1902 Encyclopedia > Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci
Italian artist, sculptor, architect, engineer and scientist
(1452-1519)




LEONARDO DA VINCI (or LIONARDO DA VINCI) was born in 1452 and died in 1519, having during his life excelled in almost every honorable human attainment and pursuit, the commercial and political excepted. Considering the range of his speculative as well as that of his practical powers, he seems certainly the man whose genius has the best right to be called universal of any that have ever lived. In the fine arts, he was the most accomplished painter of his generation and one of the most accomplished of the world, a distinguished sculptor, architect, and musician, and a luminous and pregnant critic. In inventions and experimental philosophy, he was a great mechanician and engineer, an anatomist, a botanist, a physiologist, an astronomer, a chemist, a geologist and geographer, - an insatiable and successful explorer, in a word, along the whole range of the physical and mathematical sciences when most of those sciences were new. Unfortunately he paid the penalty of his universality. The multifariousness and the equal balance of his faculties caused him to labor promiscuously in all fields of efforts. He set himself to perform tasks and to solve problems too arduous and too manifold for the strength of any single life. The consequence was that in art he was able to carry few undertakings to completion, and in science to bring no fully matured researches to the light. But the works of art which he did produce were of an excellence unapproached by his contemporaries, and only rivaled by men who came a generation after him, and profited by his example; while, in science both theoretical and applied, his unpublished writings and the records of his inventions prove him to have anticipated at a hundred points the great masters of reasoned discovery in the ensuing age.

Leonardo Da Vinci image

Self Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci


No wonder, therefore, if there has always been a mysterious attraction about his name. He stand out to after times in the character of a great if only half-effectual magician, one pre-eminent less by performance than by power. He has been called the Faust of the Italian Renaissance. The description would be just if the legend of Faust had conferred upon its hero the artist’s gift of creation, as well as the ingenuity of the mechanical inventor, and the philosopher’s passion for truth. As it is, these three powers, the shaping or artistic, the contriving or mechanical, and the reasoning or philosophical, had never even been imagined as existing, still less have they ever been known actually to exist, in combination, in the same measure in which they were all combined in Leonardo.

The man thus extraordinary gifted was the son of a Florentine lawyer, born out of wedlock by a peasant mother. The place of his birth was Vinci, a "castle" or fortified village in the Florentine territory near Empoli, from which his father’s family derived its name. The Christian name of his father was Piero (the son of Antonio the son of Piero the son of Guido, all of whom had been men of law like their descendant). Leonardo’s mother was called Caterina. Her relations with Ser Piero da Vinci seem to have come to an end almost immediately upon the birth of their son. She was soon afterwards married in her own rank of life. Ser Piero on his part was four times married, and had by his lat two wives nine sons and two daughters; but the boy Leonardo had from the first been acknowledged by his father, who brought him up in his own house, principally, no doubt, at Florence. In that city Sier Piero followed his profession, and was after a while appointed notary to the signory, or governing council of the state, a post which several of his forefathers had filled before him. The son born to him before marriage grew up into a youth of manifest and shining promise. To signal beauty and activity of person he joined a winning charm of temper and manners, a tact for all societies, and an aptitude for all accomplishments. An inexhaustible energy lay beneath this amiable surface. Among the multifarious pursuits to which he set his hand, the favorite were modeling and drawing. His father, perceiving this, sought the advice of an acquaintance, Andrea del Verrochio, who at once recognized the boy’s vocation, and was selected by Ser Piero to be his master.





