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Leonardo da Vinci

Important Terms, People, and Events

Context

Timeline

Terms

Designe -   · "Designe" is an Italian term closely related to our modern word "design." It describes the composition and perspective of a painting; in other words, the way in which the artist has arranged shapes and figures to represent a given scene or personality on a flat surface.
Patron  -   · During the Renaissance, an artist might work as part of a workshop, which would receive commissions for artworks from various sources, or he might work as an individual, under a patron. A patron would provide for the artist financially while the artist worked on projects for him.
Perspective -   · The technique in painting of representing three-dimensional forms on a two dimensional surface. When a painting is done in perspective, forms in the distance appear smaller than forms in the foreground, and the eye focuses on a single point.
Quatrocento -   · An Italian word which in English refers to the fifteenth century, especially Italian art and literature of the fifteenth century. This period saw the flowering of the Italian Renaissance.
Sfumato -   · A technique in painting in which forms are not given a definite outline. Instead, colors are carefully blended. (The word is the past participle of the Italian sfumare, meaning "to tone down," or literally, "to smoke out"; it is related to the Latin fumus, "smoke," and our English word "fume.")

People

Leonardo da Vinci  -  Leonardo lived from 1452–1519. "Da Vinci" refers to the fact that he was born in or in the vicinity of the town of Vinci. He was the son of Ser Piero di Antonio and Caterina. He never married and was most likely homosexual. He was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance but unfortunately fewer than a dozen paintings by Leonardo have survived. He was also very interested in science, and left behind copious notebooks including studies of anatomy, hydraulics, engineering, and many other fields. Little is known of his personal life.
Ser Piero di Antonio  -  Leonardo's father. "Di Antonio" means son of Antonio. While his father was primarily a farmer, Ser Piero came from a long line of notaries, and he himself was a young notary when Leonardo was born. A notary is similar to a lawyer; in quatrocento Italy, a notary had a fair amount of privilege. By the time he died in 1504, Ser Piero was fairly wealthy, with twelve legitimate children in addition to the illegitimate Leonardo: Leonardo's mother was a peasant woman named Caterina, who was never married to his father.
Caterina -  Caterina was Leonardo's mother, though little else is known about her. She married shortly after giving birth to Leonardo, as did Leonardo's father, Ser Piero, and probably had little to do with her son's upbringing: Leonardo seems to have been raised primarily by his uncle. However, Caterina grew to be an old woman, remaining in the vicinity of the village of Vinci, and there is some speculation that in 1493 she came to live her final two or three years with her son.
Francesco -  Leonardo's uncle. It is likely that while Ser Piero was away in Florence on business, Francesco was responsible for raising Leonardo. He was a farmer, and so Leonardo probably spent a great deal of time outdoors.
Andrea del Verrocchio  -  Leonardo served as an apprentice in Verrochio's workshop for roughly 15 years. As a boy, Verrocchio accidentally killed another boy while idly throwing rocks; although he was not prosecuted, guilt followed him all his life, and when he sculpted his famous David, he refused to give the giant-slayer the traditional slingshot, instead giving him a sword. Of all the workshops, or studios, in Florence, Verrochio's was one of the two most respected. Verrocchio's primary talent lay in his sculpture work, and he collaborated with an aged Donatello, eventually replacing him as the Medici family's personal sculptor. He had a very strong teaching style, and Leonardo seems to have been very loyal to him.
The Medici Family  -  For most of Leonardo's life, Florence, capital of the republic of Tuscany was in practice not a republic at all. Instead, it was controlled by the Medici family. It had originally been a family of doctors, hence their name ("Medici" is related to our English words "medic," "medicine," "medical"). Their rule began with Cosimo the Elder, who often employed Verrocchio's sculpting skills. He gained control of the town through business. His feeble son, Piero di Cosimo de Medici, or Piero the Gouty, ably ruled Florence from 1464–69. His sons Lorenzo and Giuliano took power in 1469; in 1478 Giuliano was assassinated and Lorenzo became the sole ruler, until his own death in 1492. He was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent for his grace and his ability to avoid war through diplomacy. Although Lorenzo does not seem to have had a significant relationship with Leonardo, he was a key patron for many world-class artists, especially for the young Michelangelo. Lorenzo himself was more interested in scholars than