The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, but sometimes they bestow with lavish abundance upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his greatness is a gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo. (Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects)
Leonardo: From Florence to Milan
Leonardo was born illegitimate to a prominent Tuscan family of potters and notaries. He may have traveled from Vinci to Florence where his father worked for several powerful families including the Medici. At age seventeen, Leonardo reportedly apprenticed with the Florentine artist Verrocchio. Here, Leonardo gained an appreciation for the achievements of Giotto and Masaccio and in 1472 he joined the artists’ guild, Compagnia di San Luca.
Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, c. 1504-06, pen and ink over black chalk, 14.7 x 17.7 cm (Royal Collection trust, UK)
Because of his family’s ties, Leonardo benefited when Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent) ruled Florence. By 1478 Leonardo was completely independent of Verrocchio and may have then met the exiled Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan (Ludovico ruled as regent from 1481-94, before becoming Duke). In 1482, Leonardo arrived in Milan bearing a silver lyre (which he may have been able to play), a gift for Ludovico Sforza from the Florentine ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Ludovico sought to transform Milan into a center of humanist learning to rival Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci, Superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck, c. 1510, pen and ink over black chalk, 29.2 x 19.8 cm (Royal Collection trust, UK)
Leonardo flourished in this intellectual environment. He opened a studio, received numerous commissions, instructed students, and began to systematically record his scientific and artistic investigations in a series of notebooks. The archetypal “renaissance man,” Leonardo was an unrivaled painter, an accomplished architect, an engineer, cartographer, and scientist (he was particularly interested in biology and physics). He was influenced by a variety of ancient texts including Plato’s Timaeus, Ptolemy’s Cosmography, and Vitruvius’s On Architecture. Leonardo is credited with having assisted Luca Pacioli with his treatise, Divina Proportione(1509). Joining the practical and the theoretical, Leonardo designed numerous mechanical devices for battle, including a submarine, and even experimented with designs for flight.
In a now famous letter (likely written in the early 1480s), Leonardo listed his talents to the future Duke, focusing mostly on his abilities as a military engineer. The letter begins:
Having until now sufficiently studied and examined the experiments of all those who claim to be experts and inventors of war machines, and having found that their machines do not differ in the least from those ordinarily in use, I shall make so bold, without wanting to cause harm to anyone, as to address myself to Your Excellency to divulge my secrets to him, and offer to demonstrate to him, at his pleasure, all the things briefly enumerated below.
In ten short paragraphs, Leonardo enumerated the service he could perform—he said (among other things) that he could build bridges, tunnels, fortresses, and “make siege guns, mortars and other machines, of beautiful and practical shape, completely different from what is generally in use.” What might seem amazing to us is that it is not until the very last paragraph that Leonardo mentions art, and he mentions it so modestly! Here is what he wrote:
In time of peace, I believe I am capable of giving you as much satisfaction as anyone, whether it be in architecture, for the construction of public or private buildings, or in bringing water from one place to another. Item, I can sculpt in marble, bronze or terracotta; while in painting, my work is the equal of anyone’s.
Return to Florence, then France
In 1489, Leonardo secured a long awaited contract with Ludovico and was honored with the title, “The Florentine Apelles,” a reference to an ancient Greek painter revered for his great naturalism. Leonardo returned to Florence when Ludovico was deposed by the French King, Charles VII. While there, Leonardo would meet the Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Princeand his future patron, François I (who ruled France from 1515-47). In 1516, after numerous invitations, Leonardo traveled to France and joined the royal court. Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 in the king’s chateau at Cloux.
Leonardo’s death and the changing status of the artist
Vasari, who wrote Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), had this to say about Leonardo’s death:
Finally, having grown old, he remained ill many months, and, feeling himself near to death, asked to have himself diligently informed of the teaching of the Catholic faith, and of the good way and holy Christian religion; and then, with many moans, he confessed and was penitent; and although he could not raise himself well on his feet, supporting himself on the arms of his friends and servants, he was pleased to take devoutly the most holy Sacrament, out of his bed. The King, who was wont often and lovingly to visit him, then came into the room; wherefore he, out of reverence, having raised himself to sit upon the bed, giving him an account of his sickness and the circumstances of it, showed withal how much he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done. Thereupon he was seized by a paroxysm, the messenger of death; for which reason the King having risen and having taken his head, in order to assist him and show him favour, to then end that he might alleviate his pain, his spirit, which was divine, knowing that it could not have any greater honour, expired in the arms of the King.
