LEONARDO DA VINCI, part IV

To describe the Last Supper, Vasari wrote “majesty and beauty” and also “nobility”. And indeed with the Last Supper was born the characteristic “grandiose style” of classical monumentality that left its mark in all the most important works of the first decades of the 16th century, from Raphael to Michelangelo, from Giorgione to Titian, from Sebastiano del Piombo to Andrea del Sarto. But for Leonardo, as well as for Venetian artists, this was no longer an abstract and classical monumentality, but a concrete, wide and enveloping treatment of the volumes of “natural” forms exposed to those who observe the painting. Moreover, in the Last Supper the characters appeared animated thanks to Leonardo’s own investigation on movement and physiognomy of human passions, a fact that can be seen in the admirable concatenation and rhythmic alternation of gestures, attitudes and groupings of three characters, all of which converged in the perfect pyramid of Christ, thus placed symbolically isolated and almost unattainable following the same principles that Leonardo already used in the images of the Virgin and Child in his Adoration of the Magi. The “reality of nature” is depicted here by Leonardo in an optical sense, and it is present, besides from the extremely human figurations of the Apostles, in the integral illusionism of the environment which constitutes a true culmination of the science of the Florentine linear perspective of the 15th century by perfectly integrating its principles with the “real” space of the refectory in which the painting is. This is even more evident in the light effects, both of the natural light reflected on the groups of characters and on the wall to the right of the fresco which penetrates from the windows on the left, as well as by the “painted” light of the three windows in the background of the composition, which have the double function of serving as a backlight (and almost like an aureole to Christ’s head) and to deepen the viewer’s vision to infinity.

After Ludovico Sforza was made duke of Milan in 1494, he decided to turn the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie into his family’s burial place. This is the context within which Leonardo was probably commissioned to decorate the monks’ dining room, the refectory, with a depiction of the Last Supper. Ludovico wanted the church to be remodeled as a family mausoleum, but this plan was never completed. The painting was commissioned by Sforza to decorate the wall of this mausoleum. In his famous composition, Leonardo placed the Apostles into groups of three. The angles and lighting direct the viewer’s attention to Jesus, whose turned right cheek is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines. The painting also demonstrates Leonardo’s masterful use of perspective when, as viewers, we direct our attention to Christ’s face at the center of the composition, and then down, following Christ’s gaze, along the diagonal draw by his left arm right to his hand and ending in the bread. To depict the Apostles, Leonardo reportedly used the likenesses of people in and around Milan. The convent’s prior complained to Ludovico of Leonardo’s “laziness” as he wandered the streets to find a criminal to paint Judas’ face. Leonardo responded that if he couldn’t find any one for this purpose, the prior would make an appropriate model.

As in all his major undertakings, here Leonardo sought a new technical solution for the process of painting. He decided in favor of mixed media (instead of fresco) and painted over two ground layers using oil and tempera paints, as was done in panel painting. This particular technique is partially responsible for the fact that the disintegration of the work began so early, given the unfavorable climatic conditions in Milan and within the room itself. Scarcely 20 years after the completion of the work, it was already starting to deteriorate, possibly because the wall had absorbed water. In 1943, during an air raid, a bomb exploded in the refectory and destroyed the roof and the wall to the right of the Last Supper right down to the foundations; the painting, protected by sand bags, fortunately survived this catastrophe mostly unharmed.