Verrocchio, as is well known, although not one of the great creative or inventive forces in the art of this age at Florence, was a thoroughly capable and spirited craftsman alike as goldsmith, sculptor, and painter, while in teaching he was particularly distinguished. In his studio Leonardo worked for several years in the company of Lorenzo de Credi and other less celebrated pupils. He had soon learnt all that his mater had to teach – more than all, if we are to believe the oft-told tale of the figure, or figures, executed by the pupil in the picture of Christ’s baptism designed by the master for the monks of Vallombrosa. The work in question is now in the Academy at Florence. According to Vasari the angel kneeling on the left, with a drapery over its right arm, was put in by Leonardo, and when Verrocchio saw it his sense of its superiority to his own work caused him to forswear painting for ever after. The latter part of the story is certainly false. Moreover, a closer examination seems to detect the hand of Leonardo, not only in the figure of the angel, but also in that of Christ and in the landscape background, which are designed with extreme refinement, and painted in the new medium of oil, while the remainder of the picture has been executed by Verrocchio in his accustomed vehicle of tempera. The work was probably produced between 1480 and 1482, when Leonardo was from eighteen to twenty years of age. By the latter date we find him enrolled in the lists of the painters guild at Florence. Here he continued to live and work probably for eight or nine years longer. Up till 1477 he is still spoken of as a pupil or apprentice of Verrocchio; but in 1478 he receives an independent commission from the signory, and in 1480 another from the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. He had in the meanwhile been taken into special favor by Lorenzo the Magnificent. The only memorials now existing of Leonardo’s industry during this period consist of a number of scattered drawings and studies, most of them physiognomical, in chalk, pen, and silver point, besides two painted panels. One of these is a large and richly composed picture, or rather a finished preparation in monochrome for such a picture, of the Adoration of the Kings; this may have been done for the monks of San Donato, and is now in the uffizi; the other is a similar preparation for a St Jerome, now in the Vatican gallery at Rome. We possess, however, the record of an abundance of other work which has perished. Leonardo was not one of those artists who sought in the imitation of antique models the means of restoring art to its perfection. He hardly regarded the antique at all, and was an exclusive student of nature. From his earliest days he had flung himself upon that study with an unprecedented passion of delight and curiosity. In drawing from life he had found the way to unite precision with freedom, the sublest accuracy of definition with vital movement and flow of lime, as no draughtsman had been able to unite them before. He was the first painter to recognize light and shade as among the most significant and attractive of the world’s appearances, and as elements of the utmost importance in his art, the earlier schools having with one consent neglected the elements of light and shade in favor of the elements of color and line. But Leonardo was not a student of the broad, regular, patent appearances only of the world; its fugitive, fantastic, unaccustomed appearances attracted him most of all. Strange shapes of hills and rocks, rare plants and animals, unusual faces and figures of men, questionable smiles and expressions, whether beautiful or grotesque, far-fetched objects and curiosities, these were the things which he most loved to pore upon and keep in memory. Neither did he stop at mere appearances of any kind, but, having stamped the image of things upon his brain, went on indefatigably to probe their hidden laws and causes. The laws of light and shade, the laws of "perspective," including optics and the physiology of the eye, the laws of human and animal anatomy and muscular movement, and of the growth and structure of plants, all these and much more furnished food almost from the beginning to his insatiable spirit of inquiry. The evidence of his preferences and preoccupations is contained in the list of the lost works which he produced during this period. One of these was a painting of Adam and Eve in opaque water-colors; and in this, besides the beauty of the figures, the infinite truth and elaboration of the foliage and animals in the background are celebrated in terms which bring to mind the treatment of the subject by Albert Durer, in his famous engraving done thirty years later. Again, a peasant of Vinci having in his simplicity asked Ser Piero to get a picture painted for him on a wooden shield, the father is said to have laughingly handed on the commission to his son, who thereupon shut himself up with all the noxious insects and grotesque reptiles he could find, observed and drew and dissected them assiduously, and produced at last a picture of a dragon compounded of their various shapes and aspects, which was no fierce and so life –like as to terrify al who saw it. With equal research and no less effect he printed on another occasion the head of a snaky haired Medusa. Lastly, Leonardo is related to have modeled in clay and cast in plaster, about this time, several heads of smiling women and children. In addition to these labors and researches, he was full of new ideas concerning both the laws and the applications of mechanical forces. His architectural and engineering projects were of a daring which amazed even the fellow-citizens of Alberti and Brunelleschi. History presents few figures more attractive to the mind’s eye than that of Leonardo during this period of his all-capable and dazzling youth. There was nothing about him, as there was afterwards about Michelangelo, dark-tempered, secret, or morose; he was open and genial with all men. From time to time, indeed, he might shut himself up for a season in complete intellectual absorption, as when he toiled among his bats and wasps and lizards, forgetful of rest and food, and insensible to the noisomeness of their corruption; but anon we have to picture him as coming out and gathering about him a tatterdemation company, and jesting with them until they were in fits of laughter, for the sake of observing their burlesque physiognomies; or anon as standing radiant in his rose-colored cloak and his rich gold hair among the throng of young and old on the piazza, and holding them spell-bound while he expatiated on his plan for lifting the venerable baptistery of St John, the bed San Giovanni of Dante, up bodily from its foundations, and planting it anew on a stately basement of marble. Unluckily it is to the written biographies and to imagination that we have to trust exclusively for our picture. No portrait of Leonardo as he appeared during this period of his life has come down to us.

The interval between 1480 and 1487 is one during which the movements of our master are obscure, and can only be told conjecturally. Up to the former date we know with certainty that he was working at Florence, under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By the latter date he had definitively passed into the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza, called il Moro, at Milan. The main determining cause of his removal would seem to have been his selection by Ludovico for the task of erecting a great memorial statue in bronze to the honor of his victorious father, the condottiere Francesco Sforza. The project of such a monument had been already entertained by the last duke, Ludovico’s elder brother. After Ludovico had possessed himself of the regency in 1480, he appears to have revived the scheme, and to have invited various artists to compete for its execution. One who complied with the invitation was the Florentine Antonio del Pollaiuolo, by whom a sketch for the monument is still preserved at Munich. It would seem as if the competition had been won by Leonardo, but a considerable time had been allowed to elapse before the work was actually put in hand. The question then arises, Was it during this period of postponement that Leonardo went on his mysterious travels to the East? The earlier biographers know nothing of these travels; recent investigation of Leonardo’s MSS. has brought them to light. It has been not inaptly conjectured that the speculations of transcendental Platonsim, which absorbed at this time the thoughts and the conversation of the Medicean circle, were uncongenial to the essentially experimental cast of Leonardo’s mind, and that he was not sorry to escape from the atmosphere of Florence. At any rate his devouring curiosity would have made welcome the opportunity of enlarging his knowledge of men and countries by Eastern travel, even at the cost, which to one of his freethinking habits would not have been great, of a temporary compliance with Islamite observances. Certain it is that he took services engineer with the sultan of "Babylon," which in the geographical nomenclature of those days meant Cairo, and in the course of his mission visited Egypt, Cyprus, Constantinople, the coasts of Asia Minor, especially the Cilician region about Mount Taurus, and Armenia. This biographical discovery adds to the career of Leonardo a characteristic touch of adventurous and far-sought experience. Perhaps it was his acquaintance with the Levant which made him adopt the Oriental mode of writing from right to left, a habit which some of his biographers have out down to his love of mystification, and others explain more simply by the fact (to which his friend Luca Pacioli bears explicit testimony) that he was left-handed. The probable date of Leonardo’s Eastern travels falls between 1480 and 1483-84. By the last-named year, if not sooner, he was certainly back in Florence, whence he wrote to Ludovico il Moro at Milan a letter making him the formal offer of his services. The draught of this letter is still extant. It does not altogether tally with the statements of the earliest biographers, that Leonardo was recommended by Lorenzo de Medici to the duke regent particularly for his accomplishments in music. Vasari indeed says expressly that Leonardo was the bearer to Lucovico of a lyre of his invention, ingeniously fashioned of silver in the form of a horse’s head. In the autograph draft of the letter, to which we have referred, Leonardo rests his own title to patronage chiefly on his capabilities in military engineering. After explaining these under nine different heads, he speaks under a tenth of his proficiency as a civil engineer and architect, and adds a brief paragraph with reference to what he can do in painting and sculpture, undertaking in particular to carry out in a fitting manner the monument to Francesco Sforza. We shall probably be safe in fixing between the years 1484 and 1485 as the date of his definitive removal to Milan.