This story is a good indication of the changing status of the artist—Leonardo, who spent the last years of his life in France working for King Francis I, was often visited by the King (remember that the artist was considered only a skilled artisan in the Middle Ages and for much of the Early Renaissance). In the High Renaissance, in contrast, we find that artists are considered intellectuals, and that they keep company with the highest levels of society. Quite a change! All of this has to do with Humanism in the Renaissance of course, and the growing recognition of the achievement of great individuals. Artists in the Early Renaissance insisted that they should be considered intellectuals because they worked with their brains as well as with their hands. They defended this position by pointing to the scientific tools that they used to make their work more naturalistic—the study of human anatomy, of mathematics and geometry, of linear perspective. These were clearly all intellectual pursuits!
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a man in red chalk (self-portrait), c. 1512, red chalk on paper (Biblioteca Reale, Turin)
Look closely at this self-portrait. Isn’t it clear that Leonardo thought of himself as a thinker, a philosopher, an intellectual?
Ancient Greek physicians dissected cadavers. The early church’s rejection of the science of the classical world, along with the possibility of bodily resurrection led to prohibitions against dissection. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo performed them—probably exclusively on the bodies of executed criminals. According to his own count, Leonardo dissected 30 corpses during his lifetime.
Leonardo and His Drawings
By the British Museum
Born near the town of Vinci in 1452, Leonardo trained in the Florentine workshop of Andrea Verrocchio (1435-88). His first masterpiece was the unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481, Uffizi, Florence). In 1481-2 he travelled to Milan to work for the Duke, where he painted the Virgin of the Rocks (Musée du Louvre, Paris-a later version exists in the National Gallery, London) and the Last Supper (1495-7; Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Refectory), Milan). In 1499 he travelled to Mantua and Venice, arriving back in Florence in 1500.
Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of horsemen for the Battle of Anghiari, pen and brown ink, c. 1503, 8.2 x 12 cm, Italy © Trustees of the British Museum.
In 1503 he began the cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari with its scenes of ferocious fighting for the wall in the Great Council Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio, but this work was never completed. He returned to Milan in 1506 for seven years and in 1513 he moved to Rome. The French king, Francis I, invited him to his court and about 1516, Leonardo settled in the manor of Cloux, near Amboise in the Loire valley. Leonardo died there in 1519.
Leonardo is arguably the greatest draughtsman in Western art. He was technically superb in whichever medium he used: silverpoint, pen and ink, black and particularly red chalks. Driven by his scientific curiosity, he studied the world around him in minutest detail, making botanical and anatomical studies. In his drawings and paintings he created figures which lived, breathed, moved and gave expression to their emotions.
Leonardo da Vinci, Military Machines, drawing from a notebook, c. 1487, 173 x 245 cm, Italy © Trustees of the British Museum
This is one of a number of sheets of drawings by Leonardo in which he designed instruments of war. He drew them while working for Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan (1494–99). Under each drawing in ink and brown wash, Leonardo has written words of explanation in his characteristic reversed writing (that is it needs to be read in a mirror).
At the top of the sheet is a chariot with scythes on all sides. Below it Leonardo has written: “when this travels through your men, you will wish to raise the shafts of the scythes so that you will not injure anyone on your side.” At lower left is an upturned armored car without its roof, showing “the way the car is arranged inside” with the line “eight men operate it and the same men turn the car and pursue the enemy.” At lower right, the same tank-like vehicle is shown moving and firing its guns, with the line below: “this is good for breaking the ranks, but you will want to follow it up.” At the far right is a more conventional weapon of the time, a large pike or halberd, perhaps more ceremonial than practical.
Leonardo’s fertile imagination and scientific knowledge are here combined in the creation of war machines for his warlike patron. It is highly unlikely, however, that any of these machines were ever made or used in contemporary warfare. Indeed, as Leonardo himself wrote in his Notebooks, such new weapons were often as dangerous to their users as to the enemy.