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The Last Supper, mixed technique (oil and tempera over white lead on a wall sealed with a double layer of gesso, pitch, and mastic), by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1494-1498, 460 × 880 cm (Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). Leonardo’s Last Supper is indisputably one of the most famous and important works in the history of painting. This work is located in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie which appears to be continued in the perspective painted by Leonardo. The emphatic gestures of the larger-than-life-size, heroic figures would have contrasted once with the quiet, controlled meal of the monks. There are differing opinions amongst art scholars as to which episode from the Gospels is depicted in the Last Supper. Some consider it to portray the moment at which Jesus has announced the presence of a traitor and the apostles are all reacting with astonishment, others feel that it also represents the introduction of the celebration of the Eucharist by Jesus, who is pointing to the bread and wine with his hands, others believe it depicts both events. The characters from left to right are: Bartholomew, James the Less, Andrew, Judas (reaching for the bread), Peter, John, Christ, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon. The Last Supper was constructed symmetrically according to the laws of central perspective, with a main figure, Jesus, in the center. He is physically and psychologically isolated from the other figures and with his hands is pointing to the bread and wine, making the introduction of the Eucharist the central event. Here Leonardo departed from the traditional portrayal of the Last Supper in several details, for example: Judas was customarily placed in the center of the picture in front of the table, but here Leonardo has chosen to place him amongst the row of disciples. He identified Judas by means of several motifs such as his reaching for the bread, the purse containing the reward for his treachery and the knocking over of a saltcellar, a sign of misfortune, which may be related to the near-Eastern expression to “betray the salt” meaning to betray one’s master. Leonardo even formally expressed Judas’ isolation from the group by depicting him as the only one whose upper body is leaning against the table, shrinking back from Jesus.

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When in 1499, Louis XII of France defeated Ludovico Il Moro, Leonardo left Milan to go to Mantua, and from this journey he left us the magnificent cartoon for a portrait of Isabella d’Este (today in the Louvre) whose corporeity foreshadows the figure of the Mona Lisa. Later, Leonardo stopped in Venice in the first months of 1500. No traces remain from Leonardo’s stay in Venice with the exception of the military and hydraulic notes he took on a solution to reject the Turkish attacks on the Isonzo river; but his influence was essential in the work of Giorgione, at the time 22 years old (see his painting of Young man with Arrow, 1505), nor should we forget that the most Leonardian work of Dürer was Christ among the Doctors (1506), painted during the second stay in Venice of this German master.

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Portrait of Isabella d’Este (unfinished), black and red chalk, yellow pastel on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500, 63 x 46 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Leonardo left Milan in 1499 when the French army invaded Italy. On his way to Venice he stopped at Mantua, where Isabella d’Este asked him to paint her portrait. This famous drawing is a sketch for the portrait that Leonardo never produced and, despite its fragile state of conservation, it is one of Leonardo’s finest head-and-shoulders portraits, here with the head in profile. It is also the only known drawing by Leonardo that is highlighted with several colored pigments. Though unfinished, this sketch is remarkable for its proportions, and for the foreshortening of the bust; it is also striking for the ambiguous choice of pose. The perfectly linear profile, eyes gazing beyond our field of vision, contrasts with the turn of her body. This portrait of Isabella d’Este can be seen as the fruition of Leonardo’s experimentation with the human figure and drawing/painting techniques since the 1490s, and a preview of what was about to follow: the cartoon of the Virgin and St. Anne, and the Mona Lisa.
Left: Madonna with the Yarn winder (The Buccleuch Madonna), oil on panel, generally accepted as by Leonardo and another artist, ca. 1501, 48 x 37 cm ( Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh). Right: Madonna with the Yarn winder (The Lansdowne Madonna), oil on panel transferred to canvas, generally accepted as having an under-drawing by Leonardo, after 1510, 50 x 36 cm (Private collection, United States). The Madonna of the Yarn winder was a subject depicted by Leonardo in perhaps two paintings begun in 1499 or later. The subject is known today from several versions of which two, known as the Buccleuch Madonna and the Lansdowne Madonna (both pictured above), are thought to be partly a work by Leonardo. This has been concluded on the basis of the pentimenti* found on both paintings which show similar changes. The painting represents the Virgin Mary seated in a landscape with the Christ child, who gazes at a yarn winder used to collect spun yarn. The yarn winder serves both as a symbol of Mary’s domestic life and as a foreshadowing of the Cross on which Christ was crucified. The Virgin’s gesture of suspense made with her right hand is taken from Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks. As with other later works by Leonardo, the figures appear in a vast unpopulated landscape. The rocky outcrop in the foreground of the Buccleuch Madonna (left) is painted with a minute attention to geological detail, a major difference with the Lansdowne Madonna where the landscape includes a dramatic mountain range more typical of Leonardo. The paintings are called after their owners: the Buccleuch Madonna after the Duke of Buccleuch, and the Lansdowne Madonna after the Marquesses of Lansdowne, who owned it in the 19th century. The Buccleuch Madonna was executed by Leonardo’s workshop, however, Leonardo is thought to have taken part in producing this version of the Madonna with the Yarn winder, a fact suggested primarily by the rock in the foreground and the boys face. The Lansdowne Madonna is a later version of the 1501 Madonna with the Yarn winder. Because of its background it is dated to 1516, because the landscape suggests that the Mona Lisa was painted beforehand. It is also thought to have been produced in Leonardo’s workshop. It is believed that Christ child and the landscape were by Leonardo and the remainder of the painting was by one of his Milanese students.
Study for Madonna with the Yarnwinder, red chalk and silverpoint on rose-colored prepared paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1501, 257 x 203 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). This drawing is generally connected with the Madonna with the Yarnwinder, as the female figure has a posture similar to that of Mary depicted in that painting (see pictures above). There is, however, a clear difference between the turning of the bodies of the two figures, so that the dating of this folio remains a matter for debate.
Salvator Mundi, oil on walnut panel, generally accepted by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1500, 45.4 x 65.6 cm (Private collection, Saudi Arabia). This painting depicts Jesus wearing Renaissance-style clothing, making the sign of the cross with his right hand, while holding a transparent, crystal orb in his left, signaling his role as Salvator Mundi (‘Savior of the World’) and representing the ‘celestial sphere’ of the heavens. Around 20 other variations of this painting are known, by students and followers of Leonardo. This work was probably painted for Louis XII of France and his consort, Anne of Brittany.