From this time for the next fourteen or fifteen years (until the summer of 1499) Leonardo continued, with very brief intervals of absence, to reside in high favor and continual employment at the court of Ludovico il Moro. His occupations were as manifold as his capacities. He super-intended the construction of military engines, and seems to have been occasionally present at sieges and on campaigns. He devised and carried out works of irrigation and other engineering schemes in the territory of the duchy. He designed a cupola for the cathedral of Milan, and was consulted on the works of Certosa of Pavia. He managed with ingenuity and slendour the masques, pageants, and ceremonial shows and festivals of the court. Withal he continued incessantly to accumulate observations and speculations in natural philosophy, working especially at anatomy with marcantonio della Torre, and at geometry and optics with Fra Luca Pacioli, for whose book De Divina Proportione he designed the figures. He made excursions into the Alps, and studied and drew with minute fidelity the distribution and formation of the mountain masses. He was placed at the head of a school or "Academy" of arts and sciences, where he gathered about him a number of distinguished colleagues and eager disciples. His pupils in painting included the sons of several noble families of the city and territory.

Among the more immediate scholars of Leonardo may be mentioned Antonio Boltraffio, Marco d’Oggionno Gian Petrino, and the master’s special friend and favorite, Salai or Salaino. But by far the most important painter formed under Leonardo’s influence at Milan was the admirable Bernardino Luini. Other disciples or adherents of his school were Bazzi of Siena, called 11 Sodoma, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Andrea Solario, Bernardino dei Conti, and Ambrogio Preda or de Predis. Several of the pupils or adherents her mentioned belong, however, to a later period of the master’s life than that with which we are now concerned.

Leonardo’s own chief undertakings in art during his residence at the court of Ludovico il Moro were two in number, namely, the equestrian monument of Fransceco Sforza and the mural painting of the Last Supper. For the former he had probably made some preparatory sketches and models before he left Florence. After his arrival at Milan the work seems to have proceeded with many interruptions, and according to a MS. note of his own to have been finally and actively resume din 1490. In the Royal Library at Windsor are preserved a whole series of small experimental studies for the monument. Leonardo was a great lover and student of horses, and would never be without some of noble race in his stable. It is difficult to retrace the stages of development marked by the several sketches in question, or their relations to the final design. But is seems as if Leonardo had first proposed to represent his hero as mounted on a charger violently prancing or rearing above a fallen enemy, and had in the end decided to adopt a quieter action, more nearly resembling that of the work upon which Verrocchio was simultaneously engaged at Venice. Some difficulties must have been encountered in the casting, or there would have been no meaning in the words of Michelangelo when twelve years afterwards he is said to have taunted Leonardo with incapacity on that account. But contemporary writings are explicit to the effect that the group of horse and rider, 26 feet in height, was actually cast in bronze, and set up to the admiration and delight of the people, under a triumphal arch constructed for the purpose, during the festivities held at Milan in 1493 on the occasion of the marriage of the emperor Maximilian to a bride of the house of Sforza. Within ten years the glory of that house had departed. Ludovico, twice overthrow by the invaders whom he had himself called into Italy, lay languishing in a French prison, and his father’s statue had served as a butt to the Gascon archers of the army of Louis XII. In 1501 the duke Ercole d’Este sought leave from the French governor of Milan to have the statue removed to his own city; but nothing seems to have come of the project; and within a few years Leonardo’s master-work in sculpture had between mischief and neglect been irretrievably destroyed.

Only a little less disastrous is the fate which has overtaken the second great enterprise of Leonardo’s life at Milan, his painting of the Last Supper. This, with the Madonna di San Sisto and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, is the third most celebrated picture of the world. It was painted, twenty years the earliest of the three, on the refectory wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan where its defaced remains are still an object of pilgrimage and wonder. The commission for the work came partly from the duke and partly from the monks of the convent. Leonardo is said to have consumed upwards of ten years upon his task, a circumstance which is not surprising when we consider his fastidious spirit and the multiplicity of other calls upon his time. But the monks were impatient, and could not make allowance for the intervals of apparent idleness, intervals really of brooding and searching and meditation, which were incidental to Leonardo’s way of work. On one occasion it became necessary for the duke himself, whose dealings with his gifted servant seem to have been consistently intelligent and kind, to take the painter’s part against the prior of the convent. But in working out his conception of the scene, and in devising the pictorial means for its presentment, Leonardo allowed his carving for quintessential excellence to overmaster him. He could not rest satisfied without those richnesses and refinements of effect which are unattainable in the ordinary method of mural painting, that is, in fresco, but must needs contrive by his chemistry a method for painting on the wall in soil. Neither could any of the traditional ideals of art content him in the representation of the scene. He must toil and ponder until he had realized a more absolute set of types, and grouped them in more masterly and speaking actions, than had ever been attempted before. The master type of all that of Christ, it is said that he could never even realize to the height of his conception at all, but left it to the last uncompleted. Unhappily Leonardo’s chemistry was unequal to his purpose, and his work had begun to peel and stain within a few years of its execution. The operation of time and damp has since been accelerated at intervals by the vandalism of men. After almost disappearing, the picture has been revived once and again, latterly either from copies or from engravings taken during the earlier periods of its deterioration, until now there is probably not a vestige of the original workmanship remaining. Nevertheless, through all these veils of injury and disguise, it is still possible in some measure to appreciate the power of that creation which became from the first, and has ever since remained, the typical representation for all Christendom of the sacrament of Christ’s Supper.

