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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 wash, wash 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.