‘The Virgin of the Rocks’
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491-1508, oil on panel, 189.5 x 120 cm (The National Gallery, London)
There are two versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (the version in the Louvre was painted first). These two paintings are a good place to start to define the qualities of the new style of the High Renaissance. Leonardo painted both in Milan, where he had moved from Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)
Normally when we have seen Mary and Christ (in, for example, paintings by Lippi and Giotto), Mary has been enthroned as the queen of heaven. Here, in contrast, we see Mary seated on the ground. This type of representation of Mary is referred to as the Madonna of Humility.
Mary has her right arm around the infant Saint John the Baptist who is making a gesture of prayer to the Christ child. The Christ child in turn blesses St. John. Mary’s left hand hovers protectively over the head of her son while an angel looks out and points to St. John. The figures are all located in a fabulous and mystical landscape with rivers that seem to lead nowhere and bizarre rock formations that recall the Dolomite mountains of northeastern Italy. In the foreground we see carefully observed and precisely rendered plants and flowers.
Mary, St. John, Christ and an angel (detail), Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)
We immediately notice Mary’s ideal beauty and the graceful way in which she moves, features typical of the High Renaissance.
This is the first time that an Italian Renaissance artist has completely abandoned halos. Fra Filippo Lippi reduced the halo to a narrow ring around Mary’s head. Clearly the unreal, symbolic nature of the halo was antithetical to the realism of the Renaissance. It was, in a way, a necessary holdover from the Middle Ages: how else to indicate a figure’s divinity?
Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child, c. 1465, tempera on panel, 92 x 63.5 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
But Leonardo found another way to indicate divinity—by giving the figures ideal beauty and grace. After all, we would never mistake Leonardo’s group of figures for an ordinary picnic—the way the Lippi’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Angels almost looks like a family portrait. With Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, we are clearly looking at a mystical vision of Mary, Christ, John the Baptist and an angel in heaven.
The unified composition
We can see that Leonardo grouped the figures together within a geometric shape of a pyramid (a pyramid instead of triangle because Leonardo is very concerned with creating an illusion of space—and a pyramid is three dimensional). He also has the figures gesturing and looking at each other. Both of these innovations serve to unify the composition. This is an important difference from paintings of the Early Renaissance where the figures often looked more separate from one another.
Andrea del Verroccio and Leonardo da Vinci, Baptism of Christ, 1472-1475, oil on wood, 177 x 151 cm (Uffizi, Florence)
Another way to think about this is to look at the angel that Leonardo painted in this work by his teacher Verocchio. Leonardo’s angel has a more complex pose. Things that artists were just learning how to do in the Early Renaissance (like contrapposto) are now easy for the artists of the High Renaissance.
Leonardo’s angel (detail), Andrea del Verroccio and Leonardo da Vinci, Baptism of Christ, 1472-1475, oil on wood, 177 x 151 cm (Uffizi, Florence)
As a result, artists of the High Renaissance can do more with the body—make it more complex, more elegant and more graceful. Similarly, the compositions of the paintings of the High Renaissance are more complex and sophisticated than the compositions of the Early Renaissance—figures interact with gestures and glances, and are often interwoven and set within the shape of a pyramid.
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, oil, tempera, fresco, 1495-98 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan)
“Leonardo imagined, and has succeeded in expressing, the desire that has entered the minds of the apostles to know who is betraying their Master. So in the face of each one may be seen love, fear, indignation, or grief at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; and this excites no less astonishment than the obstinate hatred and treachery to be seen in Judas.” (Georgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568; translated by George Bull)
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan) (photo: public domain)
The subject of the Last Supper is Christ’s final meal with his apostles before Judas identifies Christ to the authorities who arrest him. The Last Supper (a Passover Seder), is remembered for two events:
Philip (detail), Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan)
Christ says to his apostles “One of you will betray me,” and the apostles react, each according to his own personality. Referring to the Gospels, Leonardo depicts Philip asking “Lord, is it I?” Christ replies, “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me” (Matthew 26). We see Christ and Judas simultaneously reaching toward a plate that lies between them, even as Judas defensively backs away.
Leonardo also simultaneously depicts Christ blessing the bread and saying to the apostles “Take, eat; this is my body” and blessing the wine and saying “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26). These words are the founding moment of the sacrament of the Eucharist (the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ).
Detail, Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan)
Leonardo’s Last Supper is dense with symbolic references. Attributes identify each apostle. For example, Judas Iscariot is recognized both as he reaches to toward a plate beside Christ (Matthew 26) and because he clutches a purse containing his reward for identifying Christ to the authorities the following day. Peter, who sits beside Judas, holds a knife in his right hand, foreshadowing that Peter will sever the ear of a soldier as he attempts to protect Christ from arrest.