Goethe in his famous criticism has said all that needs to be said of the essential character of the work. The painter has departed from precedent in grouping the company of disciples, with their Master in the midst, along the far side and the two ends of a long, narrow table, and in leaving the near or service side of the table towards the spectator free. The chamber is seen in a perfectly symmetrical perspective, its rear wall pierced by three plain openings which admit the sense of quiet distance and mystery from the open landscape beyond; by the central of these openings, which is the widest of the three, the head and shoulders of the Savior are framed in. On his right and left are ranged the disciples in equal numbers. The serenity of the holy company has within a moment been broken by the words of their Master, "One of you shall betray Me." In the agitation of their consciences and affections, the disciples have started into groups or clusters along the table, some standing, some still remaining seated. There are four of these groups, of three disciples each, and each group is harmoniously interlinked by some natural connecting action with the next. Leonardo, though no student of the Greeks, has perfectly carried out the Greek principle of expressive variety in particulars subordinated to general symmetry. The relations of his groups to one another, and or each figure within the several groups to its neighbor and to the central figure of Christ, are not only triumphs of technical design, they are evidences of a complete science of human character, emotion, and physiognomy held at the service of a nobly inspired and nobly directed art. The furniture and accessories of the chamber, very simply conceived, have been renderd with scrupulous exactness and distinctness; yet they leave to the human and dramatic elements the absolute mastery of the scene. Neither do the academical draperies of the personages impair the sense of imaginative truth with which the representation impresses us. Our first glance at the ruins of this famous picture makes us feel, and study does but strengthen the conviction, that the painter rose to the height of his argument, and realized worthily and for good his momentous scene in the spiritual history of mankind.

Of authentic preparatory studies for this work there remain but few. There is a sheet at the Louvre containing some nude sketches for the arrangement of the disciples about the table, and another of great interest at South Kensingoton, on which the painter has note din writing the several dramatic motives which he proposes to embody in the disciples. At Windsor and Milan are a few finished studies in red chalk for the heads. A highly-reputed series of black crayon, drawings of the same heads, of which the greater portion is at Wiemar, has no just claim to originality. Of the other pictures and sculptures which Leoanrdo is known to have produced while in the service of the duke, such as the painting of the Nativity, sent as a present to the emperor Maximilian, and the portraits of Lucrezia Crivelli and Cecilia Gallerani, one of the duke’s mistresses, no trace remains, nor is there sufficient reason for accepting the recently suggested attribution to Leonardo of an admirably wrought bust now preserved in the Louvre, of which the features are those of Ludovico’s wife, the duchess Beatrice.

These services, especially the maintenance of his celebrated Academy, required on the part of the Leonardo no in considerable outlay. On the other hand, the payments received by him seem to have been neither adequate nor regular, at all events during the latter part of his residence at the ducal court, when the exigencies of war and policy were already pressing hard upon Ludivico. Leonardo had finished his Last Supper between 1497 and 1499. In the spring of the latter year we find that he received, in consideration of payments due, the gift of a vineyard outside the city. Within a month or two his patron had fallen. Milan was taken and held in hostile occupation by the French. A contemporary historian has related with what admiration the invading monarch, Louis XII., when he entered the refectory of Sta Maria delle Grazie, fixed his gaze on the work of Leonardo, and how he desired, were it possible, that it should be transported across the Alps to France. But by this time or soon afterwards the painter himself had left Milan. In the spring of 1500 we hear of him working at Venice, where, among other things, he painted (not, appears, from life ) a portrait of Isabella Gonzaga, marchioness of Mantua. The well-known head in the manner of Leonardo at the Louvre, commonly known as the Belle Ferronniere, has sometimes been identified as the portrait in question; but not on sufficient grounds. Early in the next year, 1501, Leonardo was once more in Florence; and thither the same marchioness, Isabella Gonzaga, sent an envoy to endeavor to attach him to her service. His answer was not unfavorable, but the envoy reported that, though recently engaged upon one or two small pictures, he was for the moment indifferent to the brush, and wholly absorbed in mathematics. In the end he attaché himself, not to the court of Mantua, but to the service of Caesar Borgia, then in the plentitude of his criminal power, and almost within reach of the realization of his huge ambitions. Leonardo’s new patron had been one of the worst enemies of the fallen Ludovico, and had entered Milan as a conqueror in the suite of the French king. But artists and men of letters formed, in those days, a caste apart, and changed service not less readily than did the condittieri or hired military commanders. Between the beginning of 1502 and the catastrophe which overtook the house of Borgia in the summer of 1503, Leonardo traveled as engineer in the employ of Duke Caesar over a great part of the Central Italy. Un Umbria and the Marches, he visited Urbino, Pesaro, Rimini, Cesena, Cesenatico, Buonconvento, Perugia, and Foligno; in Tuscany, he was at Chiusi, at Siena, at Piombino on the coast over against Elba, and southward at least as far as Orvieto and Lake Bolsena, or even, it would appear, as far as Rome. He has left notes and drawings taken at each of the stations we have named, besides a set of six large-scale maps drawn minutely with his own hand, and including nearly the whole territory of Tuscany and the Maremma between the Apennines and the Tyrrhene Sea. His excursions seem to have come to an end early in 1503, as by March of that year we find him once more in Florence.