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Leonardo returned to Florence around April of 1500. The six years of his second Florentine period, interrupted only by the period he spent in the military and cartographic campaigns in Romagna working for the retinue of “Duke Valentino” (Cesare Borgia) between 1502 to 1503, are the last years of Leonardo’s fervent pictorial activity. And this is logical, especially if we think that the already famous master who was almost 50 years old, saw how the artistic climate of his younger years was renewed around him at a high level, thanks to the presence of Michelangelo and Raphael, the “gods” of the new generation of artists, and thus Leonardo felt humanly exalted to explicitly see how the formal “discourse” he developed along the previous decades gave its fruits in the works of these young artists. In 1501, the exhibition in the cloister of the Annunziata of the definitive cartoon (today lost) for the painting of Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child —where Saint John the child has been replaced by the symbolic lamb of the early Christian and medieval tradition— constituted, as we have said in the previous essay, a public event. From the descriptions of the documents of the time (as well as from Leonardo’s many preparatory drawings) we can conclude that this cartoon was very close, if not identical, to the unfinished version of this painting that Leonardo took with him to France and that is currently in the Louvre. Comparing its composition with that of the Virgin of the Rocks and with the first cartoon on this subject kept now in London, this panel almost represents a thoughtful challenge to these two preceding works in the sense that it achieved a dynamic and monumental improvement of the pyramidal composition: in a certain way Leonardo again undertakes in his Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child, although in a greater and monumental sense, his compositional ideas seen in his earlier studies for the Virgin with the cat, with the cat replaced here by the lamb, and allowing a dynamic opening of the composition to the right of the painting, counteracted by the static presence of the figure of Saint Anne seated to the left, but “oriented” with her head to the right. And it is precisely Saint Anne’s raised head which indicates the group’s continuous spiral counterpoint that will later influence Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni (ca. 1057), as well as Raphael’s later Florentine Madonnas painted towards the end of the first decade of the 16th century.

