Swide traces the historic steps of the symbol of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci, author of The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Lady with the Ermine.
The Mona Lisa (literally “Madam Lisa") is one of the most famous paintings in the world: all sorts of legends and analyses have been performed on that enigmatic smile of the subject whose identity is still a mystery.
The painter of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (April 15th 1452 – May 2nd 1519, is probably the one who best represents the Renaissance era.
What is very interesting about him is that despite having left many of his works unfinished, he still left an heritage - with his studies, inventions, drawings - for the artists of all times. His way of reasoning, basically, has been sufficient to change completely our history forever. The works he left serve as evidence of the genius sheltered in his mind.
Born in the Tuscan hill-town of Vinci, he was trained from a young age by Andrea Verrocchio – a famous sculptor – in Florence. There, he had the chance to experiment in sculpture as well as painting. Between 1472 and 1475 he painted the Annunciation and between 1475 and 1480 The Madonna of the Carnation. During this time he also got close to the Medici, the ruling family in Florence.
In 1483 he moved to Milan and contacted the Sforza family who reigned over the city, mostly offering his help through a letter in which he mainly underscores his military engineering skills. Only at the end of the note he mentioned his drawing and painting capacities. Soon, around 1485, a confraternity commissioned him an altarpiece, and he created the Virgin of the Rocks as the central part of a triptych. Once Leonardo completed it, still, he didn't receive from the confraternity what he thought was fair payment for his work, and apparently – disappointed – he sold the painting to Louis XII King of France. He then created a second version of the Virgin of the Rocks for the confraternity who asked for it only years later (but the timing is still unclear).
Virgin of the Rocks, Paris
Virgin of the Rocks, London
Leonardo dedicated himself not only to representations of the Madonna, another topic dear to the artist was the portrait. Portrait of the Musician (1485, probably the portrait of Ludovico il Moro) and the Lady with an Ermine (or Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, 1490) are probably the most famous ones after The Mona Lisa.
Portrait of a Musician, 1490
Lady with an Ermine, 1489-1490
In 1494 the Sforza family gave him a new commission for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (completed in 1498), for the decoration, through a fresco, of the dining hall where the monks were eating. He decides to represent the Last Supper, reinterpreting it in a very modern way, representing the moment in which Christ states: "One of you is going to betray me". The different expressions are incredibly well depicted on each face of the Apostles, who are grouped three by three in a succession of emotions. Leonardo didn't like the traditional fresco techniques that required too fast strokes of the paintbrush and were not compatible with his working methods, which were based on studies, changes and plans. He then created a new way to apply paint through a mix technique of two layers that slowed down the fresco painting process and allowed him to rethink is working and at the same time gave more life, colour and light to the work.
The Last Supper (1495-1498)
In 1499 the French army occupied Milan and Leonardo returned to Florence, where among other projects he drew The Burlington House Cartoon for Louis XII in 1505, an amazing study for a painting.
The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (also called The Burlington House Cartoon), 1499-1500
It's in this period that he paints the Mona Lisa (1503-1506), the portrait that most defines the artist to this day.
Mona Lisa, 1503-1514
The range of emotions that Leonardo is able to display in his works is unique: the gestures of the figures represented, the light, the expression of their faces recount a story that says much more than meets the eye. Each masterpiece by Leonardo could be studied for years and we still would not get the whole message he meant to communicate to us after a careful planning of each detail. Some people even support a theory that sees Leonardo coming from the future and being trapped in the past, trying to get the most out of it. Of course, this can’t be true. What is sure, is that we still haven’t had another Leonardo in our era and in all of the history before him, which give us context of intellectual revolution that this man was the catalyst for.
To understand better what I am talking about, this period of the year offers two chances to get to see his masterpieces up-close. At the National Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (through February 5th) is the most complete display of Leonardo's rare surviving paintings ever held, focused on the works he produced as court painter to Duke Lodovico Sforza in Milan in the late 1480s and 1490s. The two versions of Leonardo's “Virgin of the Rocks” are shown together for the first time.
The other chance is in Turin (Piedmont, Italy) at Venaria Reale (through January 29th) with the exhibition Leonardo. The genius. The myth. that displays his self-portrait and another portrait of Leonardo (usually preserved in Windsor Castle) together for the first time. The portrait is by Leonardo's lifelong pupil and companion Francesco Melzi. Also on display are 20 drawings by Leonardo.
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519
Written by Elisa della Barba