LEONARDO DA VINCI, part I

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in Vinci, a comune of Florence, on April 14/15, 1452. He was the illegitimate son of the wealthy legal notary Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci and a young peasant named Caterina. His father married 4 times and had children with his third and fourth wives, each gave birth to 6 children. Leonardo then had 12 half-siblings (the last being born when he was 40 years old), and who were much younger than he. Thanks to the customs of the Tuscan bourgeoisie of the time, the young Leonardo received a good and heterogeneous education. Thus, from a very young age he was able to dedicate himself to developing his exceptional aptitudes in the most diverse fields, including in literature (though for a few months), but mostly in music and figurative arts. As a consequence, when he was 14 his father placed him in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio where he began as a garzone (studio boy) and by the age of 17 he was an apprentice and remained in training for the next seven years. By 1472, when he was 20 years old, Leonardo was able to enroll as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine.

This brief introduction already gives us an idea of some of the essential features of the elevated and complex personality of the “universal” Leonardo and of his position within the Renaissance movement in Florentine Tuscany. Leonardo came from a kind of high social class, unaffected by his condition of being an illegitimate son, a situation that was very similar to that experienced by Michelangelo, who was 22 years younger, and whom also came from a family of distant noble descent but financially ruined.

Regarding his brief literary education, Leonardo defined himself as a “man without letters”, and in his writings, on more than one occasion, he had the opportunity to speak out against the “lying mental sciences” contrary to logic and philosophy, “sciences” that he considered abstract, humanistic and literary, and that were based on the simple “authority” of the classical writers, and instead expressed himself in favor of the experience as a “mother of all knowledge” based on a continuous and concrete search of the most hidden aspects and the many facets of nature. Leonardo conceived such Nature as a “global” dynamic system of phenomena and forces, perceptible and susceptible to be investigated by man inasmuch as he himself is part and motor of said system. This is the foundation on which Leonardo’s continuous relationship between “art” and “science” rests, which is also an intimate relationship between thought and senses, between empirical experience and natural reality.

Throughout his life and work, we see how Leonardo assiduously investigated in the field of optics and atmospheric physics, observing the changes of color and sharpness of shapes in long-distance vision, finally suggesting that that atmospheric perspective and that infinitesimal graduation of light can be represented by means of what has been called sfumato. Conversely, Leonardo’s pictorial sensitivity makes the drawings of landscapes, topography, geology and meteorological phenomena not only admirable from an aesthetic point of view, but of an extreme scientific precision. This is precisely a vision that we can call “real”, although at the same time transfigured by the artistic interpretation that Leonardo gave it.

His first dated work is a pen-and-ink drawing of the Arno valley kept at the Uffizi and that has been cited as the first “pure” landscape in the Occident. This drawing bears the following inscription: “Day of  Saint Mary of the Snows, August 5, 1473“. The 21-year-old Leonardo, who by then had been legally an artist registered with the Guild of Saint Luke for one year, not only showed the maturity to express himself through forms and an artistic language open to the future; in this drawing, the smoothness and lightness of the lines as the eye moves away towards the distant on the plain, offer those who contemplate it the sensation of “experiencing” the atmosphere of the place represented.

Landscape drawing for Santa Maria della Neve on 5th August 1473, pen and ink drawing, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1473, 190 x 285 mm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This landscape drawing probably shows the view from Montalbano onto the Valdinievole area and the swamps of Fucecchio. It is the first artistic work of Leonardo that is dated and can definitely be attributed to him, and is at the same time a real rarity: it appears to be the first known depiction of a landscape in Italian art that reproduces an actually existing section of a landscape in an original drawing. The depiction of the group of hills with the fortress (left), the lines of which partially cover the previously drawn landscape, is a later addition by Leonardo. It was not drawn at the original location. The striking waterfall (in first plane) also appears to be a later addition. Leonardo used plain yet powerful strokes.

Leonardo’s indisputable artistic talent can already be seen in his apprentice days, when he painted an angel and the landscape behind him, in one of the works by his teacher Verrocchio, the Baptism of Christ (ca. 1475). In this painting, executed for the church of San Salvi (Florence) and today in the Uffizi, only the angel on the left and the corresponding landscape are considered to be the work of the young Leonardo (some scholars also include the torso of Christ), not only in terms of “aiding” his teacher to complete a commission, but in terms of a clear artistic collaboration. Of course, when studying the great pictorial quality of this masterpiece by Verrocchio, the impalpable luminosity reflected in the face of the angel painted by Leonardo opens the way to completely new perspectives, both from the point of view of a subtle psychological and sentimental insight, as well as from the point of view of the pictorial treatment. Apart from this, the perfection with which Leonardo’s angel fits into the whole gives a seal of simplicity to the general pyramidal structure that it gives to the composition and that allows us to suspect that the basic idea of ​​that structure (the pyramid) can already be attributed to the student, instead of the master.

