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
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.
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
- 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,
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
Sforza (Il Moro, or The Moor)
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
- 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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.