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Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519)
Florentine painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scholar, and one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance; born at Vinci, near Florence, in 1452; died at Cloux, near Amboise, France, 2 May, 1519, natural son of Ser Piero, a notary, and a peasant woman. He was reared carefully by his father, and was remarkably gifted and precocious. Few artists owed so little to circumstances and teachers. He was quite self-made. His work was small in bulk, and what remains may be counted on fingers of both hands. Few men had such varied talent and amassed such encyclopedic knowledge; his method as an artist was original with him, science was the measure of beauty, he combined fact with poetry and made use of both to carry on wide investigations in nature and to reproduce life according to the very laws of life. There are three periods in Leonardo's biography: The Florentine period (1469-82); the Milanese period (1483-99); the Nomadic period (1500-19).
1. the Artist
Florentine Period (1469-82)
At an early age, doubtless about his fifteenth year, Leonardo entered Verrocchio's studio which about 1465 was the foremost in the city. Among his associates was Pietro Vanucci called Perugino. A sculptor and painter, Verrocchio was not an artist of the highest genius, but he played an important part in the history of art. The contemporary of Castagno and Pollaiulo, he centralized their labours, codified their efforts, and circulated the results of their studies; in a certain sense Florentine naturalism was organized in his studio. The work of both generations was summed up in a work common to master and pupil, Verrocchio's "Baptism of Christ", in the Academy of Florence, wherein Leonardo painted the face of one of the angels who hold the garments of Jesus. In the midst of a work which, although a conscientious study, is dull and prosaic this ravishing countenance shines with a divine life. Under these conditions young Leonardo acquired the technique of his craft, all the progress attained by the Florentine School about the middle of the fifteenth century, but he gave to it a new value and incomparable beauty. As Verrocchio's collaborator in all branches of art he assisted in the preliminary studies and the preparatory researches for the famous equestrian statue of the condottiere Colleone. He was also admitted to the celebrated garden of the Medicis, where they had gathered a collection of antiquities, then the foremost in the world, and which they had, moreover, made a museum and a school, or academy, of fine arts. The young artist nevertheless almost entirely escaped the superstition of antiquity, and this is a clear proof of his wonderful independence. The artists of the next generation, especially Michelangelo, scarcely beheld life save through the marble veil of Graeco-Roman sculpture; Leonardo, on the other hand, borrowed almost nothing from the past; a few details in a candelabrum in the small "Annunciation" of the Louvre, rare sketches such as the "Dancers" of the Academy of Venice, a warrior's head at London (British Museum), these constitute nearly the whole of his debt to antiquity. In this sense Leonardo is the first of the "moderns".
We possess very few of the works of his youth. Apart from the face of the angel in the "Baptism of Christ" spoken of above, we can ascribe to him with certainty only the delicate miniature "Annunciation" of the Louvre, the portrait of a young woman in the Liechtenstein Gallery at Vienna, and two small terra-cottas in the South Kensington Museum, London; a "Madonna and Child", and a bust of St. John the Baptist. Drawings have preserved for us the traces of other projects, e.g., in "Adoration of the Shepherds" (drawing at the Louvre), but we have almost no information concerning this period. A landscape drawing dated 1573 and another study dated 1578 (Uffizi) are the first certain dates we encounter in his life. The following note has also been found: ". . . bre 1578 cominciai le due Madonne"; but no one knows what became of these Madonnas, nor even if they were executed. However, a great many studies, leaves covered with sketches, heads of young women, children playing with cats, etc., show the direction of his researches. He had already conceived this type of mother and child in which the divine expression results only from human race and the poetry of life carried to its highest degree. This was the formula of the Renaissance, of the Madonnas of Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, and which Leonardo himself soon applied in the immortal masterpieces, the "Virgin of the Rocks" and "St. Anne and the Blessed Virgin".