To the period of three years’ wandering which followed Leonardo’s departure from Milan there ensued another period of three years, during which he lived a settled life at Florence. He was now fifty-one years of age, and the most famous artist of Italy, though within a year or two the young Michelangelo was destined to challenge his supremacy, an the still younger Raphael to apprehend and assimilate the secrets of his skill, as he did those of the skill of every great predecessor and every distinguished rival in succession. The first important commission put into Leonardo’s hands at Florence was that for an altar piece for the church of the Servite monks (Santa Maria dell’ Annunziata). The work had been already entrusted to Filippino Lippi, who had even made some beginning with it, but willingly gave up his claim in favor of his illustrious fellow-citizen. The monks undertook to lodge and nourish Leonardo in their convent while he carried on the work. After long premeditation he began, and prepared that admirable cartoon in black chalk which is now the treasured possession of the Royal Academy in London. The Virgin, partly seated on the left knee of St Anne, holds by the body the infant Christ, who leans across the figure of the elder woman, and lifts his hand in benediction of the little St John leaning against her knee. In the lines and management of the composition there is not less charm than there is research. The elder mother smiles upon her daughter, and the daughter smiles upon her child, each with a look of loving prescience and rapt self-congratulation which is the sweetest of all those mysterious expressions that Leonardo loved to seize and to perpetuate. When the cartoon was finished and exhibited, all Florence came flocking in delight to see and praise it. Between fastidiousness and preoccupation Leonardo, however, carried the undertaking no farther and the work was not once more into the hands of Filippino Lippi, and on his death into those of Perugino. Leonardo’s next great enterprise at Florence was a historical painting for the Palace of the Signory. He had been on the commission of artists appointed to determine where Michelangelo’s statue of David should be placed, and now he was chosen, along with his young rival, to finish a mural picture for the new Hall of Council. Each painter chose a battle subject; Michelangelo, as is well known, the surprise of the Floretine forces in the act of bathing near Pisa; Leonardo, an episode in the victory of the generals of the republic over Niccolo Picciuino at Anghiari, in the upper valley of the Tiber. In one of the sections of the Treatise on Painting, Leonardo has detailed at length, and obviously from his own observation, the pictorial aspects of a battle. His choice of such a subject was certainly not made from any love of warfare or indifference to its horrors. In the writings of Leonardo there occur almost as many trenchant savings on life and human affairs as on art and natural law; and of war he had disposed in two words as a "bestial freanzy" (pazzia bestilalissima). In his design for the Hall of Council, Leonardo set himself to depict this frenzy at its fiercest. He chose the moment of a terrific struggle for the colors between the opposing sides; hence the work became known in the history of art as the Battle of the Standard. Judging by the accounts of those who saw it, the tumultuous entanglement of men and horses, and the expressions of martial fury and despair, must in this case have been combined and rendered with a mastery not less commanding than had been the looks and gestures of soul’s perplexity and dismay among the peaceful company on the convent wall at Milan. Leonardo had finished his cartoon in less than two years (1504-1505), and when it was exhibited along with that of Michelangelo, the two rival works seemed to all men a new revelation of the powers of art, and served as a model and example to the students of that generation, as the frescos of Masaccio in the Carmine had served to those of two generations earlier. The young Raphael is well known to have been one of those who profited by what they saw. Other Florentine artists whop were especially influenced at this time by Leonardo were Fra Bartolommeo, Jacopo de Pontormo, Ridolfo del Ghirlandajo; and in sculpture baccio Bandinelli and Rustici. He also speaks of having among his public G.F. Pernni called "II Fattore" a certain Lorenzo, and a German Jacopo who cannot be further identified. His favorite assistant Salai, had, we know, accompanied him from Mailan, and remained with him.

Leonardo lost no time in proceeding to the execution of his design upon the mural surface; this time he had devised a technical method of which he regarded the success as certain; the color were to be laid on a specially prepared ground, and then fixed by heat, in some way analogous to the processes of encaustic or enamel. When portions of the work were done the heat was applied, by means of fires lighted on platforms, but it was found to take effect unequally, and the result was a failure more or less complete. Leonardo abandoned the work in chargin, and presently betook himself to Milan. Payments for his great battle-picture had been made to him in advance, and the gonfaliere Piero Soderini complained in behalf of the signory that Leonardo had treated them ill. When, however, he soon afterwards honorably offered to refund the amount, the offer was not less honorably declined. The unfinished painting before long disappeared from the wall. The cartoon also, no less than the competing cartoon of Michelangelo, has perished. Our only memorials of the work are a few preliminary sketches, an engraving executed by Lucensi in 1558, not from the original but from a copy, and the far more celebrated engraving of edelinck after a study made by Rubens, in his own essentially personal, obstreperoud, un-Italian manner, of a portion only of the composition. During the years between 1500 and 1505 Leonardo was also engaged at intervals upon the portraits of two ladies of the city-Ginevra Benci, and Lisa di Antonio mariade Noldo Gherardina, the wife of Zanobi del Giocondo, commonly called Mona (i.e. Madonna) Lisa or la Gioconda. The first of these portraits is lost; the second was bought by Francis I. for four thousand gold florins, and is now one of the glories of the Louvre. In Madonna Lisa Leonardo seems to have found a sitter whose features possessed in a singular degree the intellectual charm in which he delighted, and in whose smile was realized that inward, haunting, mysterious expression which had always been his ideal. He worked, it is said, at her portrait during some portion of four successive years, causing music to be played during the sittings that the rapt expression might not fade from off her countenance, and laboring by all the means of which he was master to bring his work to perfection. It remains perhaps the most striking example of his powers. The richness of coloring on which Vasari expatiates has indeed flown, partly from injury, partly because in his preference for effects of light an shade the painter was accustomed to model his figures on a dark ground, and that in this picture the ground has to a large extent come through. Nevertheless, in its brown and faded state, the portrait is pre-eminent alike for fascination of expression, for refinement and precision of drawing, and for the romantic invention of its background, wherein a far-seen Champaign with bridged rivers and winding roads is bounded by a fantastic coast of islands and rock-bound estuaries.