The Baptism of Christ, tempera and oil on wood, by Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop, 1472-1475, 177 x 151 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Commissioned for the monastery church of San Salvi in Florence, where it remained until 1530, this painting was executed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, whose style is well defined by the figures of Christ and John the Baptist. The special fame of the work is however due to the Verrocchio’s pupil who helped him paint the picture: in the blond angel on the left and in the landscape above is recognizable the hand of the young Leonardo, who was part of Verrocchio’s workshop around 1470. Some critics ascribe the second angel to another young Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli. Both angels are in front of the symbolization of salvation and life, the palm tree. In this traditional view of the subject, St. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus by pouring water over his head. The extended arms of God, the golden rays, the dove with outstretched wings and the cruciform nimbus show that Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Trinity. The two angels on the riverbank are holding Jesus’ garment. St. John the Baptist is holding a slender cross and a scroll inscribed with the announcement of the Savior’s advent: ECCE AGNUS DEI [QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI] (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, Gospel according to John 1: 29). Verrocchio was not himself a prolific painter and very few pictures are attributed to his hand, his fame lying chiefly in his sculptured works.
The Baptism of Christ (detail), tempera and oil on wood, by Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop, 1472-1475, 177 x 151 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The angel to the left was painted by the then young Leonardo, as well as the accompanying riparian landscape, as they are painted in oil while the rest of the painting is in tempera.

Indeed, more than one art scholar has come to suppose that during the almost ten years (ca. 1466-1476) that Leonardo spent in Verrocchio’s workshop, he knew how to achieve such a position of superiority not only by participating in particular commissions, but also in his contributions to the formal, compositional, and more widely scientific and experimental considerations of the art of painting per se. As a consequence Leonardo became, despite his youth, a guide and advisor to his fellow students (especially Lorenzo di Credi, but also Perugino) and to his own teacher Verrocchio. There is no doubt that Verrocchio’s sculpture not only reached extraordinary maturity but also presented some truly revolutionary “ideas”, precisely throughout the years Leonardo was present in his workshop.

Regarding the problem of the few works that have been attributed with certainty to Leonardo, it must be said that the Annunciation, currently in the Louvre, also comes with complete certainty from Verrocchio’s workshop and perhaps it was part of a polyptych painted by different artists. Leonardo’s authority of this painting has been a continuous subject of debate, in recent years, the painting has been attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, other of the apprentices at Verrocchio’s workshop at the time. Much more complex is the other Annunciation of the Uffizi, widely accepted as by the hand of Leonardo, despite the fact that some of its elements such as the typology of the delicate face of the Virgin (the young Virgin exuding an infinite dignity and an elevated conscience, which will remain typical of the first Florentine period of Leonardo) refers us to Verrocchio’s workshop, in the same way that the linear purity of the angel’s profile invites us to compare it with a Botticelli, another regular at Verrocchio’s studio. But the environment in which the scene unfolds already reflects the triumph of the “science” of nature and light according to the principles that Leonardo will continue to investigate until the end of his life. The incredible chromatic and graphic accuracy in which the flowery meadow was executed has led to conclude that perhaps Leonardo had certain interest in the contemporary Flemish art; especially due to the influence of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, popular in the artistic circles of Florence at the time. Of course this interest is quite probable, but it is also true that Leonardo’s direct observation and naturalistic analysis (in this case botanical in nature) which will persist in his drawings of future years and only comparable to the famous ones made by Dürer, is completely different of that illusionistic and analytical meticulousness of the Flemish painting. In this painting, Leonardo’s meadow is as objective and “lively” as the lavish and monumental lectern in front of the Virgin, a historical document of the finest Florentine decorative sculpture, which explicitly recalls Verrocchio’s first masterpiece, the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence from 1472. But the aesthetic value of this work is not only due to its graphic structure and perspective, which follow the tradition of the Florentine school, or to the enveloping “universal” light taken from the works of Piero della Francesca: Leonardo’s painting unfolds in a rhythmic system of deep horizontal planes, with luminous shapes and surfaces on a dark background and vice versa. The bust of the Virgin stands on the dark wall of the townhouse to the right, whose corner illuminated with ashlars of lighter stones is underlined by the dark green of a cypress tree; this in turn is part of a sequence, almost as if they were a naturalistic catalog of the Tuscan trees, which together constitute one of the last planes in the painting, like a screen cut out against the infinite smoothness of the sky and in which the landscape of the background is lost in the atmospheric distance.