Milanese Period (1483-99)
In 1481 Ludovico il Moro assumed in the name of his nephew, Gian Galeazzo, the regency of the Duchy of Milan. He was one of the most remarkable princes in that age of tyrants of genius: clever, magnificent, ambitious, and cruel. A letter of which a copy forms part of the celebrated "Codex Atlanticus", in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, has preserved the terms in which Leonardo offered his services to this formidable lord; among other terms were read:
(1) I have a process for constructing very light, portable bridges, for the pursuit of the enemy; others more solid, which will resist fire and assault and may be easily set in place and taken to pieces. I also know ways of burning and destroying those of the enemy. . . (4) I can also construct a very manageable piece of artillery which projects inflammable materials, causing great damage to the enemy and also great terror because of the smoke . . . (8) Where the used of cannon is impracticable I can replace them with catapults and engines for casting shafts with wonderful and hitherto unknown effect; briefly, whatever the circumstances I can contrive countless methods of attack. (9) In the event of a naval battle I have numerous engines of great power both for attack and defense: vessels which are proof against the hottest fire, powder or steam. (10) In times of peace I believe that I can equal anyone in architecture, whether for the building of public or private monuments. I sculpture in marble, bronze and terra cotta; in painting I can do what another can do, it matters not who he may be. Moreover I pledge myself to execute a bronze horse to the eternal memory of your father and the very illustrious House of Sforza, and if any of the above things seem impracticable or impossible I offer to give a test of it in your Excellency's park or in any other place pleasing to your lordship, to whom I commend myself in all humility.
Leonardo was at this time thirty years of age and very handsome. He was an accomplished gentleman, and had a keen mind for the invention of fables. His contemporaries, for example the storyteller Bandello, relate the charms of his conversation. He was a musician, being given to improvising verses while accompanying himself on a lute of his own invention, shaped like a bucranium and possessing wonderful sonorousness. For the fêtes, ballets, and amusements, and interludes of which the Renaissance was so fond, Leonardo was unequalled. At the time of Louis XII's entry into Milan a mechanical lion crossed the banquet hall, halted before him a shower of lilies. This machine Leonardo had invented. Such was Leonardo when towards the end of 1482 he entered the service of Ludovico il Moro. One of his earliest Milanese works was the delightful "Woman with a Marten", which is believed to be the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Ludovico's mistress, and which is now at Cracow, in the collection of Count Czartorisky. Unfortunately, the work has been much injured by restorations, but it is the first truly modern work of its kind, wherein feminine grace, subtlety of analysis, refinement of the moral personality, and not merely resemblance of features, constitute the subject of the picture. The pretty profile of "Beatrice d'Este" at the Ambrosian and the so-called "Lucrezia Crivelli" (also called "La Belle Ferroniere") of the Louvre have nothing in common with Leonardo.
At Milan, also, in the early years of his sojourn there, he completed his first large picture, the wonderful "Virgin of the Rocks". Besides copies there are two of these pictures in existence, differing somewhat in details, one at the Louvre and the other at the National Gallery. There have been endless discussions with regard to their authenticity. The truth is that they are both originals, the first in point of time being that of the Louvre, the execution of which, extremely minute in detail, still shows something of the somewhat dry methods of Verrocchio's studio. The other and somewhat later one repeats the same motif for the convent of San Francesco, Milan. On the side panels Ambrogio da Predis painted angels playing on musical instruments. These side panels are with the central picture at the National Gallery. But Leonardo did not finish the picture he had begun, its Madonna and the landscape are the work of a pupil and a mediocre pupil. On the other hand the angel kneeling behind the Infant Jesus whose attitude differs from that of the Paris Angel, is one of the artist's most perfect creations. Both pictures are poetical. The fantastic landscape, the dolomite grotto of prismatic rocks, the ineffiable art of the "pyramidal" grouping, the often copied triangle of which the base is formed by two beautiful children, and the summit of the head of a smiling virgin; the grace and life of the motif, the selection of the moment, the perfection of the model, the depth of the atmosphere, and even the smallest details of the herbs, the stones, the slight ripples in a surface of transparent water -- all this endows the "Virgin of the Rocks" with an imperishable charm, making it one of the works which open a new world to the imagination and fixing eternally the poetry of the subject. Without Leonardo Raphael's "Madonna", his "Belle Jardinière" and "Madonna of the Goldfinch" would not exist and even their charm does not equal that of their sublime model.