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The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, oil on wood, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1503-1510, 168 x 130 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The theme of the Christ Child on the Virgin’s knee, who’s in turn seated on St. Anne’s lap, is fairly rare, but some examples can be found from the Middle Ages onwards and they intend to represent the stream of life flowing through three generations. Leonardo must have chosen this unusual theme for symbolic reasons, which have been variously interpreted as it usually happens with his works. There is a cartoon in the National Gallery in London by Leonardo on the same subject but differing in important respects from this painting. This painting was commissioned by the Servites (a mendicant order) in Florence. It is unfinished; perhaps it was abandoned because of Leonardo’s sudden interest in mathematics, and his engagement as engineer under the service of Cesare Borgia. The lamb seems to have been finished by other painter; whereas, the landscape, St. Anne, the Virgin and the Child Christ are the work of Leonardo. Mary’s gaze is melancholic, she has recognized that her son must suffer his future fate. Her body still seems to be showing the tension of the previous moment when she wanted to pull her child away from the lamb, the symbol of his future sacrifice. St. Anne is watching the events benevolently. The pyramidal composition is dynamic, yet harmoniously balanced. The colossal sense of depth created by the mountainous landscape gives the painting a perceptible peacefulness and greatness. We also see that Mary is gazing into her child’s eyes, while Saint Anne is looking at Mary.

Study for Madonna and Child with St. Anne, black chalk, wash and white highlights on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517, 230 x 245 mm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The study of Mary’s garment has been produced very sensitively by the hand of Leonardo. He used here blue and brown washes to give the black garment an impressive delicateness. This skillful study makes it clear just how carefully Leonardo prepared this painting.

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The same importance has the influence of the Mona Lisa on the first portraits of Raphael, such as that of Maddalena Doni (ca. 1506), and above all, the Mute Woman (also ca. 1506). Mona Lisa is perhaps the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the merchant Francesco del Giocondo, a painting that Leonardo also took to France and that is now in the Louvre. Mona Lisa takes the technique of sfumato (that infinitesimal graduation of light) to the extreme refinement, and it is above all this impalpable “atmospheric veil” that envelops the portrait and interposes between the observer and the painting, which arouses its “mystery”, its unreachable character that contrasts with its broad volumetric corporeity. With regard to her smile, which has become famous to the extreme, let us recall the interpretation of Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, according to which it is a subtle intermediate situation between an utterly inexpressive apathy and a kind of never expressed feeling but, despite everything, captured for posterity. This figure of a woman, dressed in the Florentine fashion of her day and seated in a visionary, mountainous landscape, is a remarkable display of Leonardo’s sfumato technique. Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame. The sensuous quality of the picture is shown particularly well by her hands. The right is resting and relaxed on the left which is gripping the chair back. There was nothing new in depicting landscapes as decorative or symbolic backgrounds to portraits, but Leonardo’s skill lay in his ability to combine both pictorial elements into one harmonious whole by linking them to each other in various ways, both compositional and in technique (sfumato). The sitter’s general position can be traced back to Flemish models. Mona Lisa is seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her, a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge are depicted left and right on the background landscape respectively. Leonardo placed the horizon line not at the level of her neck, as he did with his earlier portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, but at the level of the sitter’s eyes, thus linking the figure with the landscape and, for us, emphasizing the mysterious nature of the painting.

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Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda), oil on panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1503-1506, perhaps continuing until ca. 1517, 77 x 53 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). According to Vasari, this picture is a portrait of Mona or Monna (short for Madonna, “My Lady”) Lisa (Lisa Gherardini), who was born in Florence in 1479 and in 1495 married the Marquese Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine of some standing, hence the painting’s other name, ‘La Gioconda‘. The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. This identification, however, has sometimes been questioned. Leonardo took the painting with him from Florence to Milan, and later to France. The painting was probably acquired by Francis I from Leonardo himself, or after his death from his executor Melzi. From the beginning it was greatly admired and much copied, and it came to be considered the prototype of the Renaissance portrait. It became even more famous in 1911, when it was stolen from the Louvre on 21 August 1911. Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame. This gentle woman has been adapted in turn as an aesthetic, philosophical and advertising symbol, entering eventually into the irreverent parodies of the Dada and Surrealist artists. Leonardo’s right hand was paralytic around 1517, and this fact may be an indication why he left this portrait unfinished.
Female head (La Scapigliata), oil, umber and white lead pigments on poplar panel, generally accepted by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1508, 27 x 21 cm (Galleria Nazionale, Parma). Given the lack of accessories, it has been hypothesized that this face with its thoughtful gaze belongs to a Madonna. La Scapigliata (‘The Lady with Disheveled Hair’) is an unfinished painting that has long been admired for its captivating beauty, mysterious demeanor, and mastery of sfumato. Other than her face that occupies most of the pictorial space, the rest of the painting is barely sketched, with a primed* but unpainted background.

