Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 at the Castle Vinci, about half way between Florence and Pisa. He was the natural son of Messer Pietro, a notary of Florence and landed proprietor at Vinci. The student of psychology, were he to search the records of the whole world, could not find a more intricate puzzle to solve than the personality of Leonardo da Vinci. It seems as if all the gods had brought a gift at his birth. He was painter, poet, sculptor, anatomist, architect, engineer, chemist, machinist, musician, botanist and master of each, and yet what a poor, inadequate result in actual product he has left to the world in comparison with his astonishing powers and his length of days. He was so beautiful of person, says Vasari, that no one has sufficiently extolled his charm; so eloquent of speech, that those who listened to his words were fain to answer “yes” or “no” as he thought fit. Symonds calls him the wizard or diviner; to him the Renaissance offers her mystery and lends her magic. Curiosity and love of the uncommon ruled his nature, and art and science were never separated in his work. He invented machinery for water mills and aqueducts, he devised engines of war, discovered the secret of conical rifle bullets, adapted paddle-wheels to boats, and in one of his manuscripts he said, “It is my firm conviction that with the aid of steam a boat could be set in motion.” He projected new systems of siege artillery, investigated the principles of optics, designed buildings, made plans for piercing mountains, raising buildings, connecting rivers, draining marshes and clearing harbors. There was no branch of study whereby nature through the effort of the inquisitive intellect might be subordinated to the use of man of which he was not master. His patience was no less marvelous than the quickness of his insight.
The conquest of the air was always in his mind. He made numberless designs of wings to fly. In one of his manuscripts are these words : “The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement, all writings with his fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.” He tells of how in his boyhood he watched the flight of cranes, and hearing their cry, fancied it a summons to himself, and how he wept with disappointment that he could not fly. He loved the story of Icarus and his wings and when bidden by his teacher to name the greatest of ancient heroes, he answered without a moment’s hesitation, “Icarus, son of Daedalus.”
Leonardo spent thirty years at Florence, nearly twenty years at Milan, and after nine-teen years of wandering, he sinks to rest under the protection of Francis I. at the Chateau de Clou in France.
The most interesting part of his life is the twenty years at Milan. He went there under the patronage of Ludivico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Here the great genius had ample scope for all his talents, and it was here he painted his immortal picture of “The Last Supper.” The death in child-birth of the Duchess Beatrice was followed in Ludivico by one of those paroxysms of religious feeling to which he was occasionally subject. The result of this one was the giving the order to Leonardo to paint in the refectory of the convent della Grazie “The Last Supper.” Near the con-vent stands the Dominican church of Santa Maria della Grazie (St. Mary of the Graces) . This was the favorite shrine of Beatrice. She spent her last days here, full of gloomy presentiment, and here it was that Ludivico had mass said a hundred times a day for the repose of her soul.
On the damp wall of the refectory, Leonardo painted “The Last Supper.” He was not con-tent to paint in fresco. The new method of painting in oil appealed to him, and he must needs experiment with it ; but on a plastered wall no method could here have been less durable. Within fifty years it was practically gone.
Mr. Symonds says : “Such as it is, blurred by ill usage and neglect, more blurred by impious repainting, that fresco must be seen by those who wish to understand Da Vinci.” He undertook to paint a moment, to delineate the effect of a single word upon twelve men seated at a table and do this without sacrificing the tranquility demanded by ideal art, and without impairing the divine majesty of Him from whose life the word has fallen. We know not whether to admire most the perfection of the painter’s art, or his insight into spiritual things. The picture has called forth much literature, but of all that has been written Goethe’s sketch is by far the best. He says in part:
“The place where this is painted must be first considered, for here the knowledge of this artist is focused. Could anything more appropriate, or noble, be devised for a refectory than a parting meal which the whole world will reverence forever?”
Several years ago when traveling we beheld this dining room still undestroyed.
Opposite the entrance of the refectory stood the table of the prior. On both sides of him the tables of the monks, all of which were raised a step from the floor, and when the visitor turned around he saw painted on the fourth, above the doors which are of but moderate height, a fourth table and Christ and his disciples seated at it, as if they belonged to the society. At meal times it must have been a telling sight when the tables of the prior and Christ looked upon each other as two opposite pictures and the monks at their places found themselves enclosed between them, and just on this account the artist was compelled to take the tables of the monks as a pattern, also the tablecloth with its worked stripes and tied corners was taken from the wash room of the monastery. The plates, dishes and cups are like those which the monks used. Here was no attempt at imitating an uncertain antiquated costume. It would have been highly improper to sketch, out the holy company upon cushions in this place. No, the picture must be brought near to the present. Christ must take his last supper with the Dominicans at Milan. Also in many other respects the painting must have produced a great effect. The thirteen figures about ten feet above the floor, one-half larger than life size, take up the space of twenty-eight feet in length. Only two whole figures can be seen at the opposite ends of the table, the rest are half figures. Let us now imagine ourselves in the place; let us consider the moral repose which prevails in such a monastic dining hall, and let us admire the artist who has infused into this picture powerful emotion, passionate movement and at the same time has kept his work within the bounds of nature, and thus brings it into close contrast with the nearest reality. The means of excitement by which the artist arouses the quiet holy group, are the words of the Master. “There is one among you who shall betray me.” They are spoken the whole company falls into disquiet, but he inclines his head with eyes cast down. The whole attitude, the motion of the arms, of the hands, everything repeats with submission the unhappy words. “Yes, it is not otherwise, there is one among you who shall betray me.” How much Leonardo has expressed in these hands ! The one hand, with down turned and averted palm, clearly says : “If it be possible let this cup pass from me.” The other, with upturned and receptive palm, calmly indicates the words : “Not my will, but thine be done.” It is by the motion of the hands that Leonardo principally enlivens his picture.
