Guides to Fine Arts Like Painting, Designing, Architecture, Sculpture, Photography and More

We come now to one of the most celebrated masters of Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the head of the Lombard or Milanese school. He was not the equal of the great masters, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Titian; but he stands between them and the painters who preceded him or those of his own day.

In some respects, however, he was the most extraordinary man of his time. His talents were many-sided; for he was not only a great artist, but also a fine scholar in mathematics and mechanics; he wrote poetry and composed music, and was with all this so attractive personally, and so brilliant in his manner, that he was a favorite wherever he went. It is probable that this versatility prevented his being very great in any one thing, while he was remarkable in many things.

When still very young Leonardo showed his artistic talent. The paper upon which he worked out his sums was frequently bordered with little pictures which he drew while thinking on his lessons, and these sketches at last attracted his father’s attention, and he showed them to his friend Andrea Verrocchio, an artist of Florence, who advised that the boy should become a painter. Accordingly, in 1470, when eighteen years old, Leonardo was placed under the care of Verrocchio, who was like a kind father to his pupils: he was not only a painter, but also an architect and sculptor, a musician and a geometer, and he especially excelled in making exquisite cups of gold and silver, crucifixes and statuettes such as were in great demand for the use of the priesthood in those days.

Leonardo da Vinci From a drawing in red chalk by himself
Fig. 35.—Leonardo da Vinci. From a drawing in red chalk by himself.
In the Royal Library, Turin.
Pietro Perugino was a fellow-pupil with Leonardo, and they two soon surpassed their master in painting, and at last, when Verrocchio was painting a picture for the monks of Vallambrosa, and desired Leonardo to execute an angel in it, the work of his pupil was so much better than his own that the old painter desired to throw his brush aside forever. The picture is now in the Academy of Florence, and represents “The Baptism of Christ.” With all his refinement and sweetness, Leonardo had a liking for the horrible. It once happened that a countryman brought to his father a circular piece of wood cut from a fig-tree, and desired to have it painted for a shield; it was handed over to Leonardo, who collected in his room a number of lizards, snakes, bats, hedgehogs, and other frightful creatures, and from these painted an unknown monster having certain characteristics of the horrid things he had about him. The hideous creature was surrounded by fire, and was breathing out flames. When his father saw it he ran away in a fright, and Leonardo was greatly pleased at this. The countryman received an ordinary shield, and this Rotello del Fico (or shield of fig-tree wood) was sold to a merchant for one hundred ducats, and again to the Duke of Milan for three times that sum. This shield has now been lost for more than three centuries; but another horror, the “Medusa’s Head,” is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and is a head surrounded by interlacing serpents, the eyes being glassy and deathlike and the mouth most revolting in expression.

While in Florence Leonardo accomplished much, but was at times diverted from his painting by his love of science, sometimes making studies in astronomy and again in natural history and botany; he also went much into society, and lived extravagantly. He had the power to remember faces that he had seen accidentally, and could make fine portraits from memory; he was also accustomed to invite to his house people from the lower classes; he would amuse them while he sketched their faces, making good portraits at times, and again ridiculous caricatures. He even went so far, for the sake of his art, as to accompany criminals to the place of execution, in order to study their expressions.

After a time Leonardo wished to secure some fixed income, and wrote to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, called Il Moro, offering his services to that prince. This resulted in his going to Milan, where he received a generous salary, and became very popular with the Duke and all the court, both as a painter and as a gentleman. The Duke governed as the regent for his young nephew, and gathered about him talented men for the benefit of the young prince. He also led a gay life, and his court was the scene of constant festivities. Leonardo’s varied talents were very useful to the Duke; he could assist him in everything—by advice at his council, by plans for adorning his city, by music and poetry in his leisure hours, and by painting the portraits of his favorites. Some of these last are now famous pictures—that of Lucrezia Crevelli is believed to be in the Louvre at Paris, where it is called “La Belle Ferronière.”

The Duke conferred a great honor on Leonardo by choosing him to be the founder and director of an academy which he had long wished to establish. It was called the “Academia Leonardi Vinci,” and had for its purpose the bringing together of distinguished artists and men of letters. Leonardo was appointed superintendent of all the fêtes and entertainments given by the court, and in this department he did some marvellous things. He also superintended a great work in engineering which he brought to perfection, to the wonder of all Italy: it was no less an undertaking than bringing the waters of the Adda from Mortisana to Milan, a distance of nearly two hundred miles. In spite of all these occupations the artist found time to study anatomy and to write some valuable works. At length Il Moro became the established duke, and at his brilliant court Leonardo led a most agreeable life; but he was so occupied with many things that he painted comparatively few pictures.
The Last Supper Painting By Leonardo da Vinci
Fig. 36.—The Last Supper. By Leonardo da Vinci.
At length the Duke desired him to paint a picture of the Last Supper on the wall of the refectory in the Convent of the Madonna delle Grazie. This was his greatest work in Milan and a wonderful masterpiece. It was commenced about 1496, and was finished in a very short time. We must now judge of it from copies and engravings, for it has been so injured as to give no satisfaction to one who sees it. Some good copies were made before it was thus ruined, and numerous engravings make it familiar to all the world. A copy in the Royal Academy, London, was made by one of Leonardo’s pupils, and is the size of the original. It is said that the prior of the convent complained to the Duke of the length of time the artist was spending upon this picture; when the Duke questioned the painter he said that he was greatly troubled to find a face which pleased him for that of Judas Iscariot; he added that he was willing to allow the prior to sit for this figure and thus hasten the work; this answer pleased the Duke and silenced the prior.