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Leonardo’s physiognomic studies, together with his in-depth research on the representation of human and animal movement, triumphed in his last Florentine work, the now-lost fresco of the Battle of Anghiari, begun in 1504 for the Palazzo Vecchio, and which rivaled Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, which rapidly deteriorated and was destroyed in the mid-16th century. In addition to the preparatory drawings with varied ideas, we have copies of the cartoon, among which the most famous is the one made by Rubens and which is now in the Louvre, as well as some groups in terracotta by Rustici derived from said fresco. The composition chosen by Leonardo represented a group of knights fighting for the flag: a very tragic version, even nihilistic from a moral point of view especially if we think that this was a commemorative fresco commissioned by the Florentine Republic, since it was a truly scientific illustration of the “mad bestiality” denounced by Dante in the literal sense of the psychic and physical reactions of man —God’s image— and the beast —the soulless “brute” man— in the most fierce point of the armed struggle. Structurally, it was a violent corporeal and centered whirlwind, a conception that will later be typical of the works by Michelangelo. This same impression are produced by some drawings Leonardo made for a first sketch of the subject and in which tangled struggles between compact human masses, in an almost topographical vision, are dwarfed to make room for the unleashing and whirlwind of the surrounding natural elements. It seems almost as if Leonardo wanted to merge the figurative concepts that he himself expressed, some ten years earlier, in two admirable paragraphs written in Codex A: “How to represent a fortune” (that is, a storm with a sky and water) and “Way of representing a battle”. We have arrived here at the cosmic tragedy, the fruit of the growing meditations on the “primordial” and superhuman forces of nature. Leonardo here was well on the road that led him to his drawings on Floods.

In 1504 Leonardo was given the commission of the Battle of Anghiari by gonfaloniere Piero Soderini, a contract signed by Niccolò Machiavelli, to decorate the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. At the same time Michelangelo was working on the fresco of the opposite wall (the Battle of Cascina). This was the only time that Leonardo and Michelangelo worked together on the same project. For this commission, Leonardo finished the cartoon, but only began the painting. He built an ingenious scaffold that could be raised or folded like an accordion. While experimenting with thick undercoats of paint (possibly mingled with wax), Leonardo faced several problems while executing the painting and eventually abandoned the project. Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s unfinished paintings adorned the same room together for almost a decade (1505–1512). The centerpiece of The Battle of Anghiari was greatly admired and numerous copies were made. During the mid-16th century (1555–1572), the Hall of the Five Hundred was enlarged and restructured by Vasari and his helpers under the instructions of Cosimo I, so that the Duke could hold court in this important chamber of the palace. In the course of the renovations, the remnants of famous existing artworks were lost, including The Battle of Cascina and The Battle of Anghiari.

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The Battle of Anghiari (detail), copy based on an original by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503-1505, black chalk, pen and ink, watercolor on paper, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1603, 452 x 637 mm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This is the best copy of the Battle of Anghiari, a lost painting by Leonardo, which some commentators believe to be still hidden beneath one of the later frescoes in the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its central scene, represented in Rubens’ drawing, depicted four men riding raging war horses engaged in a battle for the possession of a standard during the Battle of Anghiari in 1440, a war between Milan and the League of some Italian states led by Florence. Many preparatory studies by Leonardo still exist. Rubens’ drawing was based on an engraving of 1553 by Lorenzo Zacchia, which was produced from the painting itself or possibly derived from a cartoon by Leonardo.
Study of horses for the Battle of Anghiari, traces of black and red chalk, pen and ink, wash on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1504, 196 x 308 mm (Royal Library, Windsor). In this preparatory drawing, Leonardo gave the horses’ heads expressions of aggressive savagery. The comparative studies of a lion and a man helped Leonardo to understand the characteristic of the facial expressions necessary for this depiction. On the right another rearing horse is shown.

