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
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
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.
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.