This device, however, only an Italian could discover. With his nation, his whole body is full of animation, every limb participates in the expression of feeling of passion, even of thought. By various motions and forms of the hand he expresses what he thinks almost as well as by words. To such a national peculiarity Leonardo, who observed every characteristic point with the closest attention, must have turned his careful eye. In this respect the picture is unique and one can scarcely observe it enough. The figures on both sides the Saviour may be considered by threes and each of these again must be brought into unity, placed in relation and still held in connection with its neighbors.
First on the right side of Christ are John, Judas and Peter. Peter, the most distant in consonance with his violent character, when he hears the word of the Lord, hastens up behind Judas who, looking up affrighted, bends for-ward over the table and holds with his right hand firmly closed the purse, but with the left makes an involuntary, nervous movement as if he would say, “What does that mean?” In the meanwhile Peter has with his left hand seized the right shoulder of John, who is inclined toward him, and points to Christ and at the same time urges the beloved disciple to ask who the traitor is. He strikes a knife handle which he holds in his right hand inadvertently into the ribs of Judas, whereby the affrighted forward movement which upsets the salt cellar is happily brought forth. This group may be considered as the one which was first thought out by the artist. It is the most perfect. If now upon the right hand of the Lord immediate vengeance is threatened with a moderate degree of motion, there arises upon his left the liveliest horror and detestation of the treachery. James, the elder, bends back from fear, extends his arms, stares with his head bowed down as one who sees before him the monster which he has just heard of. Thomas peers from behind his shoulder and approaching the Saviour raises the index finger of his right hand to his forehead. Philip, the third of this group, rounds it off in the loveliest manner. He has risen, bends toward the Master, lays his hand upon his breast and declares with the greatest clearness, “Lord, it is not I, thou knowest it. Thou seest my pure heart. It is not I.”
And now the last three figures of this group give us new material for thought. They talk with one another about the terrible thing they have just heard. Matthew, with a zealous motion, turns his face to the left toward his two companions. His hands on the contrary he stretches with rapidity toward his Master, and thus by the most ingenuous artifice unites his own group with the previous one. Thaddeus shows the most violent surprise, doubt and suspicion. He has laid his left hand open on the table and has raised the right as if he intended to strike his left with the back of the right, as if to say, “Have I not said so; have I not always supposed it?” Simon sits at the end of the table, full of dignity. We there-fore see his whole figure. He, the eldest of all, is clothed with rich folds. His countenance and movements show that he is astonished and reflecting not excited, scarcely moved.
If now we turn our eyes to the opposite end of the table we see Bartholomew, who rests on his right foot with the left crossed over it, supporting his inclined body by firmly resting his hands upon the table. He is probably trying to hear what John will ask of the Lord. This whole side appears to be inciting the favorite disciple. James, the younger, standing near and behind Bartholomew, lays his left hand on Peter’s shoulder, but James mildly requests the explanation whilst Peter already threatens vengeance.
And as Peter behind Judas, so James the younger stretches out his hand behind Andrew, who, as one of the most prominent figures, expresses with his half-raised arms and his hands stretched out directly in front, the fixed horror that has seized him, an attitude occur-ring but once in this picture, while in other works of less genius and less reflection it is too often repeated.
The head of Christ, although never finished to the satisfaction of Leonardo, yet is the type which has been presented to us by all succeeding generations of painters, so that our mental image of him is associated inseparably with the clear, oval countenance, the long hair parted in the middle, and the expression of sweet and pensive benignity. Beside the imperfection of the methods of the artist and the dampness of the walls the picture has suffered every kind of misfortune and indignity. It had been restored, the monks cut a door through the lower part of it, the imperial arms were nailed on it close to the central figure, and Austrian and French soldiers in turn vied with each other in desecrating the place and destroying its chief treasure.
Francis I. ordered Bernardino Luini to make three copies. One is in Lugano, one in Madrid and one in St. Germain, France. The copy by Marco d’Oggione, which used to be in the Chartreuse convent at Paris, is now in the possession of the Royal Academy, London.
( Originally Published 1912 )
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