Suggestions of the heavenly
Christ (detail), Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan)
The balanced composition is anchored by an equilateral triangle formed by Christ’s body. He sits below an arching pediment that if completed, traces a circle. These ideal geometric forms refer to the renaissance interest in Neo-Platonism (an element of the humanist revival that reconciles aspects of Greek philosophy with Christian theology). In his allegory, “The Cave,” the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato emphasized the imperfection of the earthly realm. Geometry, used by the Greeks to express heavenly perfection, has been used by Leonardo to celebrate Christ as the embodiment of heaven on earth.
Leonardo rendered a verdant landscape beyond the windows. Often interpreted as paradise, it has been suggested that this heavenly sanctuary can only be reached through Christ.
The twelve apostles are arranged as four groups of three and there are also three windows. The number three is often a reference to the Holy Trinity in Catholic art. In contrast, the number four is important in the classical tradition (e.g. Plato’s four virtues).
The Last Supper in the Early Renaissance
Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper, 1447, tempera on plaster (Sant’Apollonia, Florence)
Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper (1447) is typical of the Early Renaissance. The use of linear perspective in combination with ornate forms such as the sphinxes on the ends of the bench and the marble paneling tend to detract from the spirituality of the event. In contrast, Leonardo simplified the architecture, eliminating unnecessary and distracting details so that the architecture can instead amplify the spirituality. The window and arching pediment even suggest a halo. By crowding all of the figures together, Leonardo uses the table as a barrier to separate the spiritual realm from the viewer’s earthly world. Paradoxically, Leonardo’s emphasis on spirituality results in a painting that is more naturalistic than Castagno’s.
By Dr. Naraelle Hohensee
Historian of Visual, Urbanism, and Culture
During World War II, in August of 1943, the Allies launched a massive bombing campaign on Milan and its outskirts. The explosions and the ensuing fires killed over 700 people and destroyed many of the city’s most important buildings and monuments, including a significant portion of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Miraculously, the wall with the painting survived, probably because it had been shored up with sandbags and mattresses, but the roof of the refectory was blown off and the other walls were decimated. The Last Supperremained exposed to the elements, covered only with a tarp, for several months, until the refectory (the dining room of the monastery where the Last Supper was painted), was rebuilt and a team of restorers began working to preserve and restore the painting.
But Leonardo’s work was already in sad condition well before the bombs threatened to destroy it completely. Soon after it was completed on February 9, 1498, it began to deteriorate. Because Leonardo sought greater detail and luminosity than could be achieved with traditional fresco, he covered the wall with a double layer of dried plaster. Then, borrowing from panel painting, he added an undercoat of lead white to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that was applied on top. This experimental technique allowed for chromatic brilliance and extraordinary precision but because the painting is on a thin exterior wall, the effects of humidity were felt more keenly, and the paint failed to properly adhere to the wall. Mold grew between the paint and the surface, and the presence of moisture caused constant peeling. By the second half of the sixteenth century, Giovanni Paulo Lomazzo stated that “the painting is all ruined.” The first restoration efforts took place beginning in 1726, and over the centuries they were followed by several more.
Over the past five hundred years the painting’s condition has been seriously compromised by these early restoration efforts, as well as its location (the church is in an area prone to severe flooding), the materials and techniques Leonardo used, occupation by Napoleon’s army (who stabled their horses in the refectory and reportedly lobbed bricks at the apostles’ heads), humidity, dust, air pollution and, most recently, the effects of crowding tourists.
Bartholomew, James Minor, and Andrew (detail), Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan)
After the destruction wrought by the bombing in World War II, restorers covered the painting with a thick layer of shellac (a kind of resin) in order to combat the moisture problems and keep the paint from peeling. They then began scraping away some of the layers of paint that had been applied over the years, uncovering what they believed to be Leonardo’s original brushstrokes. Finally, in 1977, the Italian government and private corporations cooperated to fund a massive project to fully uncover the original painting. It took head restorer Pinin Brambilla Barcilon over twenty years to complete the effort, meticulously scraping away at the painting’s surface centimeter by centimeter with surgical tools and microscope. In 1999, when the fully restored painting—in its new, climate-controlled environment—was officially unveiled, critics around the globe argued as to whether it is now true to the original, or irrevocably deformed, as only about 42.5% of the surface is Leonardo’s work, 17.5% is lost, and the remaining 40% are the additions of previous restorers. (Most of this repainting is found in the wall hangings and the ceiling of the painting).