During these years of work at Florence, Leonardo’s father died at a good old age in that city. Some stray notes, in which the painter mentions a visit to "Caterinas" in the hospital, and inscribes the amount of expenses paid "for the funeral of Caterina," though they are of uncertain date, prove too that when Leonardo’s peasant mother drew near her illustrious son was there to tend her. From his half brothers, the legitimate children of Ser Piero, Leonardo after their father’s death experienced unkindness. They were all much younger than himself. One of them, who followed his father’s profession, made himself the champion of the others in disputing Leonardo’s claim to his share, first in the paternal inheritance, and then in that which had been left to be divided between the brothers and sisters by an uncle. The litigation thus set on foot lasted for several years, and the annoyances attending it, with his disappointment at the failure of his great wall-painting, may have been among the causes which determined Leonardo to go back to Milan. Return thither he at all events did, with leave obtained from the signory, and attended by his faithful Salai, in the summer of 1506. For nearly nine years after that he seems to have made the Lombard city his principal home, residing sometimes on his own vineyard and sometimes in the villa of a wealthy young friend and disciple, Francesco melzi. The French remained in occupation at Milan until 1513, and Leonardo held the title of court painter and engineer to the French king, Louis XII., the transfer of his services having been formally requested by that monarch from the Florentine signory. The record of his occupation and performances during this period is meagre. He was several times, and for considerable periods at a time, in Florence, on business connected with the litigation above mentioned. From thence he writes at the beginning if 1511 to the French governor of Milan, asking about the payment if his salary, and saying that he means to bring with him on his return two pictures of the Madonna, of different sizes. Buy there can be no doubt that has thoughts became with his advancing years ever more and more engrossed in the problems of natural science. To this time belong a large proportion of the vast collections in which are accumulated the results of his observation and research.

There are only three extant pictures which we can with probability assign to this, the second Milanese period of Leonardo’s career, and to what points within the period it is hard to say. Two of these are replicas or rather variations of the same theme, the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and an angel, in a landscape of fantastic rocks and flowery grottoes by the sea-shore. The composition is known as the Vierge aux Rochers. The most celebrated version of it is that formerly in the collection of Francis I., and now in the Louvre. The other version was painted, according to Lomazzo, fort he cappella della Concezione at Milan, where it was purchased in 1796 by Gavin Hamilton, and by him sold to the earl of Suffolk, from the hands of whose descendant it has lately passed into the national Gallery. Both of these paintings seem to betray signs of the handiwork of the master himself, assisted probably in each case by pupis. Both have suffered, the French example most from repainting, the English most from blackening. On the whole, of these two admirable and fascinating pictures, the English example may be pronounced to be both of the higher authenticity and the greater beauty, having the advantage of the French especially in the difference of position in the right hand of the kneeling angel. The third picture conjecturally referred to about this date is also at the Louvre, and again represents a holy family. Leonardo has recurred to the motive on which he had founded his design for the Church of the Servites at Florence, in so far as he had seated the Virgin in the lap of St Anne, whom be depicts smiling at the happy intercourse of her mystic grandchild and his mother. But this time the Virgin stoop across as she sits; to lift the child from the ground on which he stands fondling a lamb. John the Baptist is absent, and the background is a pastoral landscape bounded towards the horizon by lagoons and mountains. The picture is unequally finished – minutely in some parts, and in other carelessly enough.

A great change took place in the affairs of Milan at the close of the year 1512. The French supremacy came to an end, and Maximilian Sforza, the son of Ludovico, returned for a few years to rule over the reduced dominions of his father. All affairs were thrown into confusion, and Milan ceased to be a desirable place of abode for Leonardo and his scholars. In the meantime Giovanni de’ Medici, the son of the painter’s ancient patron Lorenzo, was eleted pope under the title of Leo X., and continued with still greater magnificence the encouragement at art and artist of which his warlike predecessor Julius had set the example. on the 24th September 1514 Leonardo too set out for Rome from Milan with a company of his pupils. The youngest brother of the pope, Giuliano de’ Medici, was his friend, but it is not true that Leonardo, as Vasari, says, had accompanied Giuliano to Rome on the occasion of his brother’s elevation to the papal chair. III success attended the now ageing master during his stay in the shadow of St Peter’s. He is said, indeed, to have delighted the pope who was himself something of an alchemist, by his experiments and ingenuities in science, and especially by a kind of zoological toys, which he had invented by way of pastime, as well as mechanical tricks played upon living animals. But when, having received a commission for a picture, he was found distilling for himself a new medium of oils and herbs before he had begun the design, the pope was convinced, not quite unreasonably, that nothing serious would come of it. The hostility of Michelangelo, with whom Leonardo was in competition for the façade of San Lorenzo at Florence, may also have done something towards hindering the employment of the elder master on any important works. At all events no such employment came to him, and he seems, while he was at Rome, to have painted nothing but two small panels, one of the child, the other of a Madonna, for an official of the papal court.

By the end of the year 1515 Leonardo had left Rome and returned once more to Milan. In the meantime the brief rule of Maximilian Sforza had been terminated by the victory at Marignano of Francis I., who prevailed on Leoanrdo, by this time in his sixty-fourth year, to enter his service and return with him to France. It was in the beginning of 1516 that the painter crossed the Alps, taking with him his friend, the youthful Francesco Melzi. The Chateau Clous in Touraine, near Amboise, was appointed for his place of residence. But his race was nearly run. In France he projected some canal works, and painted two pictures of classical mythology, which have been lost, a Leda and a Pomona; and that was all. He desired to put in order some of his vast accumulations of MS. notes and researches, but soon discovered that he who had been endeavoring so insatiably for all these years, in his own words, to learn to live had only been learning to die. That form of strength and beauty, and that exquisitely shaping and all-searching mind, were dissolved before decay or infirmity impaired them. Leonardo died at Cloux, in the sixty-seventh year of his age, on the 2d of May 1519. King Francis, then at his court of St Germain en Laye, is said to have wept for the loss of such a servant; that he was present beside the death-bed and held the dying painter in his arms is a familiar but an untrue tale.

