The renown of the Florentine painter Leonardo throughout the history of art is paralleled only by that of Michelangelo and Raphael. He is thought of as the type of the Renaissance man, active and distinguished in several branches of art and science. He was possessed by the kind of curiosity about the physical world that ushered in the modern era of empirical enquiry and that led him to a knowledge of the structure of living things and the forces of nature unsurpassed by any man of his time. He was a painter, sculptor and musician, an engineer and inventor, a mathematical theorist, and a draughtsman of the highest order. His style of painting was based on this fund of knowledge and on his keen powers of observation.
Leonardo was born in 1452 in the town of Vinci, near Empoli, the illegitimate son of the notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant girl named Caterina. He was brought up in the well-to-do home of his father’s parents. At an early age he went to Florence and entered the shop of Verrocchio, where he remained until 1472. In that year he was first listed in the painters’ guild, and was also brought before the court on a charge of sodomy. He was busy with independent commissions in Florence until 1482, after which he went to Milan for a stay of seventeen years. Attached to the court of Lodovico Sforza of Milan, he applied his genius to music, engineering, decorating, planning of pageants and festivals, and probably writing his Treatise on Painting- He had been called to Milan to design and execute a bronze equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, but this was never completed. While there he did paint the celebrated Madonna of the Rocks (Louvre), and he and his pupil Ambrogio da Predis did a second version of the same composition (now in London). Even more celebrated is the mural painting of the Last Supper (1495-98) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In 1500 Leonardo was in Venice as a military engineer. In the same year he returned to Florence and stayed until 1506, with the exception of a short period (1502-03) during which he studied provincial fortifications and engineering projects in the service of Gesare Borgia. During this Florentine sojourn he painted the portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, or “iVlona Lisa” (1503-7, Louvre) ; he also started on frescoes of the Battle of Anghiari for the Palazzo Vecchio but never completed these and they are now lost except for contemporary copies, drawings and an engraving. He also worked on theoretical mathematical problems, dissected cadavers in a local hospital, and began the Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Louvre) but did not finish it for several years. In 1506-07 he went again to Milan for another ill-fated sculpture project, the monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, which was not finished and is known only through drawings. At this time he established a relation with the French court through Charles d’Amboise, the French governor of Milan. After another short stay in Florence (1507-8), he returned to Milan and remained there until 1513, busying himself with hydraulics and aeronautics, and continuing his anatomical studies. From 1513-16 he worked in Rome under Leo X, doing various jobs in. the Vatican, making measurements on St. Peter’s, and painting various works (now lost). In 1516 he went to France and lived in the castle of St. Cloud near Amboise until his death on May 2, 1519. He was buried in the cloister of a church that has since been destroyed.
Leonardo’s painting is known to us through a mere handful of works, some of them unfinished and others partly executed by pupils. The earliest work from his hand is an angel appearing in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (Uffizi), done c.1470, when Leonardo was still a pupil. Relatviely early is the Adoration of the Magi (1480-82, Uffizi), an unfinished work which shows Leonardo’s independence of his teacher’s shop and a certain relation to other more realistic fifteenthcentury masters, especially Pollaiuolo and the sculptor Donatello. The Madonna of the Rocks, begun in 1483, is the first completed painting that establishes the style for which Leonardo is best known. In a pyramidal composition alive with realistic detail, unity is attained by a pervading light which defines the figures in the dark grotto by gently modeling them and by the breathable atmosphere which surrounds them. Here also is the beginning of the characteristic smiling female face which Leonardo’s followers imitated, frequently without grasping the more fundamental elements of his art. The Last Supper in Milan, in very poor condition owing to Leonardo’s technical experimentation, is nevertheless impressive testimony to his mastery of anatomy and perspective and his concern with the psychological and iconographical content of religious art. This work miraculously survived the almost complete destruction of the refectory during World War II.
The Mona Lisa, also in, poor condition, was renowned in Leonardo’s time for its realism, and later for the suggestion of mysterious femininity it seems to express. It affords a good example of aerial perspective in the panoramic landscape background, achieved by diminution of color and value contrasts toward the far distance. Leonardo speaks of this observable phenomenon in his writings and was one of the first to apply it to painting. For most of his painted works there are many preliminary drawings extant. Leonardo’s painting is only a portion of his contribution to art and science in the western world. His Treatise on Painting and the Notebooks are of the utmost importance for an understanding of his genius. He left a large group of followers in Milan, among whom the ablest was his direct pupil and collaborator, Ambrogio da Predis.