adventures, Leonardo left at the age of seventy-seven. He died in the presence of the King and his patron, a scene that has become the theme of many painters. Francis I received his final breaths. Biographer Giorgio Vasari, who was not present, says that Leonardo ‘smiled’ towards Christianity and the Holy virtuous road at the end of his life, and that he confessed a few hours before he died. This information was pointed out by Vasari with the aim of presenting a more pious Leonardo. However, the genius considered scientific knowledge superior to religious belief. Leonardo was buried in the royal palace, but the current location of his final resting place remains a mystery.
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Quotes and Mottos of Leonardo da Vinci
See the collection of Leonardo da Vinci mottos by clicking on this link: Leonardo da Vinci Mottos Collection
Get inspired from Leonardo da Vinci most important quotes and mottos:
- Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.
- It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.
- The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.
- Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
- Learning never exhausts the mind.
- Water is the driving force of all nature.
- Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?
- Art is never finished, only abandoned.
- Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.
- Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.
- The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
- Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.
- All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.
- Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
- Who sows virtue reaps honor.
- Every action needs to be prompted by a motive.
- The natural desire of good men is knowledge.
- There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.
- In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.
- Just as courage is the danger of life, so is fear its safeguard.
- Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.
- Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it.
- Medicine is the restoration of discordant elements; sickness is the discord of the elements infused into the living body.
- A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.
- The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.
- Science is the captain, and practice the soldiers.
- Marriage is like putting your hand into a bag of snakes in the hope of pulling out an eel.
- You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.
- The smallest feline is a masterpiece.
- He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year.
- All knowledge which ends in words will die as quickly as it came to life, with the exception of the written word: which is its mechanical part.
- Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!
- The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.
- The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement, all writings with his fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.
- Knowledge of the past and of the places of the earth is the ornament and food of the mind of man.
- He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.
- You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand.
- Intellectual passion drives out sensuality.
- Time abides long enough for those who make use of it.
- Each man is always in the middle of the surface of the earth and under the zenith of his own hemisphere, and over the centre of the earth.
- It is better to imitate ancient than modern work.
- The poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things, and far below the musician in that of invisible things.
- Just as courage imperils life, fear protects it.
- Experience does not err. Only your judgments err by expecting from her what is not in her power.
- Common Sense is that which judges the things given to it by other senses.
- Nature never breaks her own laws.
- Our life is made by the death of others.
- The function of muscle is to pull and not to push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue.
- Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments.
- The truth of things is the chief nutriment of superior intellects.
- There is no object so large but that at a great distance from the eye it does not appear smaller than a smaller object near.
- Beyond a doubt truth bears the same relation to falsehood as light to darkness.
- Our body is dependant on Heaven and Heaven on the Spirit.
- As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.
- Men of lofty genius when they are doing the least work are most active.
- Necessity is the mistress and guide of nature. Necessity is the theme and inventiveness of nature, her curb and her eternal law.
- While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.
- I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis 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.
- I have wasted my hours.
- Many are they who have a taste and love for drawing, but no talent; and this will be discernible in boys who are not diligent and never finish their drawings with shading.
- As every divided kingdom falls, so every mind divided between many studies confounds and saps itself.
- The spirit desires to remain with its body, because, without the organic instruments of that body, it can neither act, nor feel anything.
- How many emperors and how many princes have lived and died and no record of them remains, and they only sought to gain dominions and riches in order that their fame might be ever-lasting.
- Just as food eaten without appetite is a tedious nourishment, so does study without zeal damage the memory by not assimilating what it absorbs.
- The Medici created and destroyed me.
- Man and animals are in reality vehicles and conduits of food, tombs of animals, hostels of Death, coverings that consume, deriving life by the death of others.
- Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.
- There are four Powers: memory and intellect, desire and covetousness. The two first are mental and the others sensual. The three senses: sight, hearing and smell cannot well be prevented; touch and taste not at all.
- The divisions of Perspective are 3, as used in drawing; of these, the first includes the diminution in size of opaque objects; the second treats of the diminution and loss of outline in such opaque objects; the third, of the diminution and loss of color at long distances.
- People talk to people who perceive nothing, who have open eyes and see nothing; they shall talk to them and receive no answer; they shall adore those who have ears and hear nothing; they shall burn lamps for those who do not see.
- For, verily, great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you little know it, you will be able to love it only little or not at all.
- The mind of the painter must resemble a mirror, which always takes the colour of the object it reflects and is completely occupied by the images of as many objects as are in front of it.
- Life well spent is long.
- In order to arrive at knowledge of the motions of birds in the air, it is first necessary to acquire knowledge of the winds, which we will prove by the motions of water in itself, and this knowledge will be a step enabling us to arrive at the knowledge of beings that fly between the air and the wind.
- It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the vulture, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a vulture came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips.
- I have always felt it is my destiny to build a machine that would allow man to fly.
- The painter who is familiar with the nature of the sinews, muscles, and tendons, will know very well, in giving movement to a limb, how many and which sinews cause it; and which muscle, by swelling, causes the contraction of that sinew; and which sinews, expanded into the thinnest cartilage, surround and support the said muscle.
- The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.
- Weight, force and casual impulse, together with resistance, are the four external powers in which all the visible actions of mortals have their being and their end.
- Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.
- The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies every thing placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.
- I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.
- Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Colour, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest.
- Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.
- I have found that, in the composition of the human body as compared with the bodies of animals, the organs of sense are duller and coarser. Thus, it is composed of less ingenious instruments, and of spaces less capacious for receiving the faculties of sense.
- To such an extent does nature delight and abound in variety that among her trees there is not one plant to be found which is exactly like another; and not only among the plants, but among the boughs, the leaves and the fruits, you will not find one which is exactly similar to another.
- I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
- He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.
- Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.
- 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.
- For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.
One thought on “Personality of Leonardo da Vinci”
A very interesting and informative read!