The Last Supper is a prime example of how public and professional attitudes toward restoration efforts are not only often contentious, but change over time. Whereas in the nineteenth century and earlier, restorations focused on overpainting in order to present the illusion of a perfectly finished work, modern approaches tend to favor the exposure of missing pieces, and to make all additions visible and explicit. The current version of the Last Supper resembles little of what Leonardo created in 1498, but it makes visible the painting’s miraculous and tortured history.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05, oil on panel, 30-1/4″ x 21″ (Musée du Louvre)
Portraits were once rare
We live in a culture that is so saturated with images, it may be difficult to imagine a time when only the wealthiest people had their likeness captured. The wealthy merchants of Renaissance Florence could commission a portrait, but even they would likely only have a single portrait painted during their lifetime. A portrait was about more than likeness, it spoke to status and position. In addition, portraits generally took a long time to paint, and the subject would commonly have to sit for hours or days, while the artist captured their likeness.
The most recognized painting in the world
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05, oil on panel 30-1/4 x 21″ (Musée du Louvre)
The Mona Lisa was originally this type of portrait, but over time its meaning has shifted and it has become an icon of the Renaissance—perhaps the most recognized painting in the world. The Mona Lisa is a likely a portrait of the wife of a Florentine merchant. For some reason however, the portrait was never delivered to its patron, and Leonardo kept it with him when he went to work for Francis I, the King of France.
The Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile has inspired many writers, singers, and painters. Here’s a passage about the Mona Lisa, written by the Victorian-era writer Walter Pater:
We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least. The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed!
Piero della Francesca, Portrait of Battista Sforza, c. 1465-66, tempera on panel, (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) (photo: public domain)
Piero della Francesca’s Portrait of Battista Sforza (c. 1465-66) is typical of portraits during the Early Renaissance (before Leonardo); figures were often painted in strict profile, and cut off at the bust. Often the figure was posed in front of a birds-eye view of a landscape.
A new formula
With Leonardo’s portrait, the face is nearly frontal, the shoulders are turned three-quarters toward the viewer, and the hands are included in the image.
Leonardo uses his characteristic sfumato—a smokey haziness, to soften outlines and create an atmospheric effect around the figure. When a figure is in profile, we have no real sense of who she is, and there is no sense of engagement. With the face turned toward us, however, we get a sense of the personality of the sitter.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer, c. 1485-1494, oil on oak panel (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Northern Renaissance artists such as Hans Memling (see the Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer, c. 1485-1494, left) had already created portraits of figures in positions similar to the Mona Lisa. Memling had even located them in believable spaces. Leonardo combined these Northern innovations with Italian painting’s understanding of the three dimensionality of the body and the perspectival treatment of the surrounding space.
A recent discovery
Left: Unknown, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05, oil on panel (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid); right: Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05, oil on panel 30-1/4 x 21″ (Musée du Louvre)
An important copy of the Mona Lisa was recently discovered in the collection of the Prado in Madrid. The background had been painted over, but when the painting was cleaned, scientific analysis revealed that the copy was likely painted by another artist who sat beside Leonardo and copied his work, brush-stroke by brush-stroke. The copy gives us an idea of what the Mona Lisa might look like if layers of yellowed varnish were removed.
Number of years after its completion that deterioration was noted: 18
Number of bombs that have hit the refectory: 1
Number of years needed to complete the recent conservation project: 22
Number of years that Leonardo needed to complete the painting: 4
Number of research studies produced during conservation project: 60
Number of hours spent on the conservation project: 50,000
Percentage of the surface that is lost: 17.5
Percentage of the surface painted during the seven previous restorations: 40
Percentage of the surface that was painted by Leonardo: 42.5
M. Kemp and J. Roberts, Leonardo da Vinci (Hayward Gallery, London, 1989).
A.E. Popham and P. Pouncey, Italian Drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: Raphael and His Circle (London, The British Museum Press, 1950).
M. Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci (London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1981).
Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper (Walker & Company, 2012)