The contents of our narrative will have justified the definition of Leonardo with which we set out, as a genius all but universal and a man pre-eminently great, yet great rather by power than by performance. Thus, in painting, there have come down to us no more than ten undisputed works from his hand; and among those ten are included the picture by his master Verrocchio in which Leonardo had only a share, as well as the cartoon at the Royal Academy, and the unfinished panels at the Uffizi and the Borghese gallery. Of the remaining well certified works of Leonardo, one is at the National Gallery (the Suffolk Vierge aux Rochers), the others are the second Vierge aux Rochers, the Virgin and Child with St Anne, the portrait of Mona Lisa, and the young John the Baptist, all at the Louvre. The remains of the fresco said to have been painted by Leonardo and Melzi together, in the villa which belonged to the latter at Vaprio near Milan, are too fragmentary and disputable to be counted. Of works, in addition to these, ordinarily claimed for Leoanrdo’s hand, the best and nearest to his manner, if not actually his, is the portrait commonly known as La Belle Ferronniere, also at the Louvre, which students conjecture to be in reality that of the marchioness of Mantua, others that of Lucrezia Crivelli. Another highly reputed picture in the manner of Leoanrdo is the Vierge au Bas-relief at Gatton Park; another version, however, of the same theme, said to be in no way inferior to that at Gatton, exists at Milan, and is there rightly attributed to Cesare da Sesto. MThe multitude of smiling daughters of Herodias, allegorical Floras, and the like, besides some admirable religious pictures (including the Christ Preaching to the Doctors, at the National Gallery), which are currently attributed in public and private galleries to Leonardo belong really to the various pupils or imitators of his school- the greatest number to Bernardo Luini, who added to a peculiar grace and suavity of his own much of the great master’s intellectual power and exquisiteness of choice and finish. Such as they are, the meagre original remains of Leonardo’s craft in painting are enough to establish his place in history as the earliest complete painter of the Renaissance. In his work there are no longer to be perceived, as there are in that of all his contemporaries, any of the engaging imperfections of childhood; there is no longer any disproportion between the conception and its embodiment. He had wrestled with nature from the cradle, and for the purposes of pictorial representation had mastered her. He could raw with that ineffable left hand of his (the words are those of his friend Luca Pacioli) a line firmer, finer, and truer than has been drawn by the hand of any other man, excepting perhaps Albert Durer. Further, Leonardo carried the refinement of solid modeling in light and shade to the same high point to which he carried the refinement of linear definition. Color he left where he found it, or rather perhaps, by his predilection for effects of light and shade, did something towards bringing about the degradation of color. Of character and action he was an unrivalled master – preferring for his own pleasure the more far-fetched and enigmatical, sometimes even the grotesque among human types and expressions, but capable on occasion, as in his masterwork of the Last Supper, of laying aside curiosity and strangeness, and treating a great theme in a great and classical spirit. If these qualities can be sufficient discerned in the few extant paintings of this master, it is only by the study of his drawings and sketches that his industry and fertility in the graphic art can be appreciated. These are very numerous as well as very various in kind, and are widely scattered among different possessors, occurring sometimes apart from and sometimes in connection with the sheets of his MS. notes and writings (see note below).

Passing from Leonardo’s achievements in art to his attainments and inventions in science, a subject on which the present writer has no authority for speaking at first hand, it appears that, in this sphere also, the spirit of fanciful curiosity and ingenuity coexisted in Leonardo with an incomparably just and powerful grasp of natural fact and natural law. Gossiping biographers like best to speak of his mechanical birds, of his mechanical walking lion stuffed with lilies, of the lizard which he fitted with horns and artificial eyes and oscillating wings filled with quick-silver, and the like; but serious students assure us that he was one of the very greatest and most clear-sighted as well as one of the earliest of nature philosophers. They declare him to have been the founder of the study of the anatomy and structural classification of plants; the founder, or at least the chief reviver, of the science of hydraulics; to have anticipated many of the geometrical discoveries of Commandin, Autolycus, and Tartaglia; to have divined or gone far towards divining the laws of gravitation, the earth’s rotation, and the molecular composition of water, the motion of waves, and even the undulatory theory of light and heat. He discovered the construction of the eye and the optical laws of vision, and invented the camera obscura. Among useful appliances he invented the saw which is still in use in the marble quarries of Carrara, and a rope-making machine said to be better than any even yet is use. he investigated the composition of explosives and the application of steam power; he perceived that boats could be made to go by steam, and designed both steam-cannon and cannon to be loaded at the breech. He made innumerable designs for engines of war, and plans of tunnels and canals for traffic. A few of his practical inventions were carried out in his time, but both of these and of his speculative researchers the vast majority. Lying buried in unpublished MSS., remained after his death unknown or forgotten. The discoveries which he had made wholesale were left to be rediscovered piecemeal by the men of narrower genius who came after him.

So much for the intellectual side of Leonardo’s character and career. As a moral being we are less able to discern what he was like. The man who carried in his brain so many images of subtle beauty, as well as half the hidden science of the future, must have lived spiritually, in the main, alone. Of things communicable he was at the same time, as we have said, communicative – a genial companion, a generous and loyal friend, ready and eloquent of discourse, and impressing all with whom he was brought in contact by the power and the charm of genius. We see him living on terms of constant affection with his father, tending the last hours of his mother, and in disputes with his brothers not the aggressor but the sufferer from aggression. We see him open-handed in giving, not grasping in getting – "poor," he says, "is the man of many wants"; not prone to resentment – "the best shield against injustice is to double the cloak of long suffering"; zealous in labor above all men – "as a day well spent gives joyful sleep, so does a life well spent give joyful death." With these instincts and maxims, his moral experience is not likely to have been deeply troubled. In matters of religion he seems to have had some share of the philosophical skepticism of a later age. In matters of the heart, if any consoling or any disturbing passion played a part in his life, we do not know it; we know only of affectionate relations with friends and pupils, of public and private regard mixed in the days of his youth with dazzled admiration, and in those of his age with something of reverential awe.

Of the presence and aspect of this illustrious man we have, as has been said, no record belonging to the earlier period of his life except that of the written descriptions which celebrate his beauty. The portraits which we possess represent him in after years, as he may have appeared during his second residence at Milan, when the character of sage and archimage had fully imprinted itself on his countenance. The features are grand, clear, and deeply lined, the mouth firmly set and almost stern, the eyes strong and intent beneath their bushy eyebrows, the hair long and white, descending and commingling with a majestic beard. The most authentic sheet which thus represents him is a drawing nearly in full face, unquestionably by his own hand, at Turin. Other studies, but none of such high quality as this, represent the same features in profile. On both the full-face and the profile drawings many painted portraits have been founded, some of them done by nearly contemporary hands; but none can with safety be attributed to the master himself.