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Leda and the Swan, a lost painting, is the last fundamental work by Leonardo from his second Florentine period, a painting that was probably brought to Milan during Leonardo’s second stay in that city, and which we know thanks to the preparatory drawings and copies of his Milanese students. This was a work much more “mysterious” and even hermetic than the Mona Lisa, it seems as if Leonardo had wanted to merge the sensuality unleashed by the pagan Leda, with forms that his preparatory drawings confirm already went in the direction of the “figura serpentinata*” a form typical of the Mannerism, with evident fertility symbolism (the hatching cupids, the opulence of plants from which we have stupendous botanical drawings) that refer not only to Leda, but to the feminine creative principle, the Primal Mother-Goddess. Are we perhaps facing a Leonardo who was not an external necromancer and alchemist, as the romantics and decadentists fantasized, but we are facing a mysterious Leonardo, a precursor of the hermetic knowledge, skeptic and “libertine” of the mannerist 16th century? It is true that Vasari wrote in 1550 (although he suppressed it in the second edition of his Lives in 1568): “For this reason he [Leonardo] shaped in his soul such a heretical concept that he did not approach any religion, perhaps because he preferred to be a philosopher first rather than a Christian”. It is evident that Leonardo turned to himself and focused even more in his increasingly universalized studies, especially in the years he spent in Rome (1513-1517), where we know no traces from his activities, and almost went ignored by Pope Leo X (here we should remember Leonardo’s dark phrase in the Atlantic Codex: “The Medici’ created me and destroyed me”…). We also know little about his last two years, which he spent in France at the court of Francis I, who nevertheless showed a deep admiration and respect for the master.

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Leda and the Swan, pen and ink and wash over black chalk on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1507, 160 x 139 mm (Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth). There are two surviving drawings by Leonardo of the kneeling Leda and the Swan, one in the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, the other in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Star of Bethlehem and other plants, pen and ink over red chalk on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1505-1507, 198 x 160 mm (Royal Library, Windsor). Leonardo’s depiction of the “Star of Bethlehem” plant has moved away from a previous nature study and stylizes the structure of the plant. The flowers are growing out of a draped ring of leaves. This plant appears in both studies of the kneeling Leda. Growth and birth were not merely the theme of the Leda compositions, but reflected the more general interests of Leonardo during this period.

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Leonardo produced two compositions for the story of Leda and the Swan, but neither of them survived as paintings. There are, though, a number of studies by his hand. Three sketches of Leda by Leonardo exist: Leda and the Swan (Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, pictured above), Study for kneeling Leda (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and Studies of Leda and a Horse (Royal Library, Windsor). Art scholars have proposed that Leonardo’s Chatsworth sketch for Leda and the Swan was probably inspired by the Helenistic Laocoön Group: there is a similar twist to the subject’s body, the curve of the swan’s neck recalls the snake’s body in Laocoön’s hand, the rape by Zeus (turn here into a swan) evokes the forceful attack of the snakes, and the child next to Leda’s knee resembles Laocoön’s son on the right. In 1504, Leonardo began making studies for a painting, apparently never executed, of Leda seated on the ground with her children. A completed copy of Kneeling Leda was done ca. 1515-1520 by Giampietrino. In 1508 Leonardo painted a different composition of the subject which depicted a nude standing Leda cuddling the swan, with the two sets of infant twins alongside their huge broken egg-shells. The painting is lost, probably deliberately destroyed, and was last recorded in the French royal Château de Fontainebleau in 1625 by Cassiano dal Pozzo. The painting is known from many copies, including that by Il Sodoma (Leda and the Swan, ca. 1510-1515).