in painters. He also threw frequent public festivals. His eldest son Piero ruled until 1494, when the outspoken religious zealot Savonarola temporarily took power. Lorenzo's second son, Giovanni, was at that time a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, and he used his influence with the pope to restore the Medicis to power. Giovanni later became Pope Leo X, the pope who excommunicated Martin Luther and dealt with the early stages of the Reformation. Leo X was pope when Leonardo lived in the Vatican. The pope's brother, Giuliano de Medici was head of the papal armies and was Leonardo's patron from 1513 to 1516. He was a depressed man who held Leonardo in great esteem. For more information on the Medici family, see the SparkNote on the Italian Renaissance.
Ludovico Sforza (Il Moro, or The Moor)  -  Ludovico was the Duke of Milan. He was called "Il Moro" because of his dark skin. The Sforza power had gained control of Milan a few generations earlier, and Ludovico himself wrested power from his nephew's mother. He was ruthless in politics but fostered a world-renowned court. He was patron to Leonardo from 1482 until 1499, when he was conquered by the French.
Giacomo (Salai)  -  Giacomo (Salai) entered Leonardo's household in April 1490, when he was 10 years old. He was the son of a penniless farmer. The master's notebooks are almost devoid of notes about other persons, but in April 1491 Leonardo wrote a detailed list of all the expenses Giacomo had cost him. Indeed, the boy had engaged in so much petty thievery and general bad behavior that Leonardo gave him the nickname "Salai," demon, or limb of Satan. The relationship between the two is unclear: Salai had ravishing good looks and curly hair, and Leonardo showered him with fine clothes–this would have been unusual behavior toward a servant or pupil. Salai's presence was probably a source of vanity and perhaps pleasure to the older man. Salai remained devoted to Leonardo until his death.
Fra Luca Pacioli  -  A monk famous for his mathematical work, and his treatise Summa de Arithmetica. He spent time in Milan from 1496–99 and taught Leonardo mathematics; Leonardo eeagerly illustrated his book De Divina Proportione. He wanted to develop a master-theory of math that would unite everything from the ancient theories of Euclid to the everyday task of bookkeeping.
Cesare Borgia -  Cesare Borgia's name is synonymous with cruelty. An Italian soldier, politician, and ecclesiastic, Borgia killed his own brother to achieve his position as commander of the pope's armies. He employed Leonardo as chief military engineer to the pope's armies in the Romagna campaign, in 1502, which he eventually proved successful in, making himself Duke of Romagna.
Niccolo Machiavelli -  An Italian historian, statesman, and political philosopher who probably met Leonardo in 1502 and may have worked with him in 1503 on a project to divert the course of the Arno River. He is famous for his book The Prince.
Francesco Melzi  -  Melzi joined Leonardo's household in 1507, at the age of 15. Like Salai, he was a beautiful young boy, and one suspects that it was his beauty and not his talent that made Leonardo choose him as an assistant. All the same, Melzi did produce a few paintings, whereas Salai did not. Also unlike Salai, his parents were aristocrats from the countryside around Milan; the fact that they allowed him to become a painter's assistant may testify to Leonardo's fame. He remained devoted to Leonardo until his death, at which time he received a large inheritance from his late master.
King Francis I  -  Francis I was King of France from 1515–47. He conquered Milan at the age of 19, a broad-shouldered, tall youth in gilded armor. Leonardo probably met him at the Bologna peace talks of 1515, where, according to Vasari, the painter presented the king with a mechanical lion. In 1516, Leonardo entered into his service, permanently leaving Italy for Amboise. The King enjoyed the aging master's conversation, calling him a great philosopher. When Leonardo died in 1519, legend has it that he died in the arms of Francis I.
Giorgio Vasari  -  Vasari wrote what were probably the first biographies of artists, and perhaps the first modern criticism, in his work Lives of the Artists. He wrote thirty years after Leonardo's death, and his writings brim with rumors and legends. Many of his facts have been proven wrong by modern historians, who have better techniques and more resources at their disposal. For example, Vasari never saw the Mona Lisa, and thus had to write about it from second-hand reports. Moreover, because biography was such a new genre, he probably did not feel compelled to restrict himself to the purely literal or factual. On the other hand, Vasari knew men who had actually known Leonardo, and so he must have had a better grasp on the character of Leonardo than any modern-day historian. And his Lives gained such influence that whether or not they adhere to literal fact becomes secondary: they informed so many readers for so many years that they created Leonardo's biographical legacy.