The materials for a definitive life of Leonardo are at present wanting. They may be expected to be in great part supplied by the promised publication of Dr J.P. Richter, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. In the meantime the results of recently investigation may be best gathered from the same writer’s biography f the painter (London, 1880), supplemented by his "Leonardo Studien" iun Lutzow’s Zeitschrift bildende Kunst, 1880, and by Ivan Lermolieff (Sig. Giov Morelli) in his Werke Italienischen Meister in Munchen, Dresden, u Berlin, 1880, p. 107 sq. See also Kari Woermann in Wolfmann and Woermann, Geschichte der Malerie, vol. ii. p. 541 sq. On several mattes of fact the authorities above named must be regarded as superseding all earlier biographies. The principal of these, taking them in the chronological order of their composition, are as follows: P. Jovius,"Vita Leonardi Vincii," printed in Tiraboschi, Storia della Lett. Italiana, t vii 1718-19" "Breve vita di Leonardo da Vinci, scritta da up Anonimo di 1500," printed by G. Millanesi in the Archivio Storico, Ital. 1782, p. 222 sq. Vasari in his celebrated Lives; ad Lomazzo in his Trattato dell’ arte della pittura (1584), and Idra del tempio della pitturs (2d ed. 1590). From this time no contribution of importance was added until the work of Amoretti, which has formed the foundation of all later researches (C. Amoretti, Memorie Storiche sulla vita, &c., di Lionardo de Vinci, 2d ed. Milan, 1804). The other chief contributions of new material have been contained in Fumagalli, Scuolla di Leonardo da Vinci, 1811; Gaye, Carteggio of Artisti, 1839, vol. I pp. 223,224; the Lemonier edition of Vasari, 1851, vol. vii. p. 11 sq; the new edition of the same by G. Milanesi, vol. iv p. sq; G. L. Calvi, Notizie deir pforssori di belle arti, &c., Milan, 1869; and Gust, Uzielli, Riceerche intorno a Leonardo da Vinci, Florence. 1872. The best general handlings of the subject, antecedent to those mentioned at the beginning of our list, have been, in France, by Arsene Houssaye, Histoire de Lionard de Vinci, 2d ed., Paris, 1876; and Charles Clemen, Raphael, Leonardo de Vinci, et Michelange, 4th ed., Paris in Germany, by G.F. Waagen, Kleine Schriften, Stutgart, 1875; W. Lubke, Gesch. der Ital. Malerie, vol. ii.; and C. Brun in Dohme’s Kunst u. Kunstler, vol. iii no. 61; in England, Mrs Heaton, Life of Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1874. With regard to the scientific attainments and achievements, of Leonardo, the authgortieis ae J.B. Venturi, Essai suir les overages physic-mathematiques de Leonard de Vinci, Paris 1797 Marx, Ueber M.A. Torre u Leonardo da Vinci, Gottingen, 1848; Libri, Histoire des Sciences Mathematiques en Italie, vol. ii; Lombardini, Dell origine et del Progresso della Scienza idraulica, Milan, 1872; G. Mongeri, G. Govi, and C. Boito, Saggio delle opere de Leonardo de Vinci, Milan 1872 (a summary of the conclusions of these writers is given in an essay by C.E. Black in Mrs Heaton’s biography); and lastly, H. Grothe, Lionardo da Vinci als Ingeniuer, u. Philosoph, Berlin 1874.

The celebrated Treatise on Painting, which has hitherto been the only published portion of Leonardo’s writings, consists of brief didactic chapters, or more properly paragraphs, of practical direction or critical on all the branches and all the conditions of a painter’s practice. The original MS draft of Leonardo has been lost, though a great number of notes for it are scattered through the various extant volumes of his MSS. The work has been printed in two different forms; one of these is an abridged version consisting of 365 sections; the first edition of it was published in Paris in 1551, the last, translated into English by J.F. Rigand, in London, 1877. The other is a more extended version, in 912 section, divided into eight books; this was printed in 1817 by Greg. Manzi at Rome, from a 17th century MS. which he had discovered in the Vatican Library; a German translation from the same MS. has been edited by G.H. Ludwig in Eitelberger’s series of Quellenschriften fur Kunstgeschickte. On the history of the book in general see Max Jordan, Das Malerbuch des Leonardo da Vinci, Leipsic, 1873.

The MSS., writings sketches, and memoranda of Leonardo have undergone many vicissitudes since they were bequeathed in the mass by their author to his friend and famulus Francesco Melzi. Within fifty years of Leonardo’s death the son of their inheritor had allowed them to pass out of his hands, and they were in the possession partly of the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, and partly in that of Dr Guido Mazenta. By 1637 a considerable portion of them were again reunited in the Ambrosian Library at Milan. During the domination of the French under Bonaparte, these treasure were brought to France, and the greater part of them were not reclaimed. Milan, indeed, possesses that immense composite volume of Leonardo’s MSS, which is perhaps the most valuable of them all, and is called from its bulk the Codice Atlantico. Fourteen volumes more are in the library of the Institute at Paris. A number of others are dispersed in various English collections-the most important in the Royal Library at Windsor, some at the British Museum and South Kensington, and others in the private collections of Holkham Hall and Ashburham House. The well-known sonnet, beginning "Chi non puo quei che voul, quell che puo voglia," which has been quoted since the 16th century as of Leonardo’s writing, has recently been proved to have been written fifty years before his time (see G. Uzielli in the journal ll Bounarroti, 1875). (S. C.)


See also: School of Painting of Florence, Italy (Florentine School of Painting)



The above article was written by Prof. Sidney Colvin, M.A.; Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum from 1884; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge, 1873-85; edited the Edinburgh edition of R. L. Stevenson's works, Letters of R. L. Stevenson, and History of Painting, from the German of Woltmann and Woermann.




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