Annunciation, oil on panel, by Lorenzo di Credi, 1475-1478, 16 x 60 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This Annunciation was probably the central element of the predella of the Altarpiece of the Virgin with St. John and St. Donat commissioned from Verrocchio around 1475-1478 for the Duomo of Pistoia. The main panel, still in place in the church, is unanimously attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, as well as another element of the predella (The Miracle of St. Donat, housed in the Worcester Art Museum); a third panel (The Birth of St. John the Baptist, in the Liverpool City Art Gallery) is attributed to Perugino. In the past, this small panel was attributed to either Leonardo da Vinci or Lorenzo di Credi, both worked at the same time in Verrocchio’s workshop. Though the attribution continues to be the subject of debate, now it is generally accepted that the painting was the work of Lorenzo di Credi.
Annunciation, oil and tempera on wood panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1475, 90 x 222 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This painting was brought to the Uffizi in 1867 from the church of San Bartolomeo a Monteoliveto, outside Porta San Frediano in Florence; nothing is known about its original location or who commissioned it. A flourishing enclosed garden, in front of a Renaissance palace, evokes the hortus conclusus that alludes to the purity of Mary. The Archangel Gabriel kneels before the Virgin, offering a lily. The Virgin responds from her dignified seat, behind a lectern, at which she was reading. The traditional religious theme has been set by Leonardo in an earthly, natural setting. The angel has a solid corporeity, suggested by his shadow on the grass, and the folds of his clothing, portrayed from studies from real life. His wings too are based on those of a mighty bird of prey. An extraordinary crepuscular light shapes the forms, brings the scene together, and emphasizes the dark tree shapes in the distant background. This is  one of Leonardo’s youthful works when he was in his early twenties, painted when he was still working in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. It copies a work by Verrocchio: the shape of the lectern is inspired by the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence.
Annunciation (detail), oil and tempera on wood panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1475, 90 x 222 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). As traditionally represented in this subject, the archangel Gabriel is shown kneeling as a dignified figure in profile while raising his right hand in greeting to Mary, indicating her divine pregnancy. Leonardo though gave him a solid corporeity, suggested by his shadow on the grass, and the folds of his clothing, which would seem to show studies from real life. His wings too are based on those of a bird of prey.
Annunciation (detail), oil and tempera on wood panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1475, 90 x 222 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The Virgin has stopped reading and reacts to the event of the Annunciation with an expression of deep respect and by gesturing with her left hand. Leonardo depicted Mary in a three-quarter profile in front of the corner of a room. All three spatial coordinates (height, width and depth) converge on this point, thus creating a sense of depth in the picture as well as enhancing the importance of Mary. Her head clearly contrasts with the dark wall and her body is emphatically framed by the cornerstones (ashlars) whose parallel lines are converging on her.

That same constructive alternation of light and dark chromatic tones, rhythmically placed in depth (replacing linear perspective), is found again in Leonardo’s first portrait masterpiece, the so-called Ginevra de’ Benci (now in the National Gallery in Washington), in which the sitter stands out modeled in bright colors as it’s framed by a dark juniper bush, whose dense coloring is in turn highlighted by the luminosity of the sky of the background. The relationship between light and dark chromatic zones here turns into a very delicate graduation of luminous values ​​(the sfumato), which also gives an intimate psychological vibration to the sitter’s face: here we not only witness the path that ultimately will culminate in the Mona Lisa, but we see how Leonardo created a typological prototype for the entire beginning of the 16th century, from the Florentine-Roman line of Raphael passing to the Venetian line of Giorgione, until reaching the works of Parmigianino.

Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, oil on wood panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1474-1478, 38,8 x 36,7 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). This is one of Leonardo’s earlier works completed while he was still an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio and is the only painting by Leonardo on public view in the Americas. Although the subject of portrait is rather traditional, the painting includes details such as Ginevra’s curling hair that only Leonardo could achieve. The commission of the painting, though, is still discussed. The sitter, born into a wealthy Florentine family, was married to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini in 1474 at the age of 16. It was a customary practice to have a likeness painted for such occasions. Recently, however, art scholars have identified the humanist Bernardo Bembo as a possible patron. He was the Venetian Ambassador to Florence from 1474-1476 and again in 1478-1480, dates that have been suggested for the execution of this portrait. Bembo and Ginevra (both married to others) were known to have had a platonic affair, an accepted convention at the time. The juniper (ginepro in Italian) bush symbolizes chastity and virtue and is also a pun on the sitter’s name. Leonardo has painted a sensitive and finely modeled image of Ginevra. The undulating curls of her hair are set against her pale flesh, the surface of the paint smoothed by the Leonardo’s own hands. Leonardo’s portrait was cut down at the bottom sometime in the past by as much as one-third. Presumably the lower section would have shown her hands, possibly folded or crossed, resting in her lap. This portrait is admired for its portrayal of Ginevra’s temperament: Ginevra is beautiful, but austere; she has no hint of a smile and her gaze, although forward, seems indifferent to the viewer.
Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (reverse side), oil on wood panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1474-1478, 38,8 x 36,7 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). This symbology was appropriate for a marriage portrait and, more likely, it is thought to commemorate Ginevra’s engagement. As customary at the time, portraits of females were commissioned for either of two occasions: betrothal or marriage. The imagery and text on the reverse of the panel, a juniper sprig encircled by a wreath of laurel and palm, memorialized by the Latin motto Virtvtem Forma Decorat (“Beauty adorns virtue”), further support the identification of the portrait. The phrase is understood as symbolizing the intricate relationship between Ginevra’s intellectual and moral virtue and her physical beauty. The sprig of juniper, encircled by laurel and palm, suggests Ginevra’s name and his virtue and chastity. The laurel and palm are in the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, a Venetian ambassador to Florence whose platonic relationship with Ginevra is revealed in poems exchanged between them. Infrared examination of the painting has revealed Bembo’s motto “Virtue and Honor” beneath Ginevra’s, making it likely that Bembo was somehow involved in the commission of the portrait.

