Leonardo Da Vinci Painter, sculptor, inventor. Born April 15, 1452 near the village of Vinci, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a prominent notary of Florence, who had no other children until much later. Ser Piero raised his son himself, a common practice at the time, arranging for Leonardo’s mother to marry a villager. When Leonardo was 15, his father apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading artist of Florence and a characteristic talent of the early Renaissance. A sculptor, painter, and goldsmith, Verrocchio was a remarkable craftsman, and his great skill and passionate concern for quality of execution, as well as his interest in expressing the vital mobility of the human figure, were important elements in Leonardo’s artistic formation.
Indeed, much in Leonardo’s approach to art was evolutionary from tradition rather than revolutionary against it, although the opposite is often true of his results. After completing his apprenticeship, Leonardo stayed on as an assistant in Verrocchio’s shop, and his earliest known painting is a product of his collaboration with the master. In Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (ca. 1475), Leonardo executed one of the two angels, a fact already recorded in the 16th century, as well as the distant landscape, and he added the final touches to the figure of Christ, determining the texture of the flesh. Collaboration on a major project by a master and his assistant was standard procedure in the Italian Renaissance. What is special is that Leonardo’s work is not, as was usual, a slightly less skilled version of Verrocchio’s manner of painting but an original approach altering it.
It completely possesses all the fundamental qualities of Leonardo’s mature style and implies a criticism of the early Renaissance. By changing hard metallic surface effects to soft yielding ones, making edges less cutting, and increasing the slight modulations of light and shade, Leonardo evoked a new flexibility within the figures. This soft union, as Giorgio Vasari called it, is also present in the special lighting and is emphatically developed in the spiral turn of the angel’s head and body and the vast depth of the landscape. Apparently Leonardo had painted one extant work, the Annunciation in Florence, before this. It is much nearer to Verrocchio in the stability of the two figures shown in profile, the clean precision of the decorative details, and the large simple shapes of the trees, but it already differs in the creamier modeling of the faces.
A little later is Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the young wife of a prominent Florentine merchant, in which her oily face with softly contoured lips is seen against a background of mysteriously dark trees and a pond. About 1478 Leonardo set up his own studio. In 1481 he received a major church commission for an altarpiece, the Adoration of the Magi. In this unfinished painting, Leonardo’s new approach is far more developed. A crowd of spectators, with odd and varied faces, flutters around and peers at the main group of the Virgin and Child, and there is a strong sense of continuing movement.
In the background the three horses of the kings prance among intricate architectural ruins. However, the painting also illustrates Leonardo’s strong sense of the need for a countervailing order: he placed in the center of the composition the Virgin and Child, who traditionally in paintings of this theme had appeared at one side of the picture, approached by the kings from the other side. Similarly, the picturesque ruins are rendered in sharp perspective. The simultaneous increase in both the level of activity and the organized system which controls it will climax later in Leonardo’s Last Supper, and it shows us his basically scientific temperamentone concerned with not only adding to the quantity of accurate observations of nature but also subjecting these observations to newly inferred physical or mathematical laws. In their paintings earlier Renaissance artists had applied the rules of linear perspective, by which objects appear smaller in proportion as they are farther away from the eye of the spectator.
Leonardo joined this principle to two others: perspective of clarity (distant objects progressively lose their separateness and hence are not drawn with outlines) and perspective of color (distant objects progressively tend to a uniform gray tone). He wrote about both of these phenomena in his notebooks. The Adoration of the Magi was, as noted above, left unfinished. In his later career Leonardo often failed over a period of years to finish a work, essentially because he would not accept established answers. For example, in his project for a bronze equestrian statue he began his work by delving into such matters as the anatomy of horses and the method by which the heavy monument could be transported from his studio to its permanent location.
In the case of the Magi altarpiece, however, the unfinished state may merely result from the fact that Leonardo left Florence in 1482 to accept the post of court artist to the Duke of Milan. In leaving, Leonardo followed a trend set by the leading Florentine masters of the older generation, Verrocchio and Antonio Pollaiuolo, who went to Venice and Rome to execute commissions larger than any available in their native Florence. Leonardo presented himself to the Duke of Milan as skilled in many crafts, but particularly in military engineering, asserting that he had worked out improved methods for shooting catapults and diverting rivers. Such inventions, as well as the remarkable machinery that Leonardo produced in Milan for stage pageants, point to his profound interest in the laws of motion and propulsion, a further aspect of his interest in living things and their workings. Again, this preoccupation differs from older artists only in degree. Leonardo’s first Milanese painting is the altarpiece Virgin of the Rocks.
It exists in two versions: the one in Paris is earlier and was executed by Leonardo; the one in London is later, and there is controversy as to whether Leonardo participated in its execution. A religious brotherhood in Milan commissioned an altarpiece from Leonardo in 1483, and it is also a matter of argument as to which version is the one commissioned. Some scholars believe that it is the London work and that the Paris version was painted while Leonardo was still in Florence. But this view requires some remarkable coincidences, and the more usual opinion is that the picture in Paris is the original one executed for the Milanese commission and that it was taken away by Leonardo’s admirer the king of France and replaced in Milan by the second painting. Although the Virgin of the Rocksis a very original painting, it makes use of a venerable tradition in which the Holy Family is shown in a cave.
This setting becomes a vehicle for Leonardo’s interests in depicting nature and in dimmed light, which fuses the outlines of separate objects. The artist once commented that one should practice drawing at dusk and in courtyards with walls painted black. The figures in the painting are grouped in a pyramid. The other surviving painting of Leonardo’s Milanese years is the Last Supper (1495-1497), commissioned by the duke for the refectory of the convent of S. Maria delle Grazie. Instead of using fresco, the traditional medium for this theme, Leonardo experimented with an oil-based medium, because painting in true f …