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Kneeling Leda with her Children, after an original study by Leonardo da Vinci ca. 1503-1510, oil on alder wood, by Giampetrino, ca. 1515-1520, 128 x 105.5 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel).
Leda and the Swan, copy after an original by Leonardo da Vinci ca. 1503-1510, oil on panel, by Il Sodoma, ca. 1510-1515, 112 x 86 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). This composition showing Leda with her arms around the swan (Jupiter/Zeus) in an elegant curving pose, her hair partially escaping from her plaits, set against the spacious river landscape, was most certainly conceived by Leonardo, but later executed by different artists.

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Years before these events, between 1506 to 1513 (leaving aside a fleeting return to Florence in 1507-1508) Leonardo spent his second stay in Milan, where he was called by Louis XII and was protected by his lieutenant Charles d’Amboise. Leonardo still had lots of creative vitality and not only speculative: we know his architectural projects (it is disputed if he participated in the design/construction of the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana, in Milan), his research on hydraulic projects, and his ongoing studies and drawings on human anatomy. We also have the drawings for a new sculptural and architectural work that once again, as if it was a pursuit of fate, Leonardo never carried out: the equestrian monument and mausoleum of the Marshal of France Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. Moving away from the definitive and “classic” project he planned before for the Sforza monument, Leonardo seems to have subsequently returned to the primitive idea of ​​the rider on a rearing horse, as evidenced by a small bronze now in the Budapest Museum, a figure admirable for its power and physical vehemence, and perhaps derived from a wax “model” among the many that Leonardo used to make. The accompanying architectural and sculptural design for the Trivulzio mausoleum in which “cells” were placed in the corners, was a completely new idea for this type of monuments and became valid for the next two centuries, as it was a model that fully coincided with Michelangelo’s ideas for the mausoleum of Pope Julius II.

From the last years of Leonardo, in addition to the already mentioned drawings of the Floods and his architectural-ecological projects (for example, the remediation of a swampy region) for the castle of the Queen Mother of France in Romorantin (which undoubtedly influenced the construction of the Château du Chambord), we only have the painting of Saint John the Baptist now in the Louvre. It depicts the figure of John the Baptist in isolation through the use of chiaroscuro, his figure appearing to emerge from the gloomy background. The saint is represented with some of his traditional attributes: he is dressed in furs and has long curly hair. However, Leonardo set apart from traditional portrayals of the Saint in that he is here smiling in an enigmatic manner, reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, and his appearance is not decrepit or famished, he is shown here youthful and well-formed. He holds a reed cross in his left hand, while his right hand points up toward heaven, similar to the gesture of Saint Anne in Leonardo’s Burlington House Cartoon. This is a work as enigmatic and disconcerting as the Leda, with its explicit androgyny, with that calculated and uncertain quality of light that lies between the subject leaving the limits of the pictorial space or being absorbed by the gloom of the canvas, with that gesture and that smile —truly sealed and impenetrable— more of a Delphic oracle or a Oedipus’ sphinx, than that of a messenger and precursor of Christ. Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, near Amboise, on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67, possibly from a stroke, and according to the fascinating legend endorsed by Vasari “in the arms of that king” Francis I.

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St. John the Baptist, oil on walnut panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1513-1516, 69 x 57 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). St. John the Baptist is looking at the observer impressively and declaring his identity by means of gestures and gazes. It is the last known painting to be produced by Leonardo, and was probably already completed in Rome.

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Figura Serpentinata: (from the Italian meaning ‘serpentine figure’). A style in painting and sculpture, intended to make the figure seem more dynamic, that is typical of Mannerism. It is similar, but not identical, to contrapposto, and features figures often in a spiral pose. Early examples can be seen in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

Pentimento: (pl. Pentimenti; from the Italian verb pentirsi, meaning ‘to repent’). In painting refers to the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over in the final composition. The changes may have been done in the underdrawing of the painting, or by the visible layers of paint differing from the underdrawing, or by the first painted treatment of the element having been over-painted.

Priming: To apply a primer (preparatory coating) on the painting support (wall, wood panel, canvas) before painting. Priming ensures better adhesion of paint to the surface, increases paint durability, and provides additional protection for the material being painted.

8 thoughts on “LEONARDO DA VINCI, part IV

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