Considered older than this portrait, because it is closer to the method of Verrocchio’s workshop, is the Virgin of the Carnation, of the Alte Pinakothek of Munich. This painting represents an interior vision, with two mullioned windows opened in the background onto a landscape, we can see the cold and crystalline light, the decorative and graphic complexity of the clothing’s folds that belong to the Florentine tradition, but the whole coupling of all this decorative richness with the fullness of the forms (particularly in the body of the Child) constitute a link towards the Nordic influence on the Florentine Renaissance. In this painting it is also notable the intimate relationship existing between the contrast of the dark, interior space and the “natural” light coming from the outside which would constitute a first step towards subsequent works by Leonardo, from the Virgin of the Rocks to the Last Supper, and whose influence will be profound in the work of later artists. This at once noble and monumental character of this Virgin of the Carnation still constitutes an obstacle for the humanization and sentimental portrayal of this same theme that Leonardo would later develop in some of his future works throughout the 1480’s, and that can be seen in the many wonderful drawings and sketches that he prepared on the same subject of the Virgin and Child (for example Madonna with the fruit bowl, Nursing Madonna, Madonna and Child with a cat).

The Madonna of the Carnation, oil on panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1478-1480, 62 x 47,5 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). This painting shows the first strokes of a young Leonardo that was then free from Verrocchio’s tutelage, though still shows a preoccupation for the soft textures and solid material as they were portrayed in his master’s workshop. Leonardo’s hand is evident, though, in the richness of the drapery, the vastness of the mountain scenery with purple and gold hues tingeing the foothills of peaks that fade into the sky, the vitality of the cut flowers in the crystal vase and the softness of the Child’s flesh that foreshadows the tender putti of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. All these are elements that show a distancing from the more distinctive style of Verrocchio and instead assume those formal and chromatic characteristics that would be the trademark of Leonardo’s later works. Here we see Mary holding a red carnation out to the Christ Child (suggesting blood and the Passion), who is attempting to grasp it. The vividness of the boy, and his well-observed, childishly clumsy movement are typical observations of Leonardo. The convincing plastic quality of the child suggests that during his early years Leonardo may have worked in three dimensions, using either clay or other sculptural techniques.
Study for the Madonna with the Fruit Bowl, pen and ink over silverpoint on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1478, 358 x 252 mm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This drawing of the Madonna with the fruit bowl may be derived from a direct study of nature which Leonardo usually produced in silverpoint. While reworking it with pen and ink he attempted to create compositional variations such as that on the boy’s leg.
Study of nursing Madonna and profile heads, pen and ink on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1480, 405 x 290 mm (Royal Library, Windsor). In addition to a large number of profile heads, the sketch also shows the composition of a Maria lactans. Mary is kneeling on the ground, holding the Christ Child to her right breast, while the young St. John appears to be watching the events.
Study of the Madonna and Child with a Cat (front-recto), pen and brown ink on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1478, 281 x 199 mm (British Museum, London). This is one of the six works of Leonardo showing the Virgin and Child playing with a cat. It is the front (recto) image of a set of two drawings painted on both sides of a sheet of paper. The two drawings were made in pen and brown ink, on a preparatory drawing made in stylus*, with a brown wash* applied on the reverse (verso) drawing. Both images were painted in mirror symmetry on the two faces of paper.

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Stylus: A writing utensil or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example, in pottery and drawing. It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styluses are heavily curved to be held more easily.

Wash: A term for a visual arts technique resulting in a semi-transparent layer of color. A wash of diluted ink or watercolor paint applied in combination with drawing is called pen and washwash drawing, or ink and wash. Normally only one or two colors of wash are used; if more colors are used the result is likely to be classified as a full watercolor painting. In painting it is a technique in which a paint brush that is very wet with solvent and holds a small load of paint or ink is applied to a wet or dry support such as paper or primed or raw canvas. The result is a smooth and uniform area that ideally lacks the appearance of brush strokes and is semi-transparent.

 

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