This month has marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): this archetypal Renaissance man died on May 2, so this blog post is late, as in the late Leonardo (N.B. the instructor of the EMSP course Leonardo da Vinci: Between Art & Science, Dr. Jannette Vusich, has remarked that almost no-one refers to him as ‘da Vinci’: clearly Dan Brown got the code wrong). An intriguing place to begin when reflecting on Leonardo’s life and works is the florid and idiosyncratic account by Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (first published 1550). In this foundational text of art history, Vasari describes Leonardo as marking the beginning of the third age of Renaissance art, ‘the style which we call modern—besides the force and boldness of his drawing, and the extreme subtlety wherewith he counterfeited all the minutenesses of nature exactly as they are—with good rule, better order, right proportion, perfect drawing, and divine grace, abounding in resources and having a most profound knowledge of art, may be truly said to have endowed his figures with motion and breath’ (47).
In his life of Leonardo, Vasari begins with the artist’s qualities of physical beauty and divine grace. From childhood, Leonardo dabbled in many endeavours. Vasari comments that he would have made greater progress in literature, for example, if he had not been so unpredictable and unstable; and perhaps he would have been a better horse-rider if he was also not so un-stable. In a few months, he acquired excellent skill in arithmetic: such prodigious talent must have divided and add-led his critics, not to mention his tendency to do his sums under farming wagons (sub-tractors) and his early design of thick tissue and toilet paper (multi-ply). He was, Vasari says, always drawing and working in relief–not to mention his constant yard labour, which meant that he was working in re-leaf as well.
In recognition of his talents, Leonardo was sent to train in the workshop of the artist Andrea Verrochio–who was, we surmise, a stone sculptor who was reputedly a ‘hard man’ nicknamed ‘Very-rocky-o’. Leonardo showed his ingenuity in sculpture, architecture, and mechanics. He devised a scheme to turn the Arno River into a canal between Pisa and Florence (though this was blocked by Tuscany’s Austrian-bodybuilding Governor, Arno Schwarzenegger), and designed mills and other aqueous-powered machines which made everyone exclaim, ‘water genius!’ In contrast, his dry humour was such that he devised of means to empty harbours. Less successful was his repetitive and rude banter, which was so tedious yet stony that it gave him the idea of machines which could ‘bore’ through mountains. He even conceived of ways to raise long queues at Renaissance festivals attended by suffering Rubenesque citizens, i.e., devices to lift heavy ‘waits’ which gave him the nickname of Leonardo ‘da Winchi’.
Of course, besides his technological ingenuity, Leonardo da Vinci is especially known for his art. In painting, Leonardo was a master of chiaroscuro (heightening shades of light and dark) and sfumato (softening tones and colours to produce hazy outlines), all the while developing a recipe for soy-based ketchup known as ‘tofumato’. Among his most famous paintings is The Last Supper (1498), commissioned for the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This ingenious perspectival rendering of Jesus and his disciples either refusing to sit on both sides of the table or sitting at a very long bar overshadowed earlier failures rejected by the convent: a portrait of the recently fired British-born manager of the convent (The Last Super); an unappetising still-life of Jesus’s leftovers (Last Night’s Supper); and an appetising but not quite filling early version of the final painting, featuring Jesus and the disciples relaxing over wine, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, mezza, and other finger-foods (The Light Supper).
His most celebrated work, and a ‘smokin-hot’ masterpiece of sfumato, is his portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the Mona Lisa (1503-5)–also known as the ‘laughing one’ (La Gioconda, a pun on her married name Giocondo) because of her mysterious smile and environmentally-sensitive dwelling built by her husband (a geo-condo). This painting sits in contrast to the portrait of the subject’s nasty sister, The Meaner Lena. Mona Lisa may have been amused by Leonardo’s recipe for low-fat coffee, the ‘Mocha Leaner’, or possibly by some of his stranger inventions. As Vasari reports, Leonardo invented inflatable animals, which would fly around the room until deflated: everyone thought he was bal-loony. He also attached special wings designed for a lizard, expressing the desire, ‘ig-uana fly!’
These latter inventions point to his lifelong but eccentric love of pets and critters: he Leonar-doted on animals, especially birds and horses. Indeed, one incomplete animal-related task perturbed the artist even at his death at the age of 75: the project to build the largest horse statue in the world, in bronze. This was first commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482, but Leonardo only managed to create a clay model which was destroyed by French soldiers using it for target practice after they invaded Milan. That this statue was never completed marked a futile e-quest-rian, a night-mare project that just kept ‘stallion’ as it was ‘saddled’ by technical difficulties of casting. Fortunately or unfortunately, Leonardo’s horse has been recreated several times in the US and Italy, ensuring that Leonardo’s great dream would ‘ride’ from the dead and ‘rein’ as king of all horse monuments.
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Leonardo-it-yourself Studies Program