Leonardo Da Vinci Biography

Born on 15 April 1452 in Vinci, a small village near Florence, Leonardo died on 2 May 1519 at Cloux. near Amboise in France. He. more than any other, embodies the idea of the "Renaissance Man." a person versed in many different fields of knowledge and endeavor. Leonardo was not only a genius in painting; he left thousands of pages of drawings, which reveal his advanced knowledge of the sciences as well as the arts. Although he did surprisingly few paintings and did not finish all of them, his nineteen extant notebooks contain drawings and writings on architecture, botany, physics, engineering, cartography, different facial types, draperies, and some of the greatest anatomical studies ever made. He wrote a treatise on painting, discussed emblems, collected jokes, drew portraits, studies for uncompleted sculptural projects, buildings, and paintings.

Leonardo's long career was filled with variety and contradictions. He studied painting in Verrocchio*s studio where his first known work is the angel in the older artist's Baptism. Even in that early figure, one can discern qualities such as soft yellow light in the angel's hair and the gradual shading softening the facial features that would become hallmarks of Leonardo's style. An early complete painting executed by Leonardo is the Uffizi Annunciation, in which the sfumato background of the harbor announces his characteristic use of bluish misty light in distant horizons. Leonardo recommended the blue horizon in his treatise on painting on the grounds that in reality horizons are blue. Also present in the early Annunciation is Leonardo's genius for transitional metaphorical forms, in this case the sarcophagus supporting Mary's lectern. One side of the sarcophagus has lion's feet turned outward, repeating the position of Mary's legs and feet; this formal repetition of the Virgin echoes the iconographic relation of Mary to Christ's tomb, for she was called the "womb" and "tomb" of Christ. Similar transitional forms occur in Leonardo's drawings- for example, playing and fighting horses which resemble rats and. as noted by the artist himself, the water flowing around a pole which resembles the movement of a woman's long hair. Though Leonardo's paintings include traditional Christian themes as well as portraits, several of them are iconographically quite unusual. A curious problem in Leonardo's oeuvre is the two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, one in the Louvre and the other in the National Gallery in London. There has been much scholarly debate over these pictures, mainly revolving around questions of authenticity and the degree of Leonardo's contribution to each. A painting of this title was commissioned for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception: but it is not known why two works of this unprecedented subject exist. In both pictures, a triangular organization of Mary. Christ. John the Baptist, and an angel is constructed: in both the rocky background relates to the architectural enclosure of the chapel intended to house the picture. The misty blue sfumato recurs in the distance.

Vie Virgin and Child with Saint Anne in the Louvre is a traditional scene, although Leonardo has introduced some unprecedented elements. The most often discussed feature of this painting is the youth of St. Anne, Mary's mother, who in reality would have been an old woman. Rather than representing St. Anne in a way that accents the differences between the three generations represented, as previous artists had done, Leonardo makes mother and grandmother seem to be the same age. One explanation for this, originally proposed by Freud and later accepted by Kenneth Clark, is the fact of Leonardo's having had two young mothers himself. He was illegitimate at birth and remained with his natural mother until his father married another young woman and brought Leonardo to live with him. It is likely that the memory of these two women, and their youth, explains the absence of a generation gap between Mary and St. Anne.

The blue misty backg:ound of this picture, as well as the formal parallels between the heads of the two women and the landscape rocks, is found in several of Leonardo's other works, especially the portraits. In the Ginevra dei Benci in the National Gallery in Washington, the woman seems to emerge from the landscape as if she were one with it. The yellow light around the edges of her hair echoes the outlines of the trees and the patterns of dark lacing against her white skin repeats the dark tree forms against the lighter sky. The best-known example of this parallelism between woman and landscape can be seen in the Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous picture, now in the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is also the work that has evoked the most discussion of, and controversy about. Leonardo's entire oeuvre. Sometimes called La Gioconda, the woman in the painting has eluded identification for centuries. She sits on a balcony in the three-quarter view that became typical of 16th-century portraits and her gaze seems to follow us wherever we go. Her landscape background is as mysterious as she is; it cannot be identified as a specific locale and contains a dream-like quality as elusive as the woman herself. Another puzzling aspect of Leonardo's artistic career concerns the Last Supper, a fresco dating from the 1490's on the refectory wall of Santa Maria della Grazia in Milan. Universally acknowledged as one of the great masterpieces of High Renaissance art, the poor technical execution of this painting combined with the humidity in the building has resulted in its virtual extinction. Leonardo was such a meticulous worker that he attempted to slow down the crying process of fresco by mixing oil and other substances insoluble in water: this prevented the absorption of the paint into the wall that is necessary to preserve fresco. Restorers have done extensive work on the picture in an attempt to save it, but little of the original effect remains.

Despite these problems, the image itself is nearly as well known as the Mona Lisa. Set in a mathematically composed symmetrical space, the scene of Christ's last meal is enacted in a new way. For the first time among the monumental examples of this event in 15th-century Italy. Judas sits on the same side of the table as Christ and the other apostles. As each apostle reacts dramatical!) to Christ's announcement that one of them will betray Him. Judas is identified as separate by the sudden thrust of his diagonal plane away from Christ. Thus, geometry and formal arrangement echo the psychology of the scene. Along the side walls, the four rectangular tapestries echo the fourfold division of apostle^ into groups of three as they discuss Christ's statement. Christ Himself, with His outstretched arms, forms a triangle, at once echoing the grouping of apostles into three and the three windows on the back wall, and referring symbolically forward in time to the Trinity as a central precept of the church. The round arch above the central rear window forms a symbolic halo over Christ's head, a geometric reference to His divinity. Also focusing attention on Christ, and emphasizing His ecclesiastical centrality, is the perspective construction of the painting so that Christ is at the mathematical center of the composition. It is at Christ that all the orthogonal lines, lines perpendicular to the picture plane, would meet if extended. By this arrangement. Leonardo controls the observer's vision and directs it toward the figure of Christ. He, in turn, stretches His arms and hands forward so that, just as He receives the observer through the mathematical construction of the picture. He also reaches out to him.

In addition to Leonardo's curious technical experiments on the Last Supper, it is surprising that he left a number of works unfinished. These include the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, the Saint Jerome in the Vatican, and the Saint John the Baptist in the Louvre. Of these, the latter is the most puzzling. The effeminate character of Saint John does not seem to have a precedent either in the literary or the pictorial tradition. Nor is the meaning of his gesture, pointing upwards, clear. Saint John has been depicted through a subtle play of golden light which softens the texture of his skin and barely distinguishes his form from the murky background.

Not only was Leonardo puzzling as an artist, he was also contradictory in regard to his patrons. He worked as an engineer for two of the most anti-Florentine tyrants in Italy, Lodovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. Leonardo's designs of military machines for the enemies of Florence, which are recorded in drawings among his notebooks, are among the most sadistic known.

Leonardo ended his long career at the French court of Francis I and died in France. On his death bed. he is reported to have said that he regretted having neglected his real genius, which was as a painter, and having spent so much of his life in the pursuit of science.

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