Leonardo's most important work at Milan is his "Last Supper" which he painted in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Sta Maria delle Grazie. This masterpiece is now little more than a ruin, the disaster being largely due to the painter's methods. Fresco seemed to him too summary and hurried a process and he painted in oil on the wall. Dampness soon soaked into and ruined the work, and as early as the middle of the sixteenth century the damage was irreparable. Vandalism did the rest. In 1652 a door was opened in the wall mutilating the feet of Christ and two Apostles. In 1726 and 1770 daubers wrought a masterpiece of injury with their restorations, and finally in 1797 a French army occupied the convent and made a stable of the refectory; even Bonaparte's orders could not prevent the men from mutilating the "Last Supper"; such was the long martyrdom of the masterpiece. Only in recent years have precautions been taken to preserve the remains; the wall has been separated and the hall dried but this tardy care threatens to complete the destruction of the picture. It is to be feared that it will scale and crumble to dust. However there exist memorials and copies of it. Few works have exercised a similar fascination and been as often reproduced from the beginning. Some of these copies have been collected in the refectory of Sta Maria delle Grazie; among them the best of all, which was formerly at Castellazzonear Milan, is believed to be by Solari. An excellent copy is preserved at Ponte Capriasca, a neighbouring parish of Lugano. The Academy of London has one, which was formerly at the Certosa of Pavia and attributed to Oggionno or to Gianpietrino. There are two at Paris, one at the Louvre, and the other at St. Germain l'Auxerrois. All there copies, which are fairly correct as regards the composition, vary in detail and especially show great difference of colouring.
Still more valuable are the separate studies of heads, although the most of them may be originals; the most important series are at Strasburg and Weimar. The famous head of Christ in crayon at the Brera seems to be a study of Sodoma or of Cesare da Sesto and to have no relation to the "Last Supper". None of these helps to the study of the masterpiece should be neglected, but despite its ruinous condition there are impressions which can only be given by the picture itself, which still preserves the atmosphere, the moving tonality, a peculiar pathos which seems the sorcery or presence of genius. Its extraordinary superiority is apparent when we compare it with all the extant "Last Supper" with those of Giotto, Castagno, or Ghirlandajo. The old representations become antiquated and obsolete and a new order of ideas is inaugurated. With regard to its subject the theme of the "Last Supper" may be divided into two distinct movements: the institution of the Sacrament and the "Unus vestrum". Leonardo has chosen the moment at which Christ declares that there is a traitor in the company. We are shown the effect of a speech on twelve persons, on twelve different temperaments: a single ray and twelve reflections (Burckhardt). The subject has been well analyzed by Goethe. It is clear that in a drama of this class, a kind of "seated" drama, of which the subject is interior disquiet, surprise, anguish, it suffices to show the persons at half length; busts, face, and hands suffice to manifest the moral emotion; the table with its damask cloth by almost completely concealing the lower limbs offered the ingenious artist a resource which he knew how to use. The difficulty under these conditions was to succeed in constituting a whole with these thirteen figures seated side by side; the greatest weakness of the old painters was composition; each table companion seemed isolated from his neighbour.
With an instinct of genius Leonardo divided his actors into two groups, two on each side of Christ, and he linked these groups so as to imbue the general outline with a certain continuity, animated by a single movement. The whole is like the successive undulations of a vast wave of emotions. The fatal word uttered by Christ seated at the middle of the table produces tumult which symmetrically repels and agitates the two nearest groups and which lapses as it is communicated to the two groups farther removed. The intimate composition of each group is no less wonderful. Stupefaction, sorrow, indignation, denial, vengeance, the variety of expression which the painter has gathered together in this picture, the depth of the analysis, the veracity of the types and physiognomies, the power and the accumulation of contrasts are without parallel in all previous art; the countless studies made for each piece denote in the author a world of new preoccupations. Each head is the "monograph" of a human passion, a plate of moral anatomy. It will be readily understood how such a work cost the artist ten years of preparation. None ever summarized in a single picture a similar total of life. The hands possess incomparable beauty and eloquence. Here for the first time and for the whole future was created the definitive formula of historic painting.
On the wall opposite the "Last Supper" Leonardo had painted (1495), in the great Montorfano Crucifixion, portraits of Ludovico il Moro, his wife Beatrice d'Este, and their sons Maximillian and Francesco. Only whitish traces and uncertain lineaments of these portraits remain. Finally in 1893 Professor Müller Walde discovered in the castle of Milan under a rough cast of the hall of the Torre delle Asse a whole decoration painted by Leonardo in 1498; it is a trellis of laurel, vines, and foliage. The artist conveyed the illusion of a hall of verdure. To this period likewise belong the studies of St. Anne. Together with the cult of the Immaculate Conception the end of the fifteenth century saw the rise of that of the mother of the Blessed Virgin. The work of the learned Trithemius, "De laudibus sanctissimæ matris Annæ", dates from 1494 (cf. Shankell, "Der Kultus der heilige Annas am susgange Mittelalters", Freiburg, 1893). Leonardo composed two different versions of this subject, one of them being now at the Louvre, the other at the London Academy. That of the Louvre is unfinished. The Virgin is only sketched, the head of St. Anne alone showing that modelling in which Leonardo is unrivalled. Art possesses few groups more charming than that of these two women, one seated on the other's knees. Together with the "Last Supper" Leonardo's greatest Milanese work must have been the equestrian statue of Ludovico il Moro, the famous "bronze horse" which he pledged himself to cast in the letter quoted above. He worked on this constantly for more than fifteen years (1483-99). A plaster model was cast in 1489, but the artist was dissatisfied within and made another which was moulded in 1493. He then turned his attention to preparations for casting. But the French came in 1499 and besides driving out the duke they broke the plaster model of his statue. We have only countless sketches, studies, and drawings of this masterpiece and Leonardo's books dealing with the anatomy and science of the horse.
Nomadic Period (1500-19)
By Ludovico's fall Leonardo was left unemployed, and he was in no hast to seek another position and there began for him a period of wandering. Completed works grow more and more rare, each of them showing traces of more complicated ambitions. From this period date most of his scientific works. After fifty he began to gather the elements of a new synthesis which was never completed. The last twenty years of his life were given to this activity and these experiences. From Milan, Leonardo went to Mantua where he sketched (1500) the portrait of the Marchesa Isabella d'Este, the cartoon of which is one of the wonders of the Louvre. Then he went to Venice (1501) and thence to Florence; from there he entered the service of Cæsar Borgia as military engineer and head of the corps of engineers in his Romagna campaign. After Cæsar's fall he returned to Florence and seems to have stayed there for three or four years. Then he began see-sawing between Florence and Milan, finally taking up his residence in the latter city where he was called by a law-suit concerning the property left by his father. In 1514 we find him at Rome, but at the end of the year he returned to Florence; in 1515 came journeys to Pavia, Bologna, and a last stay for some months at Milan. Finally in 1516 he accepted the invitation of King Francis I to come to France and left Italy, never to return.
During these wandering years there are only two places where we find undoubted proofs of his activity, at Florence (1501-06) and Milan (1506-13). At Florence he executed to of his most famous works now unfortunately lost of destroyed. The Seigniory of Florence had for the decoration of its council hall opened a contest for the portrayal of two patriotic subjects drawn from the annals of the Republic. One was an occurrence of the war against Pisa in 1304 and was confided to Michelangelo; the other commemorated the victory of Anghiari Maria Visconti. This was the subject treated by Leonardo. The rival cartoons were exhibited in 1505 and were an event in the history of the school. All the youth of the artist world hastened to copy them, but in the midst of all this Michelangelo was called to Rome and abandoned his work. Warned by his experience with the "Last Supper" Leonardo refrained from painting in oil, but would not be satisfied with fresco; he fancied some process of encaustic (one of the rare instances in him of the influence of the ancients). The attempt was unfortunate. The coat did not dry and the colours flowed together. But the artist was not discouraged and continued his work. The cartoon still existed in the eightee