Paintings

Annunciation -  Many critics maintain that Leonardo was responsible for the background vista in this picture and no more. Others suggest that he also painted the painting's angel; and indeed the sleeve of the angel matches some sketches from one of Leonardo's notebooks. The wings are oddly realistic; and such eccentricity is easily attributed to a genius like Leonardo, especially given his interest in birds. However, some point out that the head of the angel is too flat to be the work of Leonardo. Whether or not Leonardo was very involved in the painting's actual execution, he most likely was responsible for the design of the picture; he could have sketched the composition and let others do the painting. Although the angel fills a much greater space than the Virgin, the painting still contains a unity characteristic of a great artist like Leonardo. The angel is moving towards the Virgin, and she is responding. The four pine trees in the background form a unity with the building.
Portrait of Ginevra de Benci -  The authorship of this portrait is also contested. Some suggest that the symmetry of the hair and the flatness of the face could not be the work of the masterful da Vinci. On the other hand, the angle of the sitter evokes that of the Mona Lisa, and the dark, shadowy background is characteristic of Leonardo in general and his beloved sfumato technique. The large tree framing the sitter's head is a juniper tree, in Italian "ginevra" or "ginepra" (thus a visual pun on the model's name; such puns were more appreciated then than now).
Benois Madonna -  Leonardo wrote in his journals, "I have begun the two Virgin Marys." Critics agree that the Benois Madonna is one of them. Originally believed lost, it appeared out of the blue in the nineteenth century when a traveling musician sold it to a Russian in southern Italy, and was confirmed as a work of Leonardo in 1909. On Mary's lap the Christ Child plays with two small flowers; yet his aspect is serious. The shadows are such that it appears that the painting's light source shines from above the viewer's shoulder, as if from heaven. Both have halos; as his career progressed, however, Leonardo was less likely to endow his religious subjects with such ornamentation. The Virgin has a rounded, glowing face–this, too, is typical of Leonardo's earlier work. Her expression exemplifies part of what set Leonardo's work apart from that of his contemporaries: she looks winsome and fresh, and has none of the stodginess of other artists' madonnas from the time.
Adoration of the Magi -  Leonardo received the commission for this painting shortly before he left Florence for Milan, and thus it remains unfinished. Nonetheless, critics consider it a masterpiece. It shows Leonardo's ability to endow a familiar scene–here, the three wise men's adoration of Christ–with a fresh and lively spirit. The traditional manger has been removed to the rear side, to make room for a crowd of people reacting with emotion to the Child's Epiphany. Leonardo famously noted, "A good painter has two subjects of primary importance: man and the state of man's mind. The first is easy, the second difficult, since it must be conveyed by means of the gestures and movements of the various parts of the body." Here we see these "gestures and movements" in brilliant vibrancy. It was common for religious paintings to feature figures who stood placidly by, as if they, too, were separated from the scene's focal point by a gap of centuries. But Leonardo insists on realism, and the result is eminently more entertaining. His composition constitutes a pyramid with Mary at the apex; around it the crowd stands in a semi-circle. Anchoring the crowd stand two figures whose peculiar calmness at this miraculous sight may betray some lack of religious fire on Leonardo's part. The dueling men in the background could symbolize myriad things; most likely they are intended to contrast the calm of the coming Christian order with the vice and waste of the past.
Saint Jerome  -  This painting was lost for a long period and then found, cut in two, in two different workshops in Rome, by Napoleon's uncle, Joseph Cardinal Fesch. One half was serving as a cupboard-backing, the other as a table top. Or so Fesch's story goes. The painting is remarkable for its portrayal of Jerome in the wilderness, emotional and half naked–quite unlike the typical painting of him in his study. Also, Leonardo's Saint Jerome may contain the first realistic lion in the history of painting. The head of Jerome also reflects an expert and experienced anatomical eye: most likely Leonardo had begun his graphic anatomical studies by this time.
Virgin of the Rocks, or Madonna of the Rocks  -  Perhaps the most striking aspect about the Virgin of the Rocks is the Virgin's placement on rocks. A precipitous chasm separates the viewer from the holy scene, as if it were taking place on some unattainable plane of being. The rocky caves in the background, opening up onto a hazy landscape, contribute to the sense of otherworldliness. Leonardo often used hazy, rocky background, and this provides the extreme example. The Virgin herself is the most mature woman we have seen him paint at this point in his career. Her head is longer and more natural than the round, stylized faces of earlier paintings. An angel sits to her left, an infant John the Baptist toddles at her right, and the Christ Child rests at her feet. They form a triangle reminiscent of the Adoration of the Magi. The angel points at John the Baptist, and just above her hand hovers Mary's hand, open yet domineering. In the same vertical line, Christ lifts two pudgy fingers in benediction.
Portrait of a Musician - 