After a time misfortunes overtook the Duke, and Leonardo was reduced to poverty; finally Il Moro was imprisoned; and in 1500 Leonardo returned to Florence, where he was honorably received. He was not happy here, however, for he was not the one important artist. He had been absent nineteen years, and great changes had taken place; Michael Angelo and Raphael were just becoming famous, and they with other artists welcomed Leonardo, for his fame had reached them from Milan. However, he painted some fine pictures at this time; among them were the “Adoration of the Kings,” now in the Uffizi Gallery, and a portrait of Ginevra Benci, also in the same gallery. This lady must have been very beautiful; Ghirlandajo introduced her portrait into two of his frescoes.

But the most remarkable portrait was that known as Mona Lisa del Giocondo, which is in the Louvre, and is called by some critics the finest work of this master. The lady was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a lovely woman, and some suppose that she was very dear to Leonardo. He worked upon it for four years, and still thought it unfinished: the face has a deep, thoughtful expression—the eyelids are a little weary, perhaps, and through it all there is a suggestion of something not quite understood—a mystery: the hands are graceful and of perfect form, and the rocky background gives an unusual fascination to the whole picture. Leonardo must have loved the picture himself, and it is not strange that he lavished more time upon it than he gave to the great picture of the Last Supper (Fig. 37).

Leonardo sold this picture to Francis I. for nine thousand dollars, which was then an enormous sum, though now one could scarcely fix a price upon it. In 1860 the Emperor of Russia paid twelve thousand dollars for a St. Sebastian by Leonardo, and in 1865 a madonna by him was sold in Paris for about sixteen thousand dollars. Of course his pictures are rarely sold; but, when they are, great sums are given for them.

In 1502 Cæsar Borgia appointed Leonardo his engineer and sent him to travel through Central Italy to inspect his fortresses; but this usurper soon fled to Spain, and in 1503 our painter was again in Florence. In 1504 his father died. From 1507 to 1512 Leonardo was at the summit of his greatness. Louis XII. appointed him his painter, and he labored for this monarch also to improve the water-works of Milan. For seven years he dwelt at Milan, making frequent journeys to Florence. But the political troubles of the time made Lombardy an uncongenial home for any artist, and Leonardo, with a few pupils, went to Florence and then on to Rome. Pope Leo X. received him cordially enough, and told him to “work for the glory of God, Italy, Leo X., and Leonardo da Vinci.” But Leonardo was not happy in Rome, where Michael Angelo and Raphael were in great favor, and when Francis I. made his successes in Italy in 1515, Leonardo hastened to Lombardy to meet him. The new king of France restored him to the office to which Louis XII. had appointed him, and gave him an annual pension of seven hundred gold crowns.
Mona Lisa Painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Fig. 37.—Mona Lisa.—
“La Belle Joconde.”
When Francis returned to France he desired to cut out the wall on which the Last Supper was painted, and carry it to his own country: this proved to be impossible, and it is much to be regretted, as it is probable that if it could have been thus removed it would have been better preserved. However, not being able to take the artist’s great work, the king took Leonardo himself, together with his favorite pupils and friends and his devoted servant. In France, Leonardo was treated with consideration. He resided near Amboise, where he could mingle with the court. It is said that, old though he was, he was so much admired that the courtiers imitated his dress and the cut of his beard and hair. He was given the charge of all artistic matters in France, and doubtless Francis hoped that he would found an Academy as he had done at Milan. But he seems to have left all his energy, all desire for work, on the Italian side of the Alps. He made a few plans; but he brought no great thing to pass, and soon his health failed, and he fell into a decline. He gave great attention to religious matters, received the sacrament, and then made his will, and put his worldly affairs in order.

The king was accustomed to visit him frequently, and on the last day of his life, when the sovereign entered the room, Leonardo desired to be raised up as a matter of respect to the king: sitting, he conversed of his sufferings, and lamented that he had done so little for God and man. Just then he was seized with an attack of pain—the king rose to support him, and thus, in the arms of Francis, the great master breathed his last. This has sometimes been doubted; but the modern French critics agree with the ancient writers who give this account of his end.

He was buried in the Church of St. Florentin at Amboise, and it is not known that any monument was erected over him. In 1808 the church was destroyed; in 1863 Arsine Houssaye, with others, made a search for the grave of Leonardo, and it is believed that his remains were found. In 1873 a noble monument was erected in Milan to the memory of Da Vinci. It is near the entrance to the Arcade of Victor Emmanuel: the statue of the master stands on a high pedestal in a thoughtful attitude, the head bowed down and the arms crossed on the breast. Below are other statues and rich bas-reliefs, and one inscription speaks of him as the “Renewer of the Arts and Sciences.”

Many of his writings are in the libraries of Europe in manuscript form: his best known work is the “Trattato della Pittura,” and has been translated into English. As an engineer his canal of Mortesana was enough to give him fame; as an artist he may be called the “Poet of Painters,” and, if those who followed him surpassed him, it should be remembered that it is easier to advance in a path once opened than to discover a new path. Personally he was much beloved, and, though he lived when morals were at a low estimate, he led a proper and reputable life. His pictures were pure in their spirit, and he seemed only to desire the progress of art and science, and it is a pleasure to read and learn of him, as it is to see his works.

Other good artists of the Lombard school in the fifteenth century were Bernardino Luini (about 1460-1530), who was the best pupil of Leonardo, Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio (1467-1516), Gaudenzio Farrari (1484-1549), Ambrogio Borgognone (works dated about 1500), and Andrea Solario, whose age is not known.

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