LEONARDO DA VINCI  1452 - 1519  (H6, E4, E5, R3, H7, H8)

xxxxxIt was in or around the year 1497 that the undisputed genius of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, painted his famous mural The Last Supper in the refectory of the church of Saint Maria delle Grazie in Milan. His other masterpiece was his Mona Lisa, completed about 1506 and now in the Louvre, Paris. A brilliant painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and engineer, he worked for the most part in Florence and Milan. Apart from his rare talent in the visual arts, his brilliant, enquiring mind, born of a love of knowledge, made advances in fields of study as far apart as anatomy, geology, botany, hydraulics and aerodynamics. His inventions included drilling devices, cranes, water pumps and a central heating system, and, as a military engineer, he produced pontoons, cannons and assault machines.


xxxxxHe was born in the small town of Vinci near Florence, the son of a wealthy lawyer. His mother was unmarried so he was brought up in his father’s home. Placed as a boy apprentice (a garzone) in the workshop of the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, it was here that he met Sandro Botticelli and his fellow pupil Pietro Perugino. It was in this studio that he painted altarpieces and showed his skill as a sculptor in marble and bronze. We are told that when he assisted his teacher in the painting of his Baptism of Christ - he simply completed the background and painted in one of the angels - Verrocchio was so impressed with his work as to vow that he would never paint again!

xxxxxIn 1477 his career took off when he came under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the outstanding member of the Medici family. Over the next five years he pursued his interest in a variety of subjects, his restless mind wrestling with problems related to astronomy, geology, engineering and anatomy. In his painting at this time his works included the portrait Ginevra de’ Benci, about 1478, and his first large painting Adoration of the Magi, begun in 1481 but, like so many of his works and projects, left unfinished.

xxxxxThen in 1482, on the strength of a letter he sent to Lodovico Sforza in Milan in which he modestly claimed that he had the technical skill to build a variety of war machines - including portable bridges, ships, cannons and armoured vehicles - he was taken on as the Duke's painter and engineer. Here he took part in a number of military exercises, but he also found time to practise as an artist. Soon after his arrival he painted Lodovico's mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, (known as the Lady with an Ermine). Also to this period belongs his first painting of the Virgin of the Rocks, completed in 1485, and the colossal bronze equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, Lodovico's father, which he worked on over twelve years and never completed. Following the invasion of the French in 1499, it is said that the clay model he had produced was used for target practice by French archers!

xxxxxLeonardo da Vinci, the undisputed genius of the Italian Renaissance, painted his famous The Last Supper for a church in Milan in 1497. His other masterpiece the Mona Lisa was completed in 1506 and is now in the Louvre in Paris. Apart from his great skill in the visual arts, his brilliant, enquiring mind made advances in science, engineering, anatomy, geology and botany. His inventions included cranes, drills and pumps, and as a military engineer he produced pontoons, cannons and assault machines. He was a pupil in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, and it was there that he met Botticelli and Perugino. In 1477 his career took off when he came under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Five years later he worked as a military engineer for Lodovico Sforza in Milan. To this period belongs his Virgin of the Rocks, the colossal bronze equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, and The Last Supper. After a short stay in Venice, where he probably met Giorgione, and a visit to Rome - where he worked for Cesar Borgia and met Machiavelli - he returned to Florence and worked alongside Michelangelo. His last years were spent in the service of the French monarch Francis I. Apart from his paintings, he left a vast number of notebooks full of technical sketches and diagrams. In these he anticipated modern machines such as the helicopter, the camera and the submarine. And his superb drawings and anatomical illustrations of humans and animals testify to his remarkable powers of observation. A man of immense skill and creativity in so many fields of human endeavour, his artistic influence was immense, as was his scientific legacy in research and invention.



xxxxxIt was during this long stay in Milan, some 17 years, that he produced his masterpiece, The Last Supper, completed in 1497. Perhaps a better title would have been Word of Betrayal, because this scene captures the moment just after Christ has said that one of his disciples would betray him. The unique composition says it all. Christ sits at the centre, isolated, serene and resigned, whilst in dramatic contrast, his disciples, grouped in threes, recoil and gesticulate in stunned disbelief or agitated denial. Unfortunately, to paint this scene, Leonardo used oil on dry plaster and within a few years deterioration had set in. Over the years, many attempts have been made to restore the work, the most recent one of 1977 going some way to make good the damage.

xxxxxIn 1502, after a short stay in Venice - where he probably met the Italian painter Giorgione - he spent some time as an architect in Rome, planning harbours, canals, and fortifications for Cesar Borgia and surveying his territory. There he met the writer and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli. Then in 1503 he was back in Florence where, working alongside Michelangelo (employed on a similar project), he completed the cartoon of a battle scene for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Unfortunately, having completed this preparatory “sketch”, no further work was done on it. It was at this stage that Sanzio Raphael, aged 19, must have seen both the masters at work.

xxxxxIt was in 1506 that he completed one of the paintings for which he is best known, the beautiful Mona Lisa, thought to be the wife of Francesco Zanobi del Giocondo. Famed for her enigmatic smile, it is said that he himself had a fascination for this work and took it with him on all his travels. Whilst The Last Supper is remarkable for its composition, the Mona Lisa is noted for its development of chiaroscuro (the subtle, balanced use of light and shade), and for his own technique known as sfumato (a gradual softening of colour and tone). These techniques - adding greatly to the emotion and atmosphere of a work - were explained in his treatise on the art of painting, a compilation of texts published many years after his death. They were to influence the course of Italian art for the next hundred years.

xxxxxIn 1507 he went to Milan in the service of the French king, Louis XII, but he continued to spend some time in Florence. Then in 1513 he started a three year stay in Rome where the Italian architect Donato Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael were all busy working for the pope. Commissions were few and far between, however, and so in 1516, with the grand title of “painter, architect and mechanic to the King” he went to serve the young French monarch Francis I, a man who greatly admired his work. His last years were spent at the chateau de Cloux, near Amboise on the Loire, not far from the king’s summer palace. There he produced his last painting, his Saint John the Baptist, probably completed about 1515 and now in the Louvre, Paris,

xxxxxApart from his paintings - regrettably small in number - one of his greatest legacies was his vast number of notebooks containing thousands of technical sketches and diagrams, many to be found in the Ambrosian library in Milan. Above all, these reveal a profound understanding of general scientific laws. He anticipated such modern machines as the submarine, the armoured car, the aeroplane and the camera, and in the field of town planning conceived the importance of light and space and the eventual need for motorways on two levels! His numerous drawings on such subjects make him the first scientific illustrator. These notes, written from right to left - presumably because he was left handed - and thus read with the aid of a mirror - did not become widely known until the 20th century, and some were not even discovered until that period.

xxxxxOther notebooks contained superb artistic drawings, some 600 of which are housed in the royal library at Windsor Castle. His brilliant drawings of humans, animals and plants testify to his remarkable powers of observation, whilst his anatomical illustrations were accurately based on his own experience at the dissecting table (as seen in this drawing of a foetus). He also made sketches illustrating various types of what are today known as “contact lenses”. Prime examples of his draughtsmanship are his cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari - made for a mural in the Palazzo Vecchio and since lost -, his illustrations of horses and the human anatomy, and his masterly self-portrait in old age, completed in 1513 and now to be seen in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.

xxxxxA man of remarkable skill and creativity, Leonardo astonishes one by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the enormity of his achievement in so many fields of human endeavour. In his artistic work his influence was immense, and in the realm of science his close observation and precise measurement of the natural world - judged essential by the thirteenth century philosopher Roger Bacon - laid the foundation for modern research and invention.

xxxxxIncidentally, Leonardo da Vinci died in Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentine. The church was badly damaged during the French Revolution and demolished at the beginning of the 19th century. Thus the burial place of one of the world’s greatest men is not known. ……

xxxxx…… In 2011 a painting previously thought to be the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils - Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio - was adjudged as being the work of the master himself by a panel of international art experts. Entitled Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), it depicts Christ raising his right hand in blessing and his left hand holding a globe. Painted in oil on a wooden panel and measuring 26 x 18.5 inches, it is known that it was once owned by the English kings Charles I and Charles II, and by a 19th century art collector named Sir Francis Cook. Sold at auction in 1958 for the sum of £45, it is now thought to be worth £120 million! However, some experts question its validity.

xxxxxA contemporary painter and a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci was Giogione. He and Titian were pupils of Giovanni Bellini and they worked together in Venice. He made important advances in the development of oil painting, creating a dream-like quality by the infusion of a soft, hazy light. He also saw his poetic landscapes as an essential part of his painting and, as in his Sleeping Venus, the reclining nude figure is made the subject of the work, not part of the general mythological scene. This was an innovation used extensively by Titian and Rubens. Among his other known works are The Tempest, Portrait of a Lady, and The Three Philosophers depicting youth, maturity and old age. Apart from Titian, he greatly influenced his pupil Sebastiano del Piombo and other Venetian artists.

xxxxxA contemporary painter who much admired the work of Leonardo da Vinci and might well have met him when he visited Venice in 1500, was Giorgio Barbarelli (c1475-1510), known after his death as Giorgione - meaning “big George”. Little is known about his life, but he was probably born at Castelfranco. He and Titian were pupils of Giovanni Bellini in Venice and it is known that they worked together decorating the facade of the Venetian palace Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1507 (now no longer in existence). When Giorgione died in 1510 it is almost certain that Titian completed his Sleeping Venus. What is abundantly clear is that his work, limited though it was, profoundly influenced his partner Titian - particularly during his early years - as well as his pupil Sebastiano del Piombo and other Venetian artists.

xxxxxGiorgione’s artistic career was a short one, but he was an important innovator. For a start, he made substantial advances in the development of oil painting, resulting not only in an enhanced richness and warmth of colouring, but also in the creation of a hazy, soft light, the likely influence of Leonardo and clearly to be seen in The Tempest, completed in 1505. Rather than defining figures or the object of a theme, this served to create an all pervading dreamlike mood for the painting as a whole. He also broke new ground in other respects. Unlike earlier artists, his poetic landscape was not used as a mere backcloth, depicting some classical or religious theme, but was an essential, if not the essential part of the painting. Likewise, in his depiction of the female nude in his Sleeping Venus, the reclining figure is the subject of the work, not simply one of many in some busy mythological scene. This was an innovation which many artists - Titian and Rubens among them - were to use to greater effect.

xxxxxApart from his Sleeping Venus (illustrated below) and The Tempest, only three other works can be assigned to him with confidence: his altarpiece for the cathedral at Castelfranco, the Portrait of a Lady, and The Three Philosophers depicting youth, maturity and old age (illustrated below). It is also known that he decorated the facades of a number of palaces in Venice. A handful of other works might be by his brush, but the evidence is only indirect and is much disputed by some critics. Indeed, some might be the work of the young Titian.


Leonardo da Vinci: Proportions of the Human Figure (Vitruvian Man) – Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice; Ginevra de’Benci – National Gallelry of Art, Washington; Last Supper – Refectory, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan; Mona Lisa – The Louvre, Paris; Design for Swing Bridge – Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan; View of a Foetus in the Womb – Royal Collection, UK; Design for helicopter – Bibliothèque de l’Institute de France, Paris; Saviour of the World – private collection. Giorgione: The Tempest - Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice; Sleeping Venus – Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden; The Three Philosophers – Kunsthisoriches Museum, Vienna.