Lady with an Ermine  -  This relatively simple portrait depicts Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to Ludovico Sforza. The animal is an ermine, the species of weasel whose fur European royalty favored for use in their robes. The animal and the hands are rendered with masterful touches.
The Last Supper  -  The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa are easily Leonardo's most famous paintings. Of the millions who have seen reproduction of the The Last Supper, few realize that it is not only a masterful painting, but also a cheap optical illusion! Painted on the wall of a refectory (or convent dining room), it was in fact intended to appear an extension of the room itself; the effect is achieved by the painting's perspective, which matches the lines of the room. Thus the table of Christ floated above the heads of the dining monks. The perspective serves other purposes as well: its lines focus on Christ's head, which is cleverly framed by an open window–a kind of circumstantial halo. The pious would say that Leonardo wanted to show that Jesus's natural grace provided him with this divine framing, that Leonardo eschewed painted gold discs because they were artificial. The German writer Goethe, however, suggests that Leonardo left out halos as a gesture toward secularizing the myth of Jesus. At any rate, Leonardo took special care to follow scriptural details; the seating arrangement reflects the Bible's description, though to achieve this Leonardo flew in the face of traditional quatrocento arrangements, which had Judas sitting on the opposite side of the table. Here he is the third man to Christ's right; he clutches a moneybag. Christ forms a regal triangle with his body, like the Virgins of Adoration of the Magi or Virgin of the Rocks; his disciples form rippling waves. He has just announced that one of them will betray him, but he has not yet indicated that it is Judas. Each disciple is eager to acquit himself or identify the future traitor. Grouped into threes, the disciples on the far right recoil in surprise, while the next group leans toward Christ with curiosity; each group has a slightly different reaction to the news. Generally, the hands of the disciples contradict the movement of their bodies, giving the whole composition a flowing circuit that always leads back to the center. As in the Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo shows his ability to animate a scene that had become clichéd through countless previous depictions.
La Sala delle Asse -  Greenery spreads throughout the ceiling of this great painted room ("sala" is Italian for "room,") with a single knotted ribbon running throughout. The knotted ribbon is a signature–"vinci" means "knot." This meticulous decoration must have pleased the mathematical playfulness in Leonardo. He often drew similar doodles in his notebooks, filling up circles with various geometrical shapes.
Virgin and Child with St. Anne  -  Although incomplete, this painting achieves a beauty that its completion might have ruined. The Virgin, bending down, sits with her mother St. Anne, who was becoming a popular figure at the time, as the Church was spreading the notion that Mary was conceived by Anne through immaculate conception. Anne's face is dark and mysterious, as if she is going to tell the fate of Jesus, while Mary remains warm and content. Mary seems anxious to keep the Child with her, although the child seems already more interested in tending his "flock."
Battle of Anghiari -  Leonardo's original version of this painting, which he abandoned in 1505, quickly deteriorated, but many contemporaries drew copies of it. This drawing by Rubens is one such example. Rubens's style shows through in the copy; and thus it should not be taken as a completely accurate representation of Leonardo's original. Even though Leonardo often designed machines of war, he often spoke of war's beastliness; he meant the Battle of Anghiari to illustrate its horrors.
Mona Lisa  -  Not only has the Mona Lisa been damaged by darkening layers of dirt and varnish, but it has been practically ruined by its own fame: who today can approach that famous smile with a fresh eye? Yet one gains much from a closer look. First, the head is round and full of flesh, in contrast to the flat, misshapen head of the Portrait of Ginevra de Benci of 1474. Leonardo's painterly career can be described as a quest for the perfect female head. The Mona Lisa is also relatively mute in its coloration–that is, its light coloring is due not only to fading, but due somewhat to the artist's intentions. Leonardo's preference for the shadows, veils, and sfumato possible in oil painting reaches its culmination in this portrait, where color and light are in perfect subservience to volume. The background here is typical of Leonardo's work: rocky crags and mists. The subject of this painting has been long and famously debated. Some have used computer technology to compare the portrait with Leonardo's own self-portrait, suggesting that the Mona Lisa is Leonardo's female version of himself; other, more reasonable arguments hold that it is the wife of Francesco del Gioconda.
Saint John the Baptist  -  Although this was one of Leonardo's last paintings, it is one of his least famous. The androgynous look of the Baptist has upset prudish critics for centuries, and no one can deny that the figure is not anatomically correct. Paradoxically, Leonardo often got anatomy completely wrong in his paintings, even as he was making perfect anatomical sketches in his notebooks. Perhaps he was trying to make a distinction between science and art. Other critics complain that Leonardo is rather boringly recycling the upward-pointing finger and the smile